Freedom on two wheels
28th October 2020
when a young Syrian asylum seeker turned up in Glasgow four years ago and asked for help, he could have had no idea what he'd started.
A chance encounter between Yaman, who'd arrived from Damascus with little to his name, and 58-year-old Steven McCluskey inspired an organisation that has now helped over 1,000 people get mobile thanks to a growing network of supporters and volunteers called 'Bikes for Refugees Scotland'.
Assisting Scots new and old to get on their bikes has become a passion for Steven and he has been recognised for his work, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, by The National Lottery and TV’s Repair Shop host Jay Blades.
The charity worker’s efforts have earned him a lasting tribute in the local community, in the form of a bespoke bench, dedicated to him by players of The National Lottery. The bench is positioned in Glasgow Green by the Sustrans National Cycle Network (NCN75) path which links Glasgow to Edinburgh, the cities where the charity’s two community hubs are located. The bench has distinctively designed by the famous furniture restorer Jay Blades.
Steven is one of 12 ‘Unsung Champions’ across the UK being honoured for their time and efforts using funds raised by National Lottery players, in supporting some of the most vulnerable in communities during the pandemic.
The benches are positioned across the UK in dedication to previously unheralded individuals who have responded to the challenges the pandemic has had by helping make other people’s lives a bit more bearable, comfortable and enjoyable, just when they needed it most.
The benches are being rolled out as The National Lottery also revealed that almost half of Scottish people feel that notwithstanding the hardships of the pandemic, one of the positives to emerge is the community spirit, with 57 percent having an increased appreciation for charity workers.
Recalling how the charity came into being, Steven continued: "Yaman had bought himself an old, beaten-up bike on Gumtree, to help him explore his new surroundings and connect with local activities and services.
"The bike he bought wasn't roadworthy , so I took Yaman and his bike shaped object to my local bike shop to see if we could get it fixed up and Yaman on the road.
"The bike wasn't worth repairing but Yaman shared his story to the shop owner, and after hearing it, he very kindly donated a second-hand bike to him, on Christmas Eve too! I noticed how a simple thing like a bicycle, something most of us would take for granted, gave Yaman freedom of movement and a free means of travel to connect with essential services, and that's how it all started."
Yaman is now a volunteer and trustee for Bikes for Refugees, and, with the help of a National Lottery grant for £9,908, the organisation has this year also been helping NHS and key workers to access bikes and commute safely.
This is just one example of the actions of a few that have made life bearable for many and Steven joins thousands of people and projects across the UK who have received National Lottery funding in order to support their local community during the Covid-19 pandemic.
National Lottery players contribute £30 million a week to good causes around the country, many of which are supporting the most vulnerable in communities across the UK during the coronavirus crisis.
"The last four or five months have been particularly challenging, not just for us as a project but for many members of our community,” added Steven, speaking as The National Lottery revealed a third of the Scottish public say they know their neighbours better than before lockdown, meaning that four in five actually feel safer as a result of this.
"The number of bikes we were giving to key workers was outstripping our supply, so I came up with the idea of an online bike-matching platform. Anyone in the community who wants to support a key worker can loan their bike, or donate a bike, where they can be linked up with key workers looking to access bikes via our website.”
Steven's workshops have now become a lifeline for many, with 300 households on his waiting list for bicycles and volunteers, many of whom are refugees, getting the chance to learn a range of new and important skills.
And while social distancing has made coming together as a community harder, Steven's desire to help hasn't dimmed.
"It's not unusual for people to contact us and say that they're having to walk three or four hours a day, three or four times a week, with their small children, in all sorts of weather because they can't afford public transport ,” added Steven.
"They're having to do that to access basic and essential community services. If you give a family bicycles, it gives people freedom of movement and a free means of travel, we also introduce many people to cycling for the first time.
“This has been an uncertain time, full of challenges, and we are hugely grateful to National Lottery players for supporting our work and enabling us to help more people when they need it the most.”
Jay Blades, who designed the benches said: “Like most of us, I have witnessed inspirational acts of selflessness and kindness this year as people have adapted their lives to help others. It has been an honour to hear the stories of the 13 people whose work is being honoured with a bespoke bench being placed in their local area.”
Dawn Austwick, CEO of The National Lottery Community Fund said: “For 25 years The National Lottery has helped make amazing things happen, but never in such extraordinary times. People and communities have found themselves facing myriad challenges and pressures but have still found the passion and drive to support each other in so many ways. These bespoke community benches are a fitting tribute and show that their incredible work has not gone unnoticed and is in fact recognised, valued and inspiring others more than ever before.”