Syrian bike mechanic hooks up Saint Johners with free rides

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Syrian bike mechanic hooks up Saint Johners with free rides

On a chilly spring morning, 21-year-old Mohammed Younes is starting his shift in the bike shop on MacLaren Boulevard in Saint John's north end.

He pries out a chain wedged deep in the gears of a boy's red-and-white mountain bike. He flips the bike onto a rack, oils the chain, then rapidly changes the tire, bouncing it hard on the  floor of the shed to test it out. He replaces it and spins the wheel: runs like the dream. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes.

"Before, in Syria, I work fixing television screen and fridge — like a mechanic," he said. "I did not go to school. I came to Canada for school. I would like to take [a] mechanic course, maybe at the community college."

"In Canada I learn more new language, new people, everything is new. I like it."

'Everyone needs a bike'

In September, Younes was hired at the Saint John Bike Share headquartered at the Crescent Valley Resource Centre.

The bike program, a partnership of the centre, Consolvo Bikes, the city and other community organizations, accepts donations of used bikes, then fixes them up to give away free to families who need them in Saint John's five priority neighbourhoods.

The co-op, the tag-line of which is "Everyone needs a bike," provides both transportation for residents who can't afford a car and an incentive to become more physically active.

"We probably have 100 bikes that are ready to go, and most of the work has been done by Mohammed," said Crescent Valley Resource Centre executive director Anne Driscoll.

"He's a wonderful guy — very upbeat, friendly and willing to learn."

Putting skills to use

Younes was introduced to Bill Consolvo, the owner of Consolvo Bikes, through YMCA Newcomer Connections.

"He said he needed someone with experience for bikes," Younes said. "I said, 'I have experience before, I can help you.'"

After a few months of mentoring from Consolvo at his Saint John bike shop, Younes was hired at Saint John Bike Share full time. He works five days a week and attends English classes at Y Newcomer Connections at night.

In addition to being a whiz with the wrench and the WD-40, he's also a skilled chef, preparing and serving up Middle Eastern dishes for his co-workers at the resource centre.

"He has a lot of knowledge under his belt, and he really wants to get out there in Canadian society and keep being part of the workforce," Driscoll said.

More than 50 Syrian families have arrived in Crescent Valley alone since the winter of 2015 — a big shake-up for many community groups suddenly required to assist in resettlement efforts and mobilise Arabic-speaking staff and community resources.

"We were excited and wanted to help, but there was some trepidation about how it would change things in Crescent Valley," Driscoll said. "It's been amazing."

Connecting people with jobs, she said, means the centre is better able to serve the community. 

"When we're working with the Syrian children, Mohammed is great at helping us communicate with them and their families," Driscoll said.

But Younes wants to be clear: "I fix for anyone, Canadian too. Not just Syrian."

Kids 'are so happy'

In early April, a grant from Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour was approved, ensuring he'll be able to continue the job for a few more months.

"We're very fortunate that we were able to hire him," said Driscoll.

On Wednesday, a dozen of the bikes were distributed to kids in Crescent Valley —  one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

"I like to fix for children," he said. "When you get the children they are so happy."

The Crescent Valley kids riding around on new bikes aren't the only ones benefiting from inclusive community programs such as the Saint John Bike Share.

"We're so used to our ways of doing things, and the community has been exposed to new languages, food, clothing and customs," Driscoll said.

"It's been a great learning experience for us — and the new folks are keen to work and keen to get training and get to work."