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Bike advocate and project organizer Andrew Mack shows Aleska Alejandra Tovar Morillo a biking map of Chicago.

Chicago, Bike Grid Now organizer Andrew Mack shows Aleska Alejandra Tovar Morillo a biking map of the city. Morillo arrived in Chicago this spring from Venezuela.

Izzy Stroobandt for WBEZ

For migrants, used bikes offer a path forward in an unfamiliar city

Standing outside a hotel-turned-shelter on Chicago’s Near North Side, Aleska Alejandra Tovar Morillo studied the copy of the Chicago Bike Map that she had just gotten, along with a new bike.

The dark maroon bike, which was decked out with a handful of accessories, a repair kit and a lock and key, came courtesy of a new partnership between two local grassroots organizing groups, Chicago, Bike Grid Now! and Communities United.

Doing his best to speak Spanish, organizer Andrew Mack showed Morillo the different icons and features on the map — which is only provided by the city in English — and pointed out her current location: the long-term shelter her family had moved into earlier this month at the shuttered Inn of Chicago in River North.

Joel Campbell of Bikes ‘N Roses rigs up a three bikes to be delivered to a group of cousins from Colombia.

Joel Campbell of Bikes ‘N Roses rigs up a three bikes to be delivered to a group of cousins from Colombia.

Photo by Rony Islam / Courtesy of Bikes ‘N Roses

Mack first met Morillo, a 28-year-old mother of three, at the 9th District Police Station. Within a couple of weeks, Morillo and her husband, Leswuis Carmona, were the fourth and fifth asylum seekers, respectively, to receive free bikes from the partnership.

In the past few weeks, organizers with Bike Grid Now and Communities United have teamed up to repair used bikes and convert donated bike parts into functioning cycles for people seeking asylum in the city. The work, which started with a few bikes, is scaling into a bigger pipeline project as more donations of equipment and money pour in — and as more migrants arrive.

The organizers hope to provide a reliable means of transportation to some of the nearly 10,000 asylum-seeking migrants who have arrived in Chicago since August, many of whom lack the money or confidence to navigate the public transit system with ease.

Mayor Brandon Johnson meets migrants staying at the 12th Police District station

Mayor Brandon Johnson meets migrants staying at the 12th Police District station on May 16, 2023. Some migrants have stayed at police stations while they await shelter placement.

Anthony Vazquez

Morillo, Carmona, their kids and Carmona’s father arrived in Chicago in late April after a harrowing journey from Valencia, Venezuela. They were placed in a makeshift shelter in the 9th District police station’s lobby.

At that point, the dark maroon bike that is now one of the main means of transit for Morillo’s family was still sitting at Mack’s house in need of repairs.

Mack said his wife saw news coverage of the hundreds of asylum seekers sleeping at police stations while the city scrambled to find sufficient housing. They decided to invite people staying at their local station to shower and wash clothes at their house.

When Mack arrived at the station, he said he saw “all these kids sleeping on the floor.”

“We got everyone at the station cleaned up and then we ended up having some families stay for a while,” Mack said. “And we’ve been doing this for the last month now.”

“Nobody has any transportation. A lot of the people don’t have any money for food even, let alone a bus pass,” Mack said.

As an active bike rider and a father of young kids, Mack owns a “bunch of” bicycles of different sizes, and says “the kids and some of the adults would ride around on the street in front of his house” before returning to the shelter.

Mack said he remembered he had recently picked the maroon bike “out of the garbage.” Hoping to find a way to fix the bike up and match it with one of the migrants he met, Mack called up fellow Bike Grid Now! organizer Rony Islam.

Mack said he knew Islam would be able to help crowdsource funding from the Chicago biking community based on their previous advocacy together around traffic-calming infrastructure and lower speed limits.

Islam tweeted a request for donations from the Bike Grid Now account on May 4. The call for donations caught the eye of Joel Campbell, Program Coordinator for Bikes N’ Roses, a project of nonprofit group Communities United that fosters youth empowerment through skills training and events funded through a bike shop in Belmont Cragin. Campbell offered to pitch in spare parts as well as space at the shop and his mechanical expertise to the repair side of the project.

Islam said the response to their donation request was quickly “overwhelming.”

Based on what is currently pledged from community members and local bike shops, the organizers plan to connect 200 migrants with free bikes.

Islam said materials for about 40 of the bikes came from community members, and the remainder is coming from various local bike shops, like Tailwind Cycles in Albany Park and Working Bikes in Little Village. The Recyclery, a nonprofit educational bike shop in Rogers Park, also offered to share its repair space with the partnership.

A bike gets hauled downtown for delivery.

A bike gets hauled downtown for delivery.

Izzy Stroobandt for WBEZ

The volunteers are still looking for donations. They say they particularly need bike accessories, such as locks and lights, in addition to bike mechanics who are willing to donate time. The group is accepting monetary contributions via an Open Collective fund for hard-to-find parts. It has raised nearly $700 as of the end of last week.

The “largest conundrum” of the process so far has been getting specific parts and enough volunteer hands to build bikes that are sized appropriately for the recipient, Campbell said.

In the short term, the group expects to be able to put out another 20 to 30 bikes throughout this week.

For the Morillo family, the bikes open new avenues in an unfamiliar city.

The family has been told they can stay at the Inn of Chicago shelter for three months, but Morillo said her kids, ages 11, 8 and 5 years old, are struggling to adjust to the food that is available and the water that only runs cold.

“It’s hard right now because we aren’t working and can’t make any money,” Morillo said in Spanish.

She recalled trying to find her way to a respite center via the Red Line to pick out clothes and other donated items for her kids and herself. The trip took her a total of 14 hours — from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Having free, reliable transportation is also helpful for more than work, doctors visits or errands, Mack said. “Being able to access the lakefront to get out of your space and go have some open air someplace — I think that’s important for people.”

Izzy Stroobandt is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.

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