13 Jul Brunswick nonprofit working to get bikes for asylum seekers…
BRUNSWICK — The Emergency Action Network in Brunswick has donated around 100 bikes to help people in need, primarily asylum seekers, get around on their own in the past year and plans on continuing the effort.
The Emergency Action Network, or TEAN, works with vulnerable populations, historically Brunswick students, to get needed items through community donations. TEAN has been in the business of getting bikes for years, said Sarah Singer, a TEAN member and Brunswick School Board representative, but never on this scale.
Since 2016, when the organization launched, volunteers have periodically helped find bike helmets and locks for kids, usually high schoolers, who need to bike to school or lack reliable transportation to and from sports practices.
It wasn’t until the nearly 100 asylum seekers arrived from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last summer that TEAN’s work changed and need increased significantly.
TEAN has been working in tandem with several other local organizations over the past year to assist the families with supplies, transportation, food and other services.
The families, who fled violence and persecution in their home countries, settled in the housing at Brunswick Landing, the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, where the town also established a resource center.
Brunswick hired Nsiona Nguizani, an Angolan immigrant, as a cultural broker to help ease their transition and facilitate the lengthy and complicated immigration process.
Nguizani said things have been going well, but that only one or two people have been able to obtain work permits, and with services brought to a screeching halt by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unknown how long it may take for the others. The federal government requires a lengthy wait before refugees can even apply for a work permit. Processing and reviewing those applications can take even longer.
While they wait for work permits, the new Mainers are unable to bring in money beyond what is allotted through General Assistance, let alone earn enough to save up for a car.
“90% of the families ended up living on the landing, which is good in some ways because they’ve formed a community out there and can support each other,” Singer said, “but it’s also really far from town and access to groceries.”
Transportation from the landing has been a barrier from the start, according to Nguizani, and the asylum seekers have to rely on the Metro BREEZ and Brunswick Explorer, which have limited and poorly linked service to the landing during the best of times. The reduced operating schedule during the pandemic has further limited service.
“The Transportation system in Brunswick is not really reliable,” Nguizani said, calling the situation a “nightmare.”
A person might be able to catch a bus in the morning to go to work, but not be able to come back on the same bus at the end of the day, or vice versa, “but you cannot have it two ways,” he said.
TEAN started seeking bicycle donations almost immediately, working with volunteers and Center Street Cycles to fix and refurbish the ones that needed it, passing them on to their new owners and starting again.
“The bikes were a tremendous idea,” Nguizani said. “Having the bikes gives them some autonomy, some independence.”
The new Mainers are the obvious immediate concern, “but there are a lot of groups that need bikes. There are a lot of communities living in poverty in Brunswick,” Singer said.
“Brunswick has some pretty severe transportation limitations for people who don’t have access to cars,” she added, especially in communities like Brunswick’s three mobile home parks.
Town officials are aware of these challenges.
In February, the Brunswick Town Council authorized a $100,000 transportation study through the Maine Department of Transportation that could potentially add more bus stops at Brunswick Landing and other areas of town.
The study will examine all public transportation in the area, as well as demographics and public transit demand all over town.
The study initially was expected to be completed by August, but Town Manager John Eldridge said Friday that the pandemic has slowed several projects, especially ones like the study, which rely on normal operation to get an accurate picture of demand.
Until then, TEAN will keep working to give bikes and other supplies to people who need them.
To help finance their “burgeoning effort,” TEAN partnered with Woods + Waters Gear Exchange on Pleasant Street to sell surplus children’s bikes, which they have a lower demand for right now, during Brunswick’s Second Friday celebration. Sales from the bikes will be used to help fund transportation goals for adults, Singer said.
Jenna Vanni, Woods + Waters owner, said she was more than happy to help.
The clientele of her business, a consignment shop for outdoor clothing and gear, runs the gamut from people needing items to people in the position to donate items, so her store was the natural fit for the sale, she said.
“I think they’re great, they don’t stop doing what they’re doing for people in need,” she said. “We need more of that, especially in these times.”
Bikes, of course, won’t solve Brunswick’s transportation problems year-round, nor will they work for everyone.
There’s more work to be done, but when Singer sees someone downtown riding a bike she knows TEAN helped provide, or at Hannaford with a bike helmet picking up some groceries, she can’t help but smile.
“Our mission statement is that we try to harness the generosity of the community to meet the immediate needs of our most vulnerable populations, and this is the perfect example of that,” she said. “You just think, one problem solved on to the next,” she said.