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Stalwart local advocate champions Cleveland Refugee Bike Project


More than 1,000 refugees are resettled in the Cleveland area each year, and many of them struggle with transportation as they adjust to their new homes and secure jobs. Many people in the refugee population don’t have cars, and public transportation routes often don’t travel to all the places they need to go.
 
After hearing stories about the demand for bicycles among the refugee population, Tim Kovach started to see a possible solution. “They’re looking to get their hands on bikes,” says the avid cyclist who bikes to his job as an air quality planner at Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency nine months out of the year.

The refugee situation moved the Ohio City resident to initiate a campaign to get more bikes to that vulnerable population with an ioby crowdfunding campaign: the Cleveland Refugee Bike Project.
 
The Bike Project aims to raise $7,863 to provide refugees with 50 to 100 bikes and training to give them better access to work, education and social opportunities. The Cleveland Climate Action Fund will match dollars raised, up to $5,000.
 
The idea first came about after Kovach’s wife, who works at Cleveland Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, began telling him stories of Cleveland refugees needing bikes to get around.
 
Kovach heard of one Congolese boy who was excited to bike to his new school and was told “don’t bother, we don’t even have a bike rack.” Another man in his 50s had trouble walking but could ride a bicycle. The man just couldn’t find an affordable one.
 
“It really clicked on me,” Kovach recalls of hearing these stories. “The number of refugees settled in Cleveland has basically doubled in the last few years. I started to think about a way I could help.”
 
While organizations like Cleveland Catholic Charities help refugees settling in Cleveland by providing assistance, including RTA passes, it’s still often tough for them to get to jobs that can be in remote locations, Kovach explains.
 
“It can be very difficult, especially with the jobs they are trying to get,” Kovach says. “The jobs are in places that are not well connected to [bus lines], and there’s a language barrier and a skills [gap].”
 
Last January, Kovach began talking to Bike Cleveland and Ohio City Bicycle Co-op (OCBC) about ways he could secure bikes and provide culturally appropriate training for Cleveland’s refugee community.
 
The conversations were put on the back burner, but then in August, Matt Gray, the director of the Cleveland Mayor’s  Office of Sustainability, told Kovach about the Cleveland Climate Action Fund’s newest round of grants.
 
“I wrote up a proposal and sent it to them,” Kovach recalls, adding that he requested the full $5,000. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the bike community as well.”
 
To date, Kovach has raised nearly $4,000 towards his goal. If he meets it and gets the matching funds, he will start a pilot program in 2017. The bikes will be sourced from OCBC, which will also provide in-kind support through bike accessories.
 
Kovach will organize bicycle training and skills classes at the OCBC or Catholic Charities with the help of refugee interpreters with the former. He says the classes will be based on majority language groups – Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Bhutanese and French – depending on the interest.

“We’re creating jobs and opportunities for refugees,” says Kovach of his program and the use of the interpreters. He is also hoping to have enough funding to install bike racks at Catholic Charities.
 
There are 10 days to go until the Friday, Nov. 18 ioby campaign deadline.
 
Additionally, Platform Beer Co., 4125 Lorain Ave., will host a fundraiser for Kovach’s cause this Thursday, Nov.  10 from 4 to 8 p.m. Platform will donate $1 for each house beer sold. Organizers will raffle off gift baskets from Platform, OCBC, and Bike Cleveland. All proceeds will go toward the project.

Tim Kovach's advocacy goes beyond his work with Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and this project. He contributed this informative article on the impact of freeways on our neighborhoods to Fresh Water earlier this year. The story garnered thousands of hits.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 18 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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