When Eshrat Mashket first heard from a friend about a cycling group for women in Toronto, she was excited but a bit reluctant.
“Biking was not considered something a woman could do back home. It was for men,” said Mashket, 51, who immigrated with her family to Canada from Iran four years ago.
But with her family’s support, she decided to go for it and got a bicycle last year through the Bike Match Project, a program started by the Women’s Cycling Network that encourages people to donate bikes they’re no longer using to women who need them.
Now, Mashket can’t get enough of it.
“I was scared of hurting myself but eventually that fear turned into a sense of freedom,” she told CBC Toronto.
It’s stories like Mashket’s that convinced Najia Zewari, co-founder of the Women’s Cycling Network, to celebrate Bike Month in Toronto by running the the Bike Match Project again this year to help women from diverse communities.
“For many women, riding a bike was a childhood dream which they could not achieve in their home country,” Zewari said.
Bike Month is marked every June to encourage cycling as a way to explore neighbourhoods, learn related skills and help people connect with each other.
There are more 80 women living in the GTA who are waiting to receive their bikes through the Bike Match program. Donors and recipients can register at bikematchwcn.com. Once a donor and a recipient are matched, they are directed to a spot where the handover can take place.
The project was inspired by a similar program in the U.S. that helped people donate bicycles to essential workers who needed them at the beginning of the pandemic. Zewari says her group decided to take it a step further and help women from diverse communities get on wheels and boost their mental health.
The pandemic provided another compelling reason for the Women’s Bike Network to run the program again this year, as booming demand for bicycles coupled with supply issues made them nearly impossible to find in stores and online.
For Zewari, it did not take her too long to realize the potential of biking as tool of empowerment.
While working as a peer leader at the Wellness Cafe — an initiative run by a group called the Afghan Women’s Organization — she helped women, many of whom left families behind in their home countries, deal with the anxiety of being new immigrants to Canada
“One day, I asked them to name something that will cheer them up. Some women said biking,” she said.
Zewari collaborated with local community organizations like CultureLink and Evergreen Brickworks that trained the group in cycling and the basic mechanics.
Zewari says biking helped these women break cultural, physical and emotional barriers.
“The members became confident; they enjoyed their freedom of moving around and exploring their neighbourhoods and are now independent enough to run daily errands,” she said.
Cycling had such a positive impact on Sediqa Nowrozian’s physical and mental health, the 51-year-old decided to donate a bike this year..
“Biking became a huge part of my life when I wasn’t able to meet my family. When the pandemic hit, meeting them became a distant dream,” said Nowrozian, who immigrated to Canada alone from Afghanistan in 2016
Nowrozian, who’s now an advocate for safe cycling for women. says she was overjoyed the day she found out that she would be matched with a bike.
“I was so happy, I would go biking with my friends and I was able to see so many places in the city that I did not know about.”
Meantime, women who are still waiting to be matched with a bike donor say it is worth the wait.
Shrouq Abdulraheem, 45, used to cycle when she was a little girl in her home country of Iraq, but has never owned a bike since. She is eager for that to change.
“I was matched once but the bike was too small for my height, so I gave it up,” she said…
Talking about the expansion plan, Zewari says the Women Cycling Network is collaborating with various neighbourhoods and community organizations to promote the cause. She hopes this Bike Month will inspire people in Toronto to come forward and donate their bikes.
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