Bike riding courses offer Finland’s immigrants new freedom

An immigrant woman rides a bike on September 20, 2019 on the gimcana track in Merihaka area, in Helsinki, Finland, as she takes part in the Let's Ride project offering free cycling lessons. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 October 2019

Bike riding courses offer Finland’s immigrants new freedom

  • Biking is popular in the Nordic nation, where more than half of people in the capital travel by bike at least once a week

HELSINKI, Finland: It’s a skill you never forget once learnt, as the saying goes: Now immigrants to Finland can receive free cycling lessons to help them better integrate into life in the bike-loving nation.

On a sunny September morning a group of around eight students have taken time out from their Finnish lessons to come to an empty car park in Helsinki’s Suvilahti district, where they are fitted out with helmets and bikes.

“Many people who come to Finland, mostly women, they don’t have this bicycle skill and it’s a very important part of Finnish society,” says Federico Ferrara of the Finnish Cyclists’ Federation, which runs the project.

Ferrara insists that learning to ride helps to empower the new arrivals, especially women, many of whom come from North Africa or the Middle East.

“Many of our clients have some kind of taboo with these biking skills, maybe they’ve fallen down when they were kids and they have this trauma in their head for 20 years, or maybe it’s not socially or culturally accepted for them to bike,” Ferrara tells AFP.

The instructors help some of the students climb onto their bikes, and, as today’s group has already had some practice in the saddle, they set off around a course of cones.

Despite some initial wobbles, instructor Sami Viitanen soon decides the group is ready for the next stage, and leads them out for a spin on the roads to get used to riding in traffic.

Biking is popular in the Nordic nation, where more than half of people in the capital travel by bike at least once a week, according to authorities. A further 10 percent cycle all year round despite the long, snowy winters.

But outside the city, learning to ride can be key to living independently. “If they are in a refugee center, many times they are in the middle of nowhere and the bike can be the only way of commuting,” Ferrara says.

In the past year-and-a-half, Ferrara and his colleagues have taught 320 beginners to ride. The project is funded by Finland’s state lottery and gambling monopoly.

Ferrara says that after three hours, 90 percent of clients are able to navigate a car park. “Riding is great, now I can do it,” gushes Orhan, who came to Finland from Turkey seven years ago.

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

Updated 09 July 2020

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

  • Pakistan played positive role in US-Taliban peace talks, says diplomat

PESHAWAR: Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan has had put “mending political relations” between the two estranged nations as one of his top priorities.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, on Tuesday said that his primary focus would be to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan and maintain strong ties with Pakistan, especially after Islamabad’s key role in the Afghan peace process earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, the diplomat told Arab News: “Two areas have been identified to focus on with renewed vigor, such as lasting peace in Afghanistan and cementing Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in economic, social, political and other areas.”

In order to achieve these aims, he said, efforts would be intensified “to mend political relations” between the neighboring countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600-kilometer porous border and have been at odds for years. Bonds between them have been particularly strained due to a deep mistrust and allegations of cross-border infiltration by militants.

Kabul has blamed Islamabad for harboring Taliban leaders after they were ousted from power in 2001. But Pakistan has denied the allegations and, instead, accused Kabul of providing refuge to anti-Pakistan militants – a claim rejected by Afghanistan.

Daudzai said his immediate priority would be to focus on “political reconciliation” between the two countries, especially in the backdrop of a historic peace agreement signed in February this year when Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating a troop withdrawal deal between the US and the Taliban to end the decades-old Afghan conflict. “Afghanistan needs political reconciliation which the Afghan government has already been working on to achieve bottom-up harmony,” he added.

Daudzai’s appointment Monday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took place days after Islamabad chose Mohammed Sadiq as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan.

Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with all of its neighbors, Daudzai said Pakistan’s role was of paramount importance to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks. I will explore all options for a level-playing field for the success of all these initiatives,” he said, referring in part to crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which were delayed due to a stalemate in a prisoner exchange program – a key condition of the Feb. 29 peace deal.

Under the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and around 1,000 government prisoners were to be freed by March 10. So far, Afghanistan has released 3,000 prisoners, while the Taliban have freed 500. Daudzai said that while dates had yet to be finalized, the intra-Afghan dialogue could begin “within weeks.”

He added: “A date for intra-Afghan talks hasn’t been identified yet because there is a stalemate on prisoners’ release. But I am sure they (the talks) will be kicked off within weeks.”

Experts say Daudzai’s appointment could give “fresh momentum” to the stalled process and revitalize ties between the two estranged neighbors.

“Mohammed Sadiq’s appointment...could lead Kabul-Islamabad to a close liaison and better coordination,” Irfanullah Khan, an MPhil scholar and expert on Afghan affairs, told Arab News.

Daudzai said that he would be visiting Islamabad to kickstart the process as soon as the coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions were eased.

Prior to being appointed as the special envoy, he had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from April 2011 to August 2013.