You want to know what I know about Syrians? Nothing. I don’t know anything about Syrian people. If I were to face a political debate about the refugee situation or any of it’s components, I’d lose that argument. I’m unprepared.
You want to know what else I don’t know? I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell this story, but yesterday a whole bunch of Syrians were gassed…GASSED to death. I will tell you what i know about being gassed, because I have been, with tear gas, while I was in the US Army. I was gassed once every few months so I’d remember what to do if it ever happened to me. The military wants you to know that as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine because they don’t want you to die if you have a way to prevent it. So they’d lock us in a little quanzit hut (in South Korea anyway), and see how long it took us to put on a mask once they began gassing us. We learned to not have it take too long because if it did, you’d be stuck vomitting at the end, on the grass outside the door. Being gassed is awful.
Last month (only my third month into Earn a Bike teaching, when I was still feeling a bit green around the gills), I was told I was getting a class of Syrian refugees. What’s more, I learned they spoke little to no English and I’d have an interpreter. Simply put, I knew that was not going to be an easy deal. Combine my lack of social graces with my lack of understanding of languages other than English and Korean with my quite green skills as a bicycle maintenance teacher and you’ve got a recipe, for sure. I just wasn’t for sure what that recipe would be like. I was scared. Did I think, “Muslim?’ yes I did. I thought that. I wish I could say i always knew what to do with the new and unknown, but I don’t.
I went to class. First, I met two of the nicest ladies. One was named Ann. She was an American Muslim. She brought her own daughter to help out in the class and she had a quiet, funny confidence, that helped to ease my anxiety over the matter. Then there was Sheera, my translator. She spoke fluent Arabic, and was altogether such a unique, beautiful and wonderful woman. I was honored and actually, saved, to have these two women helping do something I absolutely couldn’t have done on my own.
It began oddly, with several boys named Mohammed, some other boys who’s names were difficult to pronounce, and one girl. We laughed through our first night, as I had them stumbling over the English names of bicycle parts and vying for who would be first to demonstrate disengaging brakes on a bicycle. One boy wanted to demonstrate everything, every time. He and two of his brothers had been raised in a refugee camp. I could hardly keep it together when I heard the details of that, so I tried to just focus on my goal, which was to have them riding their very own bikes at the end of our three weeks together.
I’ve never seen anyone so excited to get bicycles as the children from that class, and everyone is always excited to get a bike. One translation, “I’d never have dreamed of this happening in Syria.” I explained to Sheera and Ann that bikes are so soon bought and discarded, and how relatively easy it is to recycle one, to take it to Trips for Kids when your child has outgrown it, and have it go back into this awesome program. These bikes are out there and available to end up going to someone new.
On my third week with them, I got them out as early as possible on the bikes they’d be taking home, and we crossed North Davidson and went out onto northern Sugar Creek Greenway. We crossed bridges and rode past old houses and new builds. I could hear the kids behind me hooting and laughing and talking to one another and it reminded me so much of the children I ride with to my own school every Friday. It really wasn’t any different than that. These were children who were so happy, after so much struggle, to have found freedom on a bicycle, to have come through.
I don’t mean to share this as any bragging, or any sense of importance for what I’ve done. I’ve wondered if I should share it at all, or keep quiet. But after yesterday, watching people struggle to breathe and to live, I was so happy these children were here with me (for just a little)…were safe…that we could hoot and holler going under the bridge at Parkwood and that I could hear from the translator that evening that one of the boys wished I could always ride bikes with them.