SSJ Neighborhood Network volunteers repair bicycles for refugees in need
Watch SSJ Neighborhood Network volunteer Jerry Swabb work on a bike that will be donated to a refugee, and Muhammad Nikzad ride his donated bike.
Baylee DeMuth, Erie Times-News
Jerry Swabb, a retired high school math teacher, spends a few hours a week bringing broken, old, unlucky bikes back to life.
The Erie resident began volunteering at the bicycle recycler at the east side location of the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network, 436 E. 26th St. in Erie, about four years ago.
“I knew they needed help,” said Swabb, 72. “Let’s put it this way, if they were all chimney sweeps, I wouldn’t have volunteered, or if they had been roofers, I wouldn’t have volunteered. But I like doing that.”
Swabb spends his Wednesday afternoons fixing rusty bike chains, replacing flat tires and rummaging through old bike parts. Since volunteering, Swabb said he’s fixed a few hundred bikes.
Over the past month, Swabb has started volunteering twice a week and has helped repair nearly 70 adult and children’s bicycles for Afghan refugees. The volunteers spent 284 hours repairing the bikes, trying to keep up with the influx of requests received by the organization.
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“Afghans were scattered all over the place and they needed transportation to get to work, to get to school, and we have a lot of bikes, so we upgraded a ton of them,” said Swabb.
Interacting with refugees is one of Swabb’s favorite parts of volunteering. Before COVID-19, when neighborhood network SSJ invited kids to the shop to fix their bikes alongside volunteers, Swabb enjoyed their company.
“They were pretty fun,” he said. “They’re just kids and I’ve enjoyed taking care of them. I’ve always enjoyed asking them what they thought of the first time they saw snow, did they eaten? I loved seeing the spark in kids, and I’ve always had a good relationship with kids.”
Swabb interacted with children from Rwanda, Somalia, the Middle East and countries he had never heard of, he said.
“There was a child who had trouble communicating in English and he was very, very sorry and I said, ‘You speak French and Swahili, I’m 70 and I haven’t mastered English yet. ‘” Swabb said. “So I give those kids credit for adjusting.”
For Swabb, the work he and the other volunteers do sometimes seems endless, but it is rewarding.
“I really like doing this and if you can save a few souls in the process, that’s great,” he said.
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Until a month ago, Muhammad Nikzad would take a bus or walk from place to place in Erie.
Six months ago, Nikzad, 30, came to Erie after escaping the Taliban, who invaded his home in Kabul, Afghanistan.
When he moved here, his transportation options were limited.
“When I needed to go buy something or get to the Institute (field office of the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Erie), I walked,” said Nikzad, who is a social worker. for the USCRI-Erie. “I walked 20 minutes to and from the Institute, and it was terrible in the snow and the cold.”
After several months of trudging through an Erie winter, USCRI-Erie suggested an alternative to Nikzad that would make it easier to get around.
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“The Institute told me that the (SSJ Neighborhood Network) repairs the bikes, so I asked them about it and they wrote my name down,” Nikzad said. “When they called me and told me my bike was ready, I was very happy.”
It took just a few days for volunteers from Bike Recyclery to repair a bike in good condition for Nikzad. Once he received it, he rode it every day.
“I was going to Walmart, my friend’s place, everywhere,” he said. “I went to the lake with my bicycle, I drive it to Almadina (supermarket) if I need to buy something… If there is a place near me, I will ride my bicycle. “
Shortly after receiving his bike, Nikzad also started helping other Afghan refugees get bikes from the SSJ neighborhood network. He said he helped about 50 adults and children get bikes.
“Because I could speak English, I would bring other clients and friends here, interpreting for them,” he said. “They are all happy because they use their bikes to get to work… without a bike some of them were walking for an hour or waiting for a bus for 2 hours to get to places.”
Nikzad recently bought a car, but if he doesn’t transport clients or drive long distances, he rides a bicycle.
“If a car weren’t necessary, I would prefer a bicycle because it’s good for your health, it’s good for society and good for the weather,” he said. “Wherever I have to go, I will go with my bike.”
Baylee DeMuth can be reached at 814-450-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BayleeDeMuth.