Thu, Dec 20, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Cycles for cigarettes

The bicycles are given to children in the Turkish border city of Kilis if they also maintain strong grades and promise to ride for an hour a day

By Paul Benjamin Osterlund  /  The Guardian, KILIS, Turkey

People ride their bicycles this month through the fallen autumn leaves at a park in Tokyo. The mayor of a war-torn city in Turkey has already given out 4,000 free bicycles to children whose relative has quit smoking.

Photo: AFP

Standing on the street in the center of Kilis, a small Turkish city on the border with Syria, a constant stream of noisy motorcycles, scooters and cars zoom past. It’s certainly not the most bicycle-friendly city, but local leaders are determined to change that with a new network of cycle lanes, and by giving away thousands of bikes to local children.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war seven years ago, millions of Syrians have sought shelter in Turkey. While there are refugee camps lining the border, most refugees opt to live in cities such as Kilis.

The population of Syrian refugees now exceeds the number of locals here and Arabic is heard as much, if not more, than Turkish. Many shops and restaurants are emblazoned with Arabic signs. As well as doubling the city’s population to 260,000 almost overnight, the war across the border cast a dark cloud of fear in 2016 when Isis bombarded Kilis with rocket attacks from the Syrian side. Some 21 people died and many more were injured. This year, long after Isis was driven out of the Syrian territory over the border, Kilis was again hit by rocket fire — this time from the Kurdish militant group YPG, who were targeting the Turkish army.

Today, a sense of normalcy has returned to the city — the center of which is a tight labyrinth of alleys packed with beige stone buildings and mosques from the 16th and 17th centuries; some smartly restored while others lie in ruin.

The city is famed for Kilis tava, a spicy oven-baked kebab served with tomatoes, peppers and hand-shaped flatbread. While most shops shut by the evening, scores of small kiosks stay open long into the night serving desserts such as cennet camuru (literally, heaven mud) — a bed of shredded wheat and crushed pistachios topped with rich clotted cream.

The mayor, Hasan Kara, wants Kilis to be viewed not as a place torn by conflict, but one that has graciously opened its doors to refugees. As part of that, Kara has embarked on a series of civic and infrastructure projects aimed at creating a livable environment. Perhaps the most unusual is a scheme to give thousands of free bicycles to the city’s children.

“So far, we have distributed more than 4,000 bicycles, and our target is to give out at least 15,000,” Kara says as we talk in his office in a restored historical building near the center.

On the streets nearby, motorcycles and scooters zoom past in every direction; some carry entire families of three and four, and it is rare to see a helmet.

“We placed importance on the bicycle project because as you can see, the usage of motorcycles is very common,” he says. “Now, we’re seeing children coming to and from school on their bicycles.”

To get a bike, children must meet three requirements: they must get a smoker relative to quit, maintain strong grades while improving a weak area of study and promise to ride for an hour a day.

“I’m very happy that I got it,” says nine-year-old Hilmi Calban, one of the many recent recipients, of his shiny new two-wheeler, a black Corvette Python mountain bike with red trim. In addition to the bikes for kids scheme, Kilis has built a four-mile protected cycle lane lined with flowers along one street further out of the center, near rows of modern apartment buildings. The mayor aims to build a 20-mile (32km) network of bike lanes throughout the city, including one along its main shopping street, Cumhuriyet Avenue, in an attempt to break the dominance of cars and motorcycles.

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