Ice House

When Refugees in Houston Need a Ride, Free Wheels Is Here to Help

This organization gives bikes to Newstonians who need a way to get around.

By Heather Saucier January 30, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Preparing for her first job in Houston as a newly arrived refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tungane Nyirahabimana listened carefully to her case manager’s instructions, in Swahili, for how to get to work: From her apartment in southwest Houston, she would ride her bicycle one mile down Bellaire Boulevard to catch a bus at Gessner Road. Three stops later, she would pedal to another bus stop, this one near Bissonnet Street and Rice Avenue. That bus would take her farther north, where she would weave her bicycle around the spaghetti bowl of lanes near U.S. 59 and I.H. 610. And finally, she would begin her day assembling advertising inserts for the Houston Chronicle.

That may sound like the commute from hell, but for 20-year-old Nyirahabimana—who has survived a crippling civil war in her home country, years in a Ugandan refugee camp, where her mother died, and the 8,300-mile journey to Houston—it is almost like coasting downhill. It enables her to pay rent, buy food and live without fear. “This bike means a lot to me,” she told Houstonia through her interpreter. “It is how I can have a job.”

The bike came from Free Wheels Houston, a local charity founded and operated by Bill Mintz, 66, a retired Chronicle journalist who loves cycling and gives bicycles to refugees with no way to get around this ever-sprawling city that is finally becoming more bicycle-friendly.

“Refugees love bicycles,” Mintz said. “When they first arrive, many work late shifts washing dishes at restaurants or cleaning offices, and buses aren’t running when it’s time to go home. Having a car is just not financially feasible.”

Naway Abbas, who is 36 and from the Sudan, has received two bicycles from Free Wheels since arriving in Houston last year. The first was stolen, making it impossible for him to ride several miles down Westheimer Road to the Galleria-area hotel where he works in the laundry room. After Abbas nearly lost his job for missed shifts, Mintz got him another bicycle. “He is a good man,” Abbas said of Mintz. “If more people in the world were like him, we wouldn’t have any problems.”

Mintz founded Free Wheels nearly three years ago after he donated a bicycle for a World Refugee Day event and was moved as he watched the recipient break down in a fit of happiness and tears. He reached out to his place of worship, Christ the King Lutheran Church, along with Refugee Services of Texas and local cycling groups, to help identify refugees in need and recruit volunteers and donations.

Almost immediately, Mintz got his hands on 15 more bikes. Rice Bikes offered to change tires, replace chains and install lights; BikeHouston donated helmets; Mintz himself acquired heavy-duty locks, flat-repair kits and tire pumps. That first batch was delivered to RST clients a couple of years ago at Burnett-Bayland Park.

“It was like Christmas,” Mintz recalled. “The bicycles and all of the volunteers made them feel so welcome.”

Soon, other resettlement agencies began to request bikes. Mintz moved his workspace from his garage to an un-air-conditioned warehouse in Southwest Houston. He’s now given away 275 bikes. 

And as word has spread, so has the number of people who arrive each Saturday to help. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and children of refugees who simply want to pay it forward have helped with tasks from cleaning and adjusting bicycles to near rebuilds. It costs the charity roughly $100 to make each bicycle safe, so Mintz relies heavily on donations and volunteer mechanics.

“I see this as more than donating a bike. I see it as giving someone a life,” said J.D. Sanchez, a professional bike mechanic and volunteer. “Refugees are looking for a way to contribute, and they want to be a part of the community and have a better life. After Harvey, we got a really tall order because a lot of refugees live near Brays Bayou and they lost so much.”

At a recent event in Bellaire, Free Wheels gave 18 bicycles to adults and children from the Congo, Afghanistan and Eritrea. At the same time, locals donated 20 more bicycles to the cause. “We left with more than we gave away!” Mintz said, incredulous. “Everyone has been so generous.”

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