SoBi bikes mean independence and freedom for Syrian refugee newcomers

Pick any day of the week, and you'll probably see Firas Al Kurdi on a blue SoBi bicycle pedaling through downtown Hamilton.
Firas Al Kurdi arrived in Hamilton from Syria in December 2015. He uses a SoBi bicycle to get everywhere. The company is making a concerted effort to sign up newcomers, and offers them $3 memberships if they take a safety training session. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Pick any day of the week, and you'll probably see Firas Al Kurdi on a blue SoBi bicycle pedaling through downtown Hamilton.

He rides it to Dundas, where he has a part-time job. He rides it to Jackson Square, where he gets groceries for himself and his brother. They both arrived in Hamilton as Syrian refugees in December 2015.

He rides it to the lake, and to see friends, and just to check out the city.

"I use it every day, for everywhere," he said.

Al Kurdi is one of more than 60 Syrian refugees using Hamilton Bike Share bikes as their primary method of transportation as part of the Everyone Rides initiative. And the company — which launched 12 more hubs and 75 new white bikes on Thursday — is reaching out to accommodate them.

Bike share programs are "most important for the newcomers who can’t have a car," says Firas Al Kurdi at the launch of 12 new SoBi hubs. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The outreach is timely. From December 2015 to present, 1,483 government-sponsored Syrian refugees have arrived in Hamilton through Wesley Urban Ministries. That's not including dozens more privately sponsored refugees. 

So every two weeks, customer service worker Ibrahim El Sharawi calls a list of newcomers from Wesley Urban Ministries to urge them to get SoBi memberships.

Three-month memberships are $3 for new immigrants as they are 18 or older, are in financial need and attend one of El Sharawi's bicycle workshop. At the class, he explains how to use the SoBi bikes, and safety basics for riding around Hamilton.

Sixty-four have signed up since the program started in 2015. Almost all of them are from Syria, El Sharawi said.

For Al Kurdi, 31, the bicycle means independence and freedom. He and his 21-year-old brother can't afford a car, nor can most of the newcomers he knows.

The stars on this map show the new SoBi locations. (City of Hamilton)

It's less complicated than owning a bicycle, he said. It means not having to lug a bike up to their tiny fifth floor apartment downtown. It means not having to worry about maintenance, or storing it on the balcony.

Al Kurdi spoke at the launch Thursday. That's when SoBi unveiled 75 new bicycles that are painted white rather than blue, and have eight speeds rather than three. 

It also launched a dozen new hubs aimed at traditionally low-income neighbourhoods between Wentworth Street and Ottawa Street as part of Everyone Rides.

SoBi Hamilton launched in 2015. The city bought the bikes using a Metrolinx grant, and partners with Social Bicycles to operate the system through the not-for-profit Hamilton Bike Share. | @SamCraggsCBC