Taking the Wheel: Youth Promoting Cycling in Qaraqosh

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Thursday, April 1, 2021
Anmar, Maryana, and Sarkees are three of the youth behind the Bicycle Riding, Repair and Safety course in Qaraqosh

“We wanted to learn how to ride a bike safely and repair them ourselves. After the Bicycle Riding, Repair and Safety course, we ride our bikes every day in the city: going to school, the market, and visiting each other.” – Maryana, one of the youth leaders behind the course.

In August, 2014, the city of Qaraqosh was captured by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the city. Maryana’s family was among those who managed to escape.

During their three years of displacement, Maryana’s family and their relatives lived together in Erbil where Maryana spent most of her time with her cousin, who owned a bicycle.  “I was 7-years-old at that time, and my cousin was 3 years older than me. I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle, but I used to watch him and my brother take turns riding it outside. I really wanted to learn, so I asked my brother to teach me.”

Until she returned to Qaraqosh in 2017, Maryana took every chance she got to borrow her cousin’s bicycle. “I loved riding the bike in the neighborhood, and sometimes my mother and aunt would come with me for a walk. I wanted to bring the bike with me back home, but we sold it to a bike shop before we returned to Qaraqosh.”

When Qaraqosh was liberated from ISIS, Marayana and her family returned home. They discouraged her from riding a bike in the beginning for fear of her safety. In communities in the Ninewa Plains that are recovering from ISIS’s violent occupation, women’s voices, especially minority women’s voices, are often sidelined in community level decision-making due to gender norms. For many women and girls in Qaraqosh, it can be challenging to enjoy public spaces because of social perceptions that it is less appropriate for women and girls to use public spaces. Furthermore, without a public transportation system, women and girls struggle to find ways to safely travel long distances, such as walking to reach the city center, the market, or school. They often have to rely on others to drive them where they need to go and are limited to the social activities available to them in their neighborhoods.

In February 2020, USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response-Learning and Pilots (GRPR L&P) and local partner, the Iraqi Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management (IQCM), introduced a skills building and mentorship project for aspiring decision-makers to improve women’s and girls’ access to quality public space in Qaraqosh. Joining the group of Youth Leaders was the first step for Maryana’s bike project to become a reality.

Frustrated by her lack of freedom and dreaming of the day she would get back on a bike, Maryana worked together with three other youth - Anmar, Sarkees, and Flora - to create a bicycle riding, repair, and safety project to help improve girls’ access to public spaces in Qaraqosh. The more they talked about it, the more they knew they had something special.

“The first idea we wanted to propose was to build a bike track, but we then realized that not many people our age know how to ride a bike. We wanted to propose something more useful for people our age. That’s when we got the idea of a bicycle riding course that would teach people our age to ride a bike safely and fix their own bikes. It would be safer than walking and more fun.” – Maryana, Youth Leader.

Amr, a Program Officer, was impressed with Maryana’s bicycle project, though she remained skeptical as to whether it would get the support it needed to move forward: “I thought that the idea Maryana proposed was wonderful because it would give transportation options for girls, such as for their commute to school or to move independently in the city. At the same time, I was worried that the parents and members of the community would prevent us from going ahead with the initiative. I grew up in Qaraqosh, and I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle because it was not common for girls to do so.”

Determined to help Maryana and her team, Amr prepared a plan to generate community support for the bicycle course. Starting with the church leaders and influential community representatives in Qaraqosh, Amr met with the Archbishop, municipality officials and parents of female youth leaders to encourage their participation. When church leaders were on board, they offered one of its grounds to serve as the site for the course. 

The bicycle course took place in the garden of the St. Ephrem Seminary in Qaraqosh. For one month, a group of 25 high-school girls and boys, between the ages of 13- and 17-years-old, would meet each week to learn how to assemble, ride and repair a bicycle.

“The group of students were very energetic and eager to learn new skills. The girls and boys worked together in teams. They learned to cooperate and help one another. At the end of the course, each student learned to repair their bike and follow traffic rules so they can stay safe on the roads. The course also provided them with a maintenance toolkit and helmets to ensure the continuity of their learning.” said Ashraf, a trainer at the “Bicycle Riding, Repair and Safety” course.

Much to the surprise of the students, the course gained a lot of attention in the community. Parents and students called requesting a second course, and church leaders in Qaraqosh began to express support for women and girls bicycling.

“When the girls in school saw me coming and going to school on a bike, they started asking their parents to buy them a bike. I taught many girls to ride a bike and now we all ride our bikes together to school.” – Flora, Youth Leader.

Reflecting on her experience with the students and the project, the Program Officer, Amr said, “Every now and then, I see the students on their bikes in the city. I recognize them from the same green color of their bikes. It reminds me of how successful the bike initiative was. It made an impact in the community. Many girls and boys in Qaraqosh who were not in the project now also ride their bikes in the city. The project gave the students a lot of confidence because they saw how they were able to propose an idea and initiate a project in their community at a young age of 14 and 15. I believe this will encourage them to do more initiatives like this in the future.”

Last updated: November 01, 2021

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