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UST Student Helps Refugees, Two Wheels at a Time

UST junior and marketing/pre-law double major Dean Chagaris smiled as he told the story of Yonaza Mitachi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who danced with joy after receiving a free bike from Freewheels Houston.

For two years, Chagaris has volunteered as a mentor and bike mechanic at Freewheels, a non-profit organization operating in Southwest Houston that gives free, donated bikes to refugees and others who need transportation.

Bikes donated to Freewheels are assembled and fixed by volunteers such as Chagaris so they are safe for the refugees to use.

Chagaris said he first heard about Freewheels when a friend invited him to the organization’s warehouse. Since then, Chagaris has volunteered almost every weekend for the past two years.

Chagaris said he likes to tell Mitachi’s story because it shows how important a simple object can be to refugees. Chagaris said he remembered  Mitachi coming to the Freewheels warehouse in his Sunday best, and his excitement when he received a bike. He said Mitachi wore a big smile and danced happily when he thought no one was looking.

Mitachi came to Houston after spending 19 years in a refugee camp. After obtaining a bike, he finally had a way to get around the city, start a new job and begin his life in America.

“I think one of the best things about Freewheels, when we do give away a bike, is the excitement that fills an individual when they get a bike,” Chagaris said. “This is something most of us take for granted.”

Chagaris said that one of the main reasons he volunteers at Freewheels is to see the simple happiness refugees display, despite whatever horrors they have experienced.  Many refugees who come to Freewheels fled their war-torn countries after experiencing or witnessing extreme violence, such as watching their relatives being killed in front of them, Chagaris said.  

Giving them a bike may appear to be a small act, but Chagaris said it makes a big difference in their lives.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s doing a little bit of something for the people that have been through so much,” he said.

Bill Mintz, the founder of Freewheels, said transportation is one of the biggest obstacles refugees face when they come to Houston, which is why he created Freewheels.

“The mission is to help people improve their lives by giving them transportation alternatives,” Mintz said.

Yasin Sirahaman, a refugee from Malaysia who also volunteers at Freewheels, said he had trouble getting to school on time when he first came to America because he had to rely on public transportation. The people of Freewheels gave him a bike, and he said he was “super happy” when he realized he could take it home.

Now, Sirahaman says, he is always on time and rides his new bike to the Freewheels warehouse every weekend to volunteer. He said he understands the difficulty of transitioning to a new country as a refugee and that he sympathizes with the trauma other refugees experience.

“I feel bad for them because their parents are killed, their families are killed,” Sirahaman said. “I like to help people and I want to help them.”

Last summer, Freewheels hosted a bike camp for close to 80 refugee children. Volunteers issued helmets and safety gear, and taught many of the children how to ride their new bikes.

At the camp, Chagaris said he remembers watching a young volunteer teach a little girl from Africa how to pedal a bike for the first time. “I was thinking, how rewarding–you know what I mean?”

Chagaris said Mitachi and Sirahaman’s transition from struggling refugees to employees and students proves how something as simple as a bike can help.

“With Freewheels, we’re giving these individuals a tool that will help them build the foundation for their lives and be successful contributing members of society,” Chagaris said.

Freewheels volunteers include doctors, investment bankers, actors, veterans and students.

“It’s a place where we can all come together, have a lot of fun together, work together,” said David West, a Freewheels volunteer and mentor, “and we know that we’re doing something to help other people.”

Chagaris said he believes people of all ethnicities, colors, religions and backgrounds need to “come together to form an accepting society.” Through his volunteer work, he said, he hopes to make the world a better place. 

“If that’s what I’m supposed to do with my life, just continuing to do something like this, then that’s what I’ll do,” Chagaris said.

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