Help from afar: Bike ride aims to help Afghan students at UWM

A young woman from Nepal is reaching out from Minnesota to organize a bike ride to support a group of Afghan women at UWM.

Anita Tamang, who just graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and now works as a community health coordinator and researcher in Duluth, heard about the students who had fled from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in August 2021.

Tamang was aware of what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, and also heard WUWM reporter Emily Files’ story about the group of young Afghan women at UWM. National Public Radio’s program “The World” shared the story nationally.

Tamang decided to help. She hopes to raise $10,000 through a May 6 bike ride from Rochester, Minnesota to Decorah, Iowa.

Escape from Afghanistan

The young women who came to UWM were among 148 students from the Asian University for Women who escaped from Afghanistan amid gunfire and bombings at the Kabul airport.

Ten of the young women ended up at UWM with the help of the university’s English Language Academy and the support of Eastbrook Church. Three of the students transferred to Arizona State University in spring of 2023 to be closer to family, but seven students plan to complete their education here.

Tamang is no stranger to adversity herself, losing her mother when she was 10 and her beloved grandmother a year later. With no support from her father, she ran away from home at 14 and continued her education in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu.

“Through the support of good people and teachers, I was able to secure scholarships from Samaanta Foundation in Nepal and Mahindra United World College in India. That led me to Luther College in the United States.”

‘I wanted to help’

This is the second year Tamang and her friends and supporters have organized a benefit ride.

Last year’s May ride grew out of Tamang’s admiration for Maryna Bazylevych Nading, one of her college professors and her academic advisor. Nading is from Ukraine, and her mother works in an oncology clinic in Khelmnytskyi, Ukraine.

“I wanted to help, but I felt helpless so I started thinking of what I could do,” Tamang said.

While Tamang only learned to ride a bike during her freshman year in 2018, the group support during the ride and great conversation motivated her to complete 95 miles last year, she said. That ride raised over $7,500.

“My team and I believe bicyclists are powerful forces that can transform individuals and communities to make the world a more peaceful place,” said Tamang. That belief led to the creation of Rides to Rights, a community-led advocacy group.

Aiming for $10,000

As Tamang and her team reflected on the ride and its impact on raising awareness and bringing the community together, they decided to do it again this year to benefit UWM’s Afghan women refugees. The fundraising goal for this year’s bike ride is $10,000.

The group has set up a Go Fund Me page and a Rides to Rights website to connect with those who want to help out.

Current and future financial aid, money raised through the Afghan Student Partnership of Milwaukee (ASPOM), university discounts and private scholarships have provided for the seven UWM students’ tuition and some of their living expenses for the next four years, according to Mari Chevako, senior lecturer in the English Language Academy.

Along with Brooke Haley, director of the academy, she helped lead UWM’s part of the effort. Chevako, who has been working with the Iowa group, plans to participate in the ride, “as a helper, not a bike rider.”

One Afghan student representing the UWM cohort connected with the Iowa organization, thanking the group for their support and checking over their materials. Because the ride is the Saturday before the last week of the spring semester, the UWM students said they probably won’t be able to take part.

Paying it forward

Tamang hopes to develop the Rides to Rights into a nonprofit organization in future, she said.

Her motivation is simple.  As a woman who came from another country where education for women was discouraged, she felt empathy for the Afghan students. She also wanted to pay it forward on behalf of the many people who helped her on her own journey.

“I’m really passionate about giving and supporting ground level work.  One of my major goals of living on this earth is I want to do something good,” she said.

For Chevako, this effort is another reminder of the generosity of many who have been helping UWM’s Afghan students.

“It’s been another unexpected, beautiful thing to come out of welcoming the Afghan students to our campus.”

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