When freelance journalist Andrew Curry and photographer Tim Kölln first sat down with a group of cyclists who had fled their homes in Syria for Berlin, it quickly became clear that a single interview wouldn’t be enough to tell their story.
Here was a group of young men who had made a living through cycling in their former homeland but who had fled Syria as the ongoing conflict intensified.
As just a small handful of a total of almost one million people from across the globe who had arrived in Germany seeking asylum in 2015, their lives were in constant flux.
“I guess I didn’t realise how complicated it would be for them to get through the bureaucracy,” Curry says.
“You read about how many refugees there are in Germany, but it really helped me to understand the problem when you talk to people about individual problems, like getting theft insurance for your bike when you live in a refugee shelter.
“They would get calls every other month and they had to pack up all their stuff and move somewhere else in Berlin, and this was stuff they were struggling with while they were doing five hours of language classes a day, and trying to ride 800km a week.”
Until 2015 Syria had a national championship and a national cycling team, but as the ongoing war – which escalated following peaceful protests during the Arab Spring of 2011 – spread across the country, their positions not only as cyclists but as citizens in Syria became untenable.
“They had cycling teams, they raced, some of these guys went to college, they had jobs. They all told me, ‘if we had any other choice we never would have left,’” Curry adds.
“And then the flip side of that, this conflict has left people with just no options. It really has made me think a lot about, if I were in that position, wouldn’t I do the same thing?”
Over the course of several months, Curry and Kölln followed the riders as they returned to their bikes, at first in the Berlin velodrome under the guidance of Frank Röglin, president of Luisenstadt 1910, one of Berlin’s oldest cycling clubs, and later over a summer of road racing.
They gained insight into life as an asylum seeker and refugee in Germany; a life of language classes, rushed mealtimes, training rides, the quest for residency and – in the case of Yelmaz Habash – welcoming a daughter into the world.
“They’ve overcome a lot, but just being part of that scene and just knowing these Germans has given them access to social connections, job connections, a lot of stuff that has helped get them ahead,” Curry says.
“It may be a naïve dream, but these [refugees] are normal people who have normal interests, and the challenge is finding Germans who share their interests going forward.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some way that the bird watchers, or whatever, could get together too?”