In Berlin, a group has made it their mission to help newcomers settle in, then get around.
Among those enjoying a recent sunny Saturday in Berlin’s Gleisdreieck Park, there were kids bouncing around playgrounds, picnickers spreading out blankets, and skaters making their rounds on the park’s wide concrete paths. On the northern loop, where overhead U-bahn tracks traverse the Landwehrcanal and the diminutive “skyscrapers” of Potsdamer Platz loom in the distance, a few bike riders traveled in packs.
Pedaling along cautiously with two companions alongside them and two behind, most were young women, many in headscarves. For them, just a few of the thousands of Syrian refugees recently settled in this city of around 3.5 million, finding their feet in Berlin meant finding their balance on two wheels.
Refugees who end their journey in Berlin often find they are at the beginning of a second one. After registering at a central intake point—the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or District Office for Health and Social Affairs—they are redistributed to a number of secondary centers. Waiting for permission to stay, as well as vouchers for housing, food, and transportation, can take weeks, involving repeated trips and long lines. Social integration and a path to normalcy can seem a long way away.
But as many Berliners already know, sometimes the fastest way to your destination is by bike. The city came in 12th in the most recent Copenhagenize Index, an annual survey of bike-friendly cities. Meanwhile, according to “Mobility in the City,” an ongoing study of Berlin traffic by the city’s Office for Urban Development and Environment, the percentage of bicycles on the streets has been increasing as the use of private motorized transport declines.
Bikes are pervasive in Berlin. This realization led Katie Griggs to the spark of an idea. She’s now been running regular cycling lessons—including the one at Gleisdreieck Park—for close to a year. She hopes they will help refugees feel more at home.
It was a chance meeting that inspired Griggs, a native of Kent, to begin her project. “A Syrian woman in my German language course asked me if I knew of a place to learn biking,” Griggs says. What started out with Griggs and that one woman has become an ever-expanding network of wobbly-to-poised riders. Word of mouth spread, and Griggs got out the message through Facebook and a number of local charities. “Now, a lot of the women who started out have gotten their own bikes through donations, and are coming back to teach others,” she adds.
Projects like these fill the gaps in a complicated bureaucratic system struggling to keep up with the recent influx of refugees. They also demonstrate how everyday Berliners with manageable ideas can complement official programs run by city governments. These small, person-to-person projects allow volunteers and refugees a way to connect in daily life. In the 2016 Refugees Welcome Index—a global survey published by Amnesty International—Germans ranked second out of 27 nationalities in their willingness to accept refugees into their communities and homes. Seeing the far-reaching consequences of this particular project and witnessing the many people who have volunteered to help made Griggs, who has lived in Berlin for nearly a decade, “fall back in love with Germany.”
When it comes to jump-starting life as a newcomer, bicycle pretty much always trumps bus ticket. That’s because two-wheeled transportation—faster than traveling on foot, but not so fast that the world whizzes by—forces you to interact with your surroundings.
What’s more, biking can be the most intuitive way to get a sense for the size of a new city and how its various neighborhoods fit together. Stephan Brenner and Tia Robinson, co-founders of the expat counseling service and language school Expath, concur. “Because the center of Berlin is not very compact and there are many interesting places with long stretches [...] in between, the bike is the perfect way to discover new things,” says Brenner. “I mostly took the subway the first years, and it was astonishing to realize after living here about two years that I could sometimes get places faster by bike,” adds Robinson.
For Griggs, whose background is in environmentalism, the appeal was also practical. “If we have a million new people in our country and they all want a car, that’s bad news for the environment,” she says. “We can reduce that by bringing cycling into the mix.”
That Saturday, I watched a Syrian woman, who asked not to be named, make her way slowly across a grassy stretch. Three other women surrounded her, keeping her bike on a straight course. Her children had already grabbed hold of smaller bikes and taken off, but she first took the time to adjust the saddle. Through an Arabic translator, she asked questions about where her weight should be, how to steer, how to balance. As Griggs points out, “it’s a learning experience for everyone—even the volunteers are learning how to teach people to bike.” The woman and her family were a reminder that, when it comes to mastering a new skill, children have that one crucial thing adults often lack: confidence.
But after a short break, during which both students and teachers unfolded picnic blankets and shared food—hummus, vegetables, flatbread, and Kinder chocolate bars for the kids—the Syrian woman was eager to get back on the bike. And she was immediately surrounded by new friends, ready to make that journey with her.