Riding for refugees

A Leytonstone couple have gone the extra mile for charity

James Burgess and Sarah Lloyd

James Burgess and Sarah Lloyd pause for a selfie while riding through the Alps in Austria

Myself and my partner Sarah are passionate about cycling, and had talked and talked about leaving our jobs to go on a bike travel adventure.

We’re pretty active; I ride with Cycling Club Hackney, and Sarah rows with Lea Rowing Club. But neither of us has ever been on a trip like this.

After a week volunteering in the Calais refugee camp in October last year, we decided to travel to Greece to volunteer at another camp with the charity Help Refugees, and we thought: “Why not combine the two?” So we decided to cycle there!

We planned our packing, buying lightweight camping equipment that would fit in the bags on our two steel frame touring bikes. We bought tough tyres to tackle the gravel trails we came across, as well as the thousands of kilometres of tarmac. And we practised putting up the tent in our living room, packing the one change of clothes we had, and cooked eggs on the gas stove in our garden before we set off.

The six-week route was stunning, and not a little daunting. It was a little surreal leaving London through the Olympic Park and along the Regents Canal, crossing Tower Bridge and passing the Herne Hill Velodrome with everything we would need for six months packed on our bikes. After the hilly route through Kent, we warmed up on the relatively flat land of northern France, before the serious climbing started in the Vosges Mountains of France and the Black Forest of southern Germany.

The warm early spring in London turned to rain and sub-zero nights as we crossed France. Then it snowed as we reached Switzerland, delaying our journey through the mountains by several days until we got sunny weather. The skies cleared after the flat lands of northern Italy, and we rode down the magnificent Croatian coast in glorious sunshine, before turning inland in Montenegro to cross the mountains of Albania, Macedonia, and finally Greece.

The weather threatened to put an early end to our 3,000km route, just 200km short of our destination, when we found ourselves halfway down a mountain descent in Macedonia in the pouring rain, with temperatures dropping again, our bodies shaking from the rough road and the cold. But we were only two days away from Thessaloniki, and a cheap motel saved the day, letting us dry out our kit just enough to push on the next day. We arrived exhausted but satisfied, in a thunderstorm.

After a few days off, we got stuck into the volunteer work, Sarah teaching English in a refugee camp, and me working on a construction project. We met actors, musicians, engineers, accountants, doctors, and businessmen, who had fled conflict or persecution in their homes in Syria, Iraq and other countries.

The work has been rewarding and frustrating in similar measures. It’s a real privilege to meet people from such diverse places, both volunteers and refugees, and it’s amazing seeing the positive impact motivated people working here can have. But it’s also heartbreaking to see the bureaucracy and politics that stand in the way of long-term solutions, while people remain stuck in the limbo of the camps, waiting for months and years at a time to restart their lives.

There is a major concern that gaps in services will open up when EU funding is withdrawn this summer. Many large non-governmental organisations [NGOs] are already pulling out, and it seems likely that small NGOs will be left to fill in the gaps before the Greek government takes over service provision.

Greece is struggling under the strain of the economic crisis and now finds itself on the front line of the European refugee crisis, with the British government reluctant to help, opting out of the EU refugee relocation project.

We’ll be in Greece until the end of August, when we’ll make our way back to the UK by bike, of course!

To read more about James and Sarah’s travels and volunteering:

Visit spokenwordeurope.wordpress.com

Find out more about the work of Help Refugees:

Visit helprefugees.org.uk