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Heidi Shaffer, Published May 20 2010

Gift of transportation: Local refugees benefit from bike giveaway

For 19-year-old Afghan refugee Zahra Tahir, getting her new bike Wednesday was something she looked forward to for months.

The Fargo South High School student was one of about 140 refugees to receive a free bike as part of a giveaway project through area churches, Lutheran Social Services and the F-M Community Bike Workshop.

A bike means big changes for Tahir, who is guardian to her two younger brothers. Before, even finding a way to the store to buy bread was a struggle, she said.

“I don’t know how to say thank you enough for these bikes,” Tahir said.

The giveaway started in 2008 when a group at Fargo’s Salem Evangelical Free Church was looking for a community outreach program that had lasting effects, said Richard Fredine, an organizer from Salem.

The group of volunteers, called Team Boaz, along with help from LSS, identified refugees as a community with a number of needs the church felt should be addressed.

“The need that stood out to us as especially critical was transportation,” Fredine said.

And bikes seemed like an easy way to solve the problem.

“It’s a form of transportation a lot of people are familiar with, and I think it really opens up the city for them,” said Darci Asche, community support services supervisor at Lutheran Social Services.

About 70 percent of the bikes go to adults, who largely depend on them to go to work or school, Asche said.

Congregations from Salem, Olivet Lutheran Church and Bethel Evangelical Free Church put out a call to parishioners and the public for bike donations, and volunteers worked from garages and church parking lots over the past few months to repair the bikes.

When refugees arrived Wednesday, they received a helmet, lock and safety brochure, which was translated into several languages. The Fargo and West Fargo police departments were also on hand to help register the bikes.

“It’s really about just building that relationship between members in the community and the (refugees),” Asche said.

After finding a bike to fit the owner, members from the F-M Community Bike Workshop did a final check to make sure everything was working properly.

Joe Curry, a member of the cooperative, said one of the best parts of the night is showing the refugees how to make repairs and maintain their bikes.

And despite a language barrier, bike mechanics has universal appeal.

“Because I don’t have the correct words … it’s just the biggest smile on my face and the biggest smile on their face,” Curry said. “And we’re laughing for no apparent reason other than we both get it, this is awesome and we’re having a great time.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511