Turkish cyclists turn act of kindness into movement for inclusion
ISTANBUL, Turkey – It all began with a group of cycling enthusiasts seeking to repay a random act of kindness, yet it gradually evolved into a grassroots civil society initiative that was not there just to help people with disabilities, but also to empower them.
In just three years, the Engelsiz Pedal Association - which roughly translates to "pedals without barriers" - has grown from taking a young wheelchair-bound girl on an excursion to leading an endeavour that introduces and promotes Paralympics cycling in Turkey.
Twenty-six-year-old university student Samet Aksuoglu is president of the association. Its members are mostly carefree young people in their 20s looking to combine a passion for cycling with a desire to help eliminate both physical and psychological obstacles faced by people with disabilities.
“Our main aim has always been to have fun and include people with disabilities in that fun,” Aksuoglu told Middle East Eye.
Tea at the heart of it
It was a chance encounter that led to the creation of Engelsiz Pedal and like with most things in Turkey, the consumption of tea was involved.
Aksuoglu and a few of his college friends were cycling along the shores of the Bosphorus in 2013 when they stopped for some tea. The cash-strapped students started haggling with the proprietor of the tea house over the inflated prices until an irate man at another table intervened and said he would foot their bill.
In return, he asked for their advice concerning a bicycle that he wanted to buy for his young son and where he could get the best deal. Aksuoglu agreed to help and turned up at their house a few days later with a bicycle. It was there that he saw 11-year-old wheelchair-bound Ceyda and the wistful look on her face as her younger brother revelled in his new acquisition.
Aksuoglu had a bicycle at his disposal with a good-sized box in the front of it that had been installed to distribute fliers. When he offered to take Ceyda on outings, her family was thrilled. Aksuoglu and his friends got some cushions to make the box more comfortable and began taking Ceyda on excursions.
Their fame quickly spread through word of mouth and families with disabled members began contacting them asking for their loved ones to be included too. The group of friends began calling themselves “chauffeurs”.
Soon Aksuoglu and his friends became more organised, enabling them to cater to these increased requests. They were also able to find funding to add more bikes to the team's budding project.
Not always smooth riding
They started arranging training sessions for volunteer chauffeurs, ranging from first aid training to psychological training on how to interact with children with mental disabilities.
More than 900 volunteer chauffeurs have attended their training sessions and Aksuoglu says at least 10 are available at any given time. But it was also at this stage that Aksuoglu and his friends noticed their work was headed in a direction they weren’t pleased with.
They started receiving invitations from a host of schools catering to children with disabilities but, says Aksuoglu, all of a sudden it felt like “we had become similar to a circus attraction”.
“We were putting these kids on the bike and taking them around the school yard while other students waited their turn. We barely got the chance to even ask the kids their names,” said Aksuoglu.
The plus side of this was that increased fame and media coverage also meant finding funds became easier and the association increased the number of their specially modified cycles to five.
Engelsiz Pedal decided to focus on projects where participant numbers would be lower but where the disabled participants would be fully involved in the projects.
Gaining trust vital
One such project was a 322-kilometre cycling trip from Istanbul to the poignant WW1 memorials on the Gallipoli peninsula, in March 2014. They did this with two “chauffeurs,” one visually-impaired boy, and another who had had one leg amputated from above his knee.
The visually impaired boy is Oguz Ugur, who was 17 when he went on the trip. Ugur’s mother Emine burst into laughter when explaining how she gave permission for her son to go on the trip.
“I was told there would be a medical team accompanying them all the way and that they would be part of an entourage. I later learned that it was just four young men with sleeping bags and tents,” she told MEE. “Over time I have come to see what nice and caring people they are.”
Ugur says it was his first time on a tandem bike and the entire experience of riding and camping out in nature was a fun experience.
“I was shocked at first. I expected escorts etc like we were told. But then I realised how much more fun it was this way,” he told MEE. “It was great feeling the wind and rain in my face and doing things like camping and sleeping out in the open.”
The disadvantaged helping the disadvantaged
Another project undertaken by Engelsiz Pedal is a soup-distribution project for the homeless in Istanbul. However, it is different from other programmes because they got people with disabilities involved in the distribution.
There are no exact statistics available on the number of homeless in this sprawling megapolis of at least 14 million inhabitants, but the majority of people sleeping rough on Istanbul’s streets today are Syrian migrants and refugees escaping the war. Due to this very reason, they flee if they see a group of vans or cars approach in the dead of night due to the fears that the vehicles might be authorities that have come to round them up. But a group of cyclists does not scare them.
“You should have seen the looks on their faces. They would shake whoever was huddled next to them and say ‘Amee’ in shock before profusely thanking us,” said Aksuoglu.
“Amee” is the Arabic word for blind. The same word also exists in Turkish although it is not commonly used.
Engelsiz Pedal has been forced to put this soup-distribution project on hold temporarily, primarily due to two reasons: the first is that the homeless have moved deeper into the nooks and crannies of the city since authorities have launched a more intensive effort to round them up. This meant that the cyclists couldn’t locate them anymore and the soup was going to waste.
Another reason behind suspending the project is restrictive regulations.
According to existing rules, an association cannot distribute food publicly unless it is sourced from a registered catering firm that meets all the food production standards and regulations in place.
“Our soup came from volunteers who prepared it at home and called us to pick it up for distribution. We learned that distributing home-cooked food is prohibited,” said Aksuoglu.
The beauty of the project is that it involves everyone in the community who wants to contribute, says Aksuoglu. He says he doesn’t want to corporatise and commercialise their endeavours.
They also learned of the severe criminal liabilities they could face if something were to happen to the disabled while in their care. As a result, the association decided to seek the help of the pro-bono legal department of a university in Istanbul.
Aiming for Gold
While the legal team looks into ways in which they can keep their projects community-based, at minimal cost and not falling foul of the law, the association has decided to put its energy into introducing and promoting Paralympics cycling in Turkey for the moment.
Enter Enes Gunel. The 26-year-old was paralysed from the neck down after a snowboarding accident in 2012. Always a keen sportsman, Gunel decided he wanted to stay involved in sports even after his injury and sought to pursue a professional sporting career using a hand bike.
Gunel approached the Turkish Disabled Sports Federation and the Cycling Federation but was given the runaround. He turned to Engelsiz Pedal and they have joined forces to find funding and run a programme to establish and encourage the sport.
“We have some wheelchair-based sporting activities for some of the more popular sports like basketball and the like, but cycling is not on anyone’s radar,” Gunel told MEE. “We would like to build a successful Paralympics cycling team in time so that they can serve as role models for other kids with disabilities.”
Aksuoglu hopes they manage to draw the attention of Paralympics cycling athletes and trainers from countries such as the United Kingdom that are leaders in the sport; and that a few of them might be enticed to spend a summer training them in Istanbul.
Hemmed by officialdom and bad drivers
Pesky regulations, risks and Paralympics dreams aside, Aksuoglu and the other volunteers at Engelsiz Pedal say they are always available to help put a smile and bring a little joy to the lives of disabled kids.
The obstacles and hurdles created by officialdom are not going to deter these youngsters from trying to add to the life experiences of their disabled friends.
Yet even this indomitable bunch has conceded defeat on one front: Istanbul’s impatient, angry and reckless drivers. They now only take their charges on excursions in certain designated sections along the shores of the Bosphorus, recreational areas, and nature parks in the forests along the northern edges of the city.
“Just seeing the look of gleeful delight on the faces of kids such as Ceyda and Oguz when we take them out tells us we are doing something right, and adds to the richness of our lives,” said Aksuoglu.