For refugees in Houston, transportation to work can often make or break job security. Just ask Abdulhannan Sheikho, a Syrian refugee recently resettled there. He received a free bike from Freewheels Houston, which “saved my job as I was using it to [commute] before I bought my first car.”
This is the kind of support Freewheels Houston, a ministry of Christ the King Lutheran Church, seeks to offer its new neighbors.
Launched in 2015 by Bill Mintz, a retired journalist and member of Christ the King, the project provides free bikes to refugees settling in Houston. It’s a way for the congregation to put “faith in action,” said their pastor, Duane H. Larson.
“We’re all committed to welcoming a stranger,” Mintz said. And in this case, welcome meant noticing a need and meeting it.
Freewheels = freedom
In recent years, refugee resettlement has commanded national attention, Larson said. In 2015, Houston received more refugees than any other U.S. city, according to Refugee Services of Texas.
A key element of the U.S. resettlement program is the expectation that refugees achieve self-sufficiency within months of arrival, Mintz said. “It doesn’t matter what their language skills are, what their previous careers may have been, they’re expected to go to work,” he added. “They arrive and very few have financial resources.”
Houston’s size makes it hard to navigate via public transit alone, he said, which makes commuting to a work a challenge. And financing a car or bike takes time.
Sheiko said his free bike helped him get to work, get exercise and pick up groceries while saving for his car.
“If you have a bike, you can get to where you need to go without long bus rides or depending on friends for rides,” Mintz said. “It’s freedom.”
Freewheels Houston collects bike donations, volunteers repair them and then the refurbished bikes are distributed to Houston’s newest refugees in partnership with local organizations.
To date, about 300 refugees and others in need have benefited from Freewheels Houston.
“I think [Freewheels Houston] is a wonderful example of someone seeing what a significant local need is, and how it can generate from a simple basis to something that has really caught on,” Larson said. “These bikes, their givers, their repairers and their new riders—they all are beautiful and holy.”
Powered by partnerships
Freewheels Houston began as a small program administered by Christ the King and members of the local bike community. Today volunteers come from across Houston.
“I think [Freewheels Houston] is a wonderful example of someone seeing what a significant local need is, and how it can generate from a simple basis to something that has really caught on.”
“[They] either like tinkering with bikes or want to welcome refugees—or both,” Mintz said. “We appreciate the support we’ve had from the bike community, refugee community and Houstonians who like what we’re doing for refugees.”
Christ the King members continue to volunteer and donate bikes or monetary gifts. The program also has a strong network of regional partners, including BikeHouston, Refugee Services of Texas, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, Bike Barn, Rice Bikes and the Texas Medical Association.
Rice Bikes, an on-campus, student-run business at Rice University, has been an invaluable partner in making repairs, Mintz said, adding, “We couldn’t have accomplished what we’ve been able to accomplish without their help.”
Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston is another key partner. “[Our partnership] reflects the best of Houston’s spirit of citizens helping each other—no matter their place of origin,” said Ali Al Sudani, the organization’s vice president for refugee services. “Without a doubt, Freewheels Houston is making Houston a more welcoming city for refugees.”
Looking toward the future, the program’s leadership is making a concerted effort to work with youth, Mintz said. Through PAIR (Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees), which provides an after-school program for refugee youth, it gave away 15 bikes in December. In March, the program donated bikes to youth at a Houston congregation that got its start in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
The leadership is also always looking for new volunteers. Whether they’re experienced mechanics or not, “we’ll put people to work,” Mintz said. Some of those volunteers may just be participants of this summer’s ELCA Youth Gathering, he added.
Freewheels Houston brings volunteers of all ages and backgrounds together. “Many people pray for ways we can more directly exercise our compassion and work for justice, no matter our political partisan inclinations,” Larson said. “Freewheels is such a way. This is real liturgy, ‘the work of the people’ in the world, the priesthood of all believers.”