Biking as a Refugee

This interview originally appeared in the summer 2016 issue of reflektor: magazine for mobility, transportation politics, and bicycle culture, a bike club magazine from Dresden, Germany. For a part of his journey out of Syria, Haydar Ali, a refugee now living in Germany, rode a bike. The last time he rode a bike at home was when he was just a child. He still has the bike.


reflektor: You were forced to leave Syria in the summer of 2015. For a part of your journey out of Syria, you used a bicycle. How did it come to that?

Haydar Ali: Originally, we planned to make the journey on foot. We crossed the border between Greece and Macedonia on foot because the streets in the area aren’t really meant for biking. After we arrived at the first village behind the Macedonian border, a person in our group had the surprising idea that we could bike through Macedonia. Initially, we doubted whether it was a good idea because you have to bike on the highway. Between all of the cars, that isn’t too comfortable, and the police could find us the. So we had to figure out if we really wanted to do it.

Going by foot through Macedonia would have also been problematic and difficult, and it would have had its dangers. At the end, though, it was clear that we didn’t have another choice. We could get away from the police, so that, at a minimum, if the police appeared they wouldn’t be able to arrest all of us. To make our trip through Macedonia less dangerous we thought we should be one big group. On the Greek border, we asked a large crowd of refugees who wanted to bike with us through Macedonia. About 50 decided to join us, which begs the question: Where do you get so many bicycles?

Three of us went to a bike shop and asked the owner whether he could sell us the bikes. It wasn’t a large shop. When I told him that we needed 50 bikes, his was quite surprised. Of course, he didn’t have that many bikes, and from the beginning he doubted whether we could pay for so many. He had less than 15 bikes in the shop. But he could drive to another village and get some from there. Then it was just about negotiating the price. At the beginning, he demanded 150€ per bike. By the end, we got to 110€ because he did some good business on 50 bikes. We waited three hours for him until he came back with a car full of bikes. Besides the bikes, we bought accessories: 60 tubes, several air pumps, etc.

That’s how are trip through Macedonia began. We rode mostly at night. Only when we had the impression that it was safe did we ride during the day. It took 8 days to go about 450 km. Using the bikes was obviously more efficient than if we had been transported by smugglers. We could only cross the Macedonian-Serbian border on foot, so we had to sell the bikes. Getting rid of 50 bikes at once, that doesn‘t happen in one bike shop. Eventually we sold the bikes to three different shops. One took 23, one took 6, and one took the rest.

reflektor: Were the different speeds in the group a problem?

HA: Yea, without a doubt. When you are going in a group, you have to stay with the slowest person. The young people wanted to go faster, and they had the stamina for it. In the group, we had four women who were slower, and also two who were older than 45. We were always forced to wait on them because they got tired quicker. The young people were especially impatient because there was a higher risk of getting discovered by the police at the slower speed.

reflektor: After Macedonia, what happened next?

HA: From the border, we had to go to Belgrade to get papers. It was clear we wouldn‘t be going further in this big group. 20 of us bought bikes in Serbia and continued. We needed about four and a half days to go about 350 km. From Belgrade, we could take a bus to the next border. Someone in the group asked whether we wanted to take bikes into Hungary. We didn’t do that because in the EU, you have to stay in the EU country where the police first catch you.

reflektor: Did you ride bikes in Syria?

HA: No, biking isn’t a normal way to get around there. Its also pretty dangerous, there isn’t an infrastructure. You see maybe one biker per week. When I was a kid, I had a bike, but that was more a toy for children.

reflkektor: You have a bike in Germany. How did that come about?

HA: That was pretty funny. When I met my first German, I also met five of his friends [his bikes]. I could choose one.

reflektor: So, bikes are obviously easy to get?

HA: Almost every German I meet asks me whether I already have a bike. It is one of the first new experiences here, you can’t live without a bike. Early on, it was funny because I hadn’t ridden a bike in a long time. It was also a little bit of a crazy idea to start riding at my age because I’m used to only kids doing it. But everyone does it here, and it has advantages: its easy, its cheaper, and you can already be going when you would otherwise sill be waiting on the tram. I haven’t done a longer tour with the bike, but in the spring, I hope to.

reflektor: Are the rules for bikers unusual for you?

HA: Normally, I can’t stand following rules. The friend, who I got the bike from, explained the rules to me before he let me go into traffic. Before, for example, I didn’t know that sometimes there are extra lanes on the road for bikers, and when they are there and you still ride in the road, you create a bad situation. One time I was waiting at a red light. The street was empty, no car was crossing, and the bikers in my direction kept riding through the red light. So I was at the red light because it wasn’t greet yet. An old man looked at me a while and said something in German, laughing. I didn’t understand it, but he probably said something like, “The foreigner is waiting at the light, but Germans go on red.”

At the beginning, I still looked how people around me did it: if they road on the sidewalk, I rode on the sidewalk. If they rode on the road, then I rode on the road. But the first and last rule is obvious: be careful. That’s it really.


Translated from the German by Douglas McKnight, an editor and translator based in Germany.

Photo By ProtoplasmaKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s