Refugee Cyclist

I first met Amir, briefly in Afghanistan in October 2012.  He was in a sea of faces of young Afghan men in cycling gear that I was meeting up with at a petrol station on the north side of Kabul to go for a training ride on the Afghan highways.

Several months later we met briefly again once I started working to support the Afghan National Women’s team, but it wasn’t until I brought the girls to Bamiyan for a training camp that we rode together.

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We struggled with the same battles with the dysfunction, mismanagement, and corruption of the cycling federation and Coach Seddiqe, but neither could find a good solution.  Still we tried.

Subsequent trips to Bamiyan he helped me recover stolen bikes and teach the girls some basic mechanic skills to keep the Liv mountain bikes in good condition against the harsh Afghan elements and lack of professional mechanics.

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Last October, I got a message from Amir.  He was in Turkey, he had walked across Iran and Turkey and was getting ready to board a boat with dozens more refugees in two days to get to Lesbos.  He had been robbed, lost his phone, and was exhausted and scared.  I flew to Lesbos, met him, and thanks to a quick Go Fund Me campaign and several friends that stepped up, was able to get him a little money and a new phone.  I got him a hotel and made him stay put for several days, resting, eating, and making sure that his next steps were done with clarity, not out of exhaustion and fear.  He wanted to go to Sweden, that was always his goal.  One month later, he was safely there – with a whole lot of unknowns still ahead.  The life of a refugee is fraught with uncertainty, even once you reach a safe place to sleep.  Yet he always had a smile, even when boarding the ferry to Athens, exhausted from an already long journey.

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We message each other often, he races with a local cycling team and is learning Swedish. He sends photos from training ride and races. He is happy although he misses family and his country.  He is learning to adapt to nordic winters.

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Today he sent me a link from Sweden of his interview on Swedish tv.  You can watch it in full, he speaks English for the interview.  Thanks to the sport of cycling, Amir has found a home in Stockholm and a community of support with the local cycling team.  He is racing, he has even taken the podium at a recent stage race.  Amir is an Afghan story, he is a refugee story, and he is a cycling story.  Bravo, Amir, and Bravo Stockholm Cycling Club.

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August 26th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports – NYT

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                                                         Photo in New York Times by Adam Ferguson

Today the story of the ongoing corruption and mismanagement and possible abuse in Afghan women’s sports federations finally was published by Rod Nordland of the New York Times, titled Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports.  I spoke with Rod several weeks ago when he contacted me about my withdrawl of support for the Afghan Cycling Federation.  I shared with him my experiences and frustrations and discovered he had found proof of some my accusations against Coach Seddiqi and against the cycling federation that had fallen on deaf ears when I voiced my concerns.  I had confronted Coach Seddiqi last July in Kabul about the corruption and mismanagement, and as I have written about in previous blogposts, not only did he deny any mismanagement to my face, he made it worse with the South Asian Championships debacle in India that he didn’t take the girls to, denying them the chance to race and represent their country.  The Afghan Cycling Federation’s Secretary General, Fazli Ahmad Fazli, denied any mismanagement and was insulted that I would even mention the word corruption.  He made it clear that our help wasn’t needed, and I made it clear that Mountain2Mountain would remove all formal support from the cycling federation immediately.

While the NYT article saddens many people that have reached out, it makes me happy to see the systemic abuse of power be exposed so that those in power cannot hide behind each other anymore.  Change doesn’t happen in silence, voices, many voices, must be willing to speak up to challenge corruption.  Even as I write this, I hear news that there may be a new Afghan Olympic Committee President, this despite the continued disputes since the election last year.  Its just another sign of the lack of leadership, stability, and the corruption that has plagued the sporting institutions in Afghanistan from the very top of the food chain, all the way down.  This affects not just the women, but the men’s teams as well….corruption is genderless in Afghanistan.

But as in all things in Afghanistan, its usually worse for the women.  When women are forced to remain in structures were the men are in the positions of power, even something as empowering as cycling, or soccer, or cricket, it becomes another source of oppression and entrapment.  The women in Afghanistan may be breaking barriers, but the biggest barrier to women’s sports in that country is ironically the same institutions that are in place to allow women to compete.

Coach Seddiqi was finally removed in an election last month as the President of the Cycling Federation. He was replaced by a man I met in Bamiyan in 2014 who was the head of the local Provincial Olympic Committee.  I don’t know what kind of man he is yet. Coach Seddiqi has also been fired by the men’s team, but he remains as coach of the women’s team because they are afraid.  Afraid that if they stand up to him, they will lose their only chance to ride, their only chance to compete.  He holds all the control.  And they know it.

The tentative plan is to bring the girls to the US this fall for a training workshop with the hope of creating an all-Afghan cycling team here in Colorado that could support and train these women to become the next generation of leadership for the team in Afghanistan.  This allows us to bypass the majority of the corruption and empower women to be in charge of developing the women’s cycling program.  This has been being planned for many months with an incredible team of cycling professionals who believe in these girls and in their ability to create a two wheeled revolution that puts women in the leadership positions and provide real coaching and training for those that want the opportunity to race.

Beyond that I plan to meet with the Afghan Olympic Committee leadership and the new leadership of the Afghan Cycling Federation, alongside the men’s and women’s team to discuss the future of this sport in Afghanistan.  These talks will determine how I, and Mountain2Mountain, plan to move forward.  Stay tuned, more to come.

 

Reflections Forward

photo by Deni Bechard

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7 years ago I first mountain biked in Afghanistan.  It was on a dry riverbed in the Panjshir Valley, and it was a first attempt in a series of rides to challenge and explore the gender barrier that prevents Afghan girls from riding bikes.  It was four years, and multiple trips in multiple provinces, before I met an Afghan girl that rode.  That meeting changed my work dramatically, in Afghanistan and back home, and as I get ready for another major shift in this work I found myself looking back at photo archives and reflecting on the past 8 years of work and adventure in Afghanistan.

The irony was that my memoir, Mountain to Mountain, was in its final stages of editing with my publisher in New York City when I met these girls.  So it ends, right where everything came full circle.  I’d spent several years working on various women’s rights and ’empowerment’ projects in Afghanistan, and the theme I had evolved my overall focus around was ‘voice’.  I spoke specifically about the power of voice and how it validates, informs, and empowers and why it matters when we look at the effectiveness of international aid in my first TED talk in 2012. Since then I have focused on projects that amplify the voice of those at the forefront of changing perceptions of women’s rights and their role in society.  Graffiti artists, photographers, activists, and athletes in particular.

Each trip, twenty in total so far, I took time to ride and explore a different part of the country on my bike. Always on a singlespeed mountain bike, always exploring the ‘whys’ that make Afghanistan such a conundrum for everyone that lives and works there.  Specifically, ‘Why can’t girls ride bikes?”

Fast forward a few short years, and today there are Afghan girls riding bikes in various parts of the country for the first time in their country’s history, and while the numbers are still incredibly small, the effect is rippling out in unique and overlapping ways.  I’ve spoken often about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling team and my work with them for the past 3 years. Fatima Hadairi started a bike club in Kabul as a Girl Up project, it only lasted one summer, but one girl, Naheed, went on to join the the national team, and another, Halima co-founded Afghanistan’s newest bike club the BorderFree Cycling Club.  Zahra Hosseini started teaching girls to ride in Bamiyan, and organized three races and public events to spotlight the right of girls to ride, involving the community at all levels to gain traction for social acceptance of girls riding.  Last year she formally registered a cycling team with the sports federation to give her a more legitimate platform to continue to develop from.  There are young women like Kabul-based musician, Ramika, who cycles often and encourages younger girls in her neighborhood to join her.

The girls aren’t operating in a bubble, they are inspiring people around the world through the extensive press and media attention that gives them voice beyond their community. The Afghan Women’s National Team were chosen as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize which only amplify their voices and their story of a two wheeled revolution further.

As I look ahead to my next trip and a major change with my work and Mountain2Mountain, I am overwhelmed and proud of the the progress these girls have made.  At the same time, I am also saddened by the increased violence in Afghanistan that threatens the progress that has occurred throughout the country for women and girls in all sectors of life.

On a project level,  I’m deeply frustrated and disgusted by the continued corruption that has played a large role as a roadblock for the national cycling team in particular.  I wrote about it in detail on the Mountain2Mountain Field Notes blog.  As I continue to work in support of these girls and others like them, its amazes me that the same men and institutions that are put in place to support and encourage these girls are also the very same ones that lie and cheat these girls out of the opportunities ahead of them.  While I slammed the door shut on the corrupt cycling federation, another door opened with a solution.  I am working hard to make it a reality so that I can continue to support these girls so they can in turn have a bigger say in shaping their own destiny, on or off a bike.

Stay tuned and pedal onwards….. You’re going to love what’s a little bit further down the road.

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photo by Jenny Nichols

The Girls of Afghan Cycles

8 years.  20 trips.

Deaf school, computer labs, women’s prisons, street art, and remote school supply drops in the mountains. Meetings with activists, educators, politicians, prisoners, jailers, soldiers, artists, musicians, and athletes.   A variety of projects and conversations that challenged me, inspired me, and allowed me to understand Afghanistan from a variety of perspectives.

But it’s the young Afghan women that dare to ride that keep me coming back now.  Its the young women that believe that change doesn’t happen by staying home and waiting  Change comes by action, and voices need to be heard.

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For three years I’ve been working to support the first generation of women that dare to ride their bikes, I’ve been lucky to train with them, ride with them, sweat with them, fight for them, and try to fund them.

For almost the same amount of time, I have been working with an incredible group of women that came together to tell their story through the power of film.  Afghan Cycles is a feature length film that has evolved from telling the story of the first ever Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team, to telling the ground breaking story of young women using bikes as vehicles for change. Fighting for their rights one pedal stroke at a time.

In conjunction with the launch of the new trailer for the film, we took a risk and launched a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the final production trip to Afghanistan so that we can deepen this story in all its complexities for a 2016 premier in conjunction with the Summer Olympics in Rio.  While these girls will not be competing, I am working hard to get them there as observers as a first step to a potential bid for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

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But for now – what matters is voice.  Film is a powerful way to amplify voice and change the narrative that has surrounded Afghan women and girls for decades.  Oppression, victimization, poverty, rape, abuse, subjugation.  How about we focus on something else for a change? How about hope?  How about catalysts for change?  How about believing in the power of the young women living their lives everyday in this country inspiring men and women around the world by their actions?  By sharing this story – we can challenge the narrative that women are victims, and show that through their everyday actions, they are heroes in their own narrative.

Change doesn’t happen by playing it safe.  Change happens through action.  We need YOUR action now.  We are taking the risk that the community that has shouted their support for these girls, will do more than ride in solidarity, or share a link, or ‘like’ a post.  We believe that the cycling and human rights community needs to come together, en masse to help tell this story.  We’ve leveraged our credit cards, sent out emails, and wrote endless grants to get this film fully funded.  The time is for all of us to put our money where our mouth is.  Do we believe that hope is stronger than fear?  Do we believe that voice matters?  Do we believe that film can inspire change?

If the answer is YES, please donate today, we have 11 days left, and be part of this two wheeled revolution.  Help tell this story and help show the world the strength of Afghan women is the strength of all of us!  You can spread the word after you donate by tagging @AfghanCycles on Twitter and Instagram and helps pedal a revolution!

photos by Jenny Nichols

Video by Let Media

Edinburgh Festival of Cycling

Shannon will be presenting at the festival of cycling.  Details to come soon.

June 17th, 2015|Categories: |Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

Velo City 2015

Shannon will presenting at Velo City 2015 in Nantes, France.  Details and specific dates coming soon.

June 2nd, 2015|Categories: |Tags: , , , , , |0 Comments

5 Boro Bike Tour – NYC on Two Wheels

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5 boroughs, 40 miles, 32,000 cyclists, 5 bridges, 1 ferry, 2 gears, and zero cars.

When Bike New York’s, Sam Polcer, heard I was going to be in town to speak at the Explorer’s Club, he asked, “Would you be interested in riding in the 5 Boro Bike Tour?”

I am not usually a roadie, I don’t ride bike tours, in fact the most I ride my road bike is in Afghanistan when I’m with the Afghan National Cycling Team.  Back in the US, I ride dirt.  But then Sam said the magic words, “40 miles through NYC, and zero cars”.   Bingo.

I love urban cycling, its like a burst of adrenaline in a daily commute in new cities.  Bike shares like Citi Bike, B Cycle, and Velib, now allow micro adventuring at its best.  Cities that I know like the back of my hand on two feet, like Paris and NYC, are suddenly foreign to me on two wheels.  I have to recalibrate my inner compass to take into consideration a whole new map that includes; bike lanes, one way streets, taxi cabs, and a city full of clueless pedestrians.

The only obstacle I could see to taking part was no bike.  So I visited my friends at RedBeard Bikes, a fabulous spot in Brooklyn that had hosted me for one of my first book signings last fall and thanks to their wonderful Brompton rep, I had myself a bike!  40 miles on a Brompton coming up.

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Thanks to my press pass, I could stop and take photos, and I lined up at the front of 32,000 cyclists stretching 10 city blocks behind us.  Then I looked over at my friend and as if he read my mind he said, “We are about to get run over on these Bromptons”

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But these were people out to enjoy the empty streets on two wheels, people who were not hard core cyclists in the way I knew roadies to be in CO.  Black socks and tennis shoes, velour track suits, crooked helmets, and much much more.  This was about biking on streets usually filled to breaking point with cars, not about setting a strava record in your skin suit.

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Throughout the ride I heard people talking about the final bridge, the Verrazano Bridge, which is the longest bridge in the United States, linking Brooklyn to Staten Island.   “The climb is really hard, pace yourself”, “If you have to walk, just stay to the side and let the bikers pass you” was all around me in the final miles leading up to the bridge.  I looked down at my ridiculously small wheels and two gears, and wondered if it would be actually be a problem. It was soon clear that a long incline on a bridge linking two islands at sea level was not much of a match for a girl who mountain bikes at 9,600 feet.  Soon I was rolling past roadies with a full set of gears, joking, “You just got passed by a Brompton!”

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There was still a ferry ride back to Manhattan to complete the circuit,  but I still had one more bridge to ride before I was done… Brooklyn Bridge into DUMBO where RedBeard Bikes resides to return the Bromptons and hi five their incredible owners, Ilya and Kasia, who always make me feel like I’m home.

 

It was a joy to experience NYC with 32,000 other bikers that were psyched to ride their bikes through the empty streets of one of the greatest cities in the world.  Huge thanks to Bike New York for creating an incredible event year after year, and for allowing me to be part of it!!  Hurrah bikes!

 

 

Nat Geo Live at National Geographic HQ – Washington, DC

Shannon will be presenting as part of the Nat Geo Live ‘s ongoing Adventure Series at National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, DC.  After the presentation, she will be signing copies of her memoir, book sales on site will be provided by Prose and Politics.   Tickets available on National Geographic’s website.

Colorado Bike Expo

Shannon will be presenting on the main stage about her work with the Afghan women’s cycling team, followed by a book signing of her recent memoir, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan.

April 25th, 2015|Categories: |Tags: , , |0 Comments

Skylight Books Mountain to Mountain book signing – LA

Shannon will speaking and signing copies of her memoir, Mountain to Mountain in Los Angeles bookstore, Skylight Books.

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