Good Wheel Ambassadors

December 18, 2008 Published in the October 2008 issue of Seattle Met

The refugees, members of Burma’s long-suffering Karen minority, needed a way to get from their Tukwila apartments to work, school, and P-Patch. Cars, even bus fare, cost too much. They were stuck—until local International Rescue Committee volunteer Sally Webb came up with a solution. She and a former bike-tour guide named Jason Coleman persuaded Raleigh USA to donate spiffy bicycles, and Coleman and volunteers from Cycle University schooled the new Washingtonians in riding and road etiquette. Many of the Karens had never straddled bikes before, but from patriarch Peh Bu to preteen Hsar Bwen Moo, they picked up pedaling fast. Braking came less naturally, though no one was banged up too hard, and all enjoyed the postride chips and salsa.

But bikes break down; one of the novice riders wrecked a $300 derailleur trying to fix it with a hammer. And scores of other kids—from Somalia, Iraq, and Burundi via Tanzania—wanted bikes, too. Coleman hustled, begged, and scoured Craigslist for bikes in various states of disrepair. He led parking—lot repair clinics—a United Nations of junior mechanics. Kids who helped mend the bikes and learned to recite various bicycle parts and local geographic names scored new wheels. Some boys grumbled when Hamsa, a demure, beshawled 12-year-old, skunked them on the word quiz, but all eventually got bikes. The result: this roadwise, multinational Tour de Tukwila team.

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