Bike riding courses offer Finland's immigrants new freedom

Helsinki (AFP) - It's a skill you never forget once learnt, as the saying goes: Now immigrants to Finland can receive free cycling lessons to help them better integrate into life in the bike-loving nation.

On a sunny September morning a group of around eight students have taken time out from their Finnish lessons to come to an empty car park in Helsinki's Suvilahti district, where they are fitted out with helmets and bikes.

"Many people who come to Finland, mostly women, they don't have this bicycle skill and it's a very important part of Finnish society," says Federico Ferrara of the Finnish Cyclists' Federation, which runs the project.

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Ferrara insists that learning to ride helps to empower the new arrivals, especially women, many of whom come from North Africa or the Middle East.

"Many of our clients have some kind of taboo with these biking skills, maybe they've fallen down when they were kids and they have this trauma in their head for 20 years, or maybe it's not socially or culturally accepted for them to bike," Ferrara tells AFP.

The instructors help some of the students climb onto their bikes, and, as today's group has already had some practice in the saddle, they set off around a course of cones.

Despite some initial wobbles, instructor Sami Viitanen soon decides the group is ready for the next stage, and leads them out for a spin on the roads to get used to riding in traffic.

Biking is popular in the Nordic nation, where more than half of people in the capital travel by bike at least once a week, according to authorities. A further 10 percent cycle all year round despite the long, snowy winters.

But outside the city, learning to ride can be key to living independently.

"If they are in a refugee centre, many times they are in the middle of nowhere and the bike can be the only way of commuting," Ferrara says.

In the past year-and-a-half, Ferrara and his colleagues have taught 320 beginners to ride. The project is funded by Finland's state lottery and gambling monopoly.

Ferrara says that after three hours, 90 percent of clients are able to navigate a car park.

"Riding is great, now I can do it," gushes Orhan, who came to Finland from Turkey seven years ago.

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