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A Story of Grit and Determination – an interview with Morsal Azizi

Morsal Azizi learned to ride a bike with BikeMN earlier this summer and has continued volunteering with BikeMN to support others learning to ride bikes throughout July. Morsal talked with BikeMN staff member, Maya Sheikh, at a recent Adult Learn to Ride course to talk about what learning to ride a bike is all about. We found this discussion to be really motivating and powerful, as we explored themes like community, confidence, and motivation.

Hi Morsal, could you tell me a little bit about your experience riding a bike?

Recently my experience has been amazing. I enjoy riding my bike daily, and I use it for commuting to work and back home. My work is in Minneapolis, and I live in St. Louis Park, so it takes me about 45 minutes to bike there. I enjoy the ride, it’s a good experience and a good exercise for me to be healthy. I enjoy every moment of riding my bike. 

Earlier today you told me that you felt confident when you learned to ride a bike, could you tell me more about that feeling and what learning to ride a bike was like? 

I think the reason for this feeling of comfortability and confidence and motivation for me is that back home in Afghanistan women were not allowed to ride bikes. I don’t know the reason why they wouldn’t let girls or women ride bikes, but we were not allowed. So we were all thinking that the bike is only for the male gender. But, when I came here I saw that there is no boundary, I see that men and women can use their bikes and just enjoy the freedom of biking. When I ride my bike, I feel free as a human being, I am proud of being a woman and I feel that biking gives me more confidence and motivation, I love it.  

Could you tell me, what were you thinking when you first showed up at the Adult Learn to Ride class with BikeMN and ACR?

Well, I didn’t know such a class was available here! I had an old bike that was donated to me, I love it, and I was trying to learn by myself. I was just trying to go with my bike around parks to be more safe. But then I came to know there is such a program, so I became interested and told myself I will attend this program every day. When I first arrived at the class, I remember thinking ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many women that are trying to learn to bike!’ That gave me more confidence, and after the first and second classes, I was able to ride my bike in the street during the group ride. I learned how to be safe in these classes and how to ride safely in the street with the traffic rules. I have more confidence now to ride my bike during my commute to work, and this really helps me because I don’t have a car or other vehicle. The bike is my friend. 

Thank you for sharing. It’s so inspiring to hear how you learned and what it has meant for you. What advice would you have for anyone who is nervous about riding a bike or, you know, is thinking about taking a class, but maybe hasn’t taken a class yet?

My advice for them is either take a little bit of risk or lose the chance. In the beginning, it might be a little scary because they worry they will fall down, but they should have confidence. In time, they will learn to ride a bike, and they will be more confident. Riding a bike is very joyful, and it’s good for your health! Just don’t give up on yourself and try to learn, or you’ll miss your chance. 

That’s beautiful, thank you! You told me earlier you’ve been riding to work how do you feel? 

Yeah, it’s been two months and each day I feel more confident riding my bike. It’s been only one month since I’ve been using my bike for commuting, which isn’t a lot of time. I can say that I’m still new, but this exercise and feeling will be forever. Some people may be interested in riding a bike at the beginning, and maybe they get bored or something, but I will never give up on this. 

It’s such a wonderful feeling, I know exactly what you mean. Could you tell me what you did to work up to commuting to and from work? What was your process like?

Of course. At first, I was scared and didn’t know how to ride in the street, I  was worried that something would happen to me. But this biking program with BikeMN helped me, it gave me more motivation and self-confidence that ‘yes, I can ride in the street as well!’ The group riding really helped me gain confidence, and I learned how to use the bike lane and make my own bike route to get to and from work. I love the Greenway, it feels much safer. 

So, it started there with learning how to bike safely. Then, one day I decided that I will take my route to work part of the way and take the bus the rest of the way. The next day I said I’ll go two-thirds of the way to work, and then the third day I told myself I will bike the whole way. I timed myself on my first day riding the whole way and tried to go faster the next day. It’s such a good feeling, my colleagues were so happy to see me commuting from St. Louis Park to Minneapolis. They’re so proud of me now, and every day they are still excited and still proud of me, even after a month!

They should be proud of you! I’m proud of you!

Yeah [laughs]. They are still proud after a month! 

Your bike is pretty cool looking, is there anything you are excited about adding to it? Have you explored bike shops for other things? 

My bike was not new, as I mentioned it was donated, I still love it. My bike had no kickstand when I got it, but today Helena (BikeMN’s Adult Learn to Ride program coordinator) helped me install it. I also want to install a water bottle holder. Let me tell you one more thing, I’ve seen pictures of bikes with a basket and people riding with flowers in their baskets, I want to add a basket and put flowers in it to make it more joyful for me. So, I think my bike needs a water bottle holder and a basket to put flowers in it, I know I’ll enjoy it even more then! 

I love that, I put some stickers on my bike too! 

Oh yeah, that’s a good idea. The first time I rode my bike I was trying to record it on my phone, and I was holding my phone with one hand but I couldn’t ride perfectly with one hand. So the video of the first time I tried to ride isn’t perfect, but now I can ride and record with one hand. I love that. I shared it on my Instagram! 

Nice! I have to follow your Instagram! 

[laughs] of course! I will follow you back.

Are you excited to go on any group bike rides? 

Of course, I’m interested in any activity related to biking, with a group or alone. 

Nice, there are tons of groups that have fun rides, and they’re not races or anything. I’ll send you some information and Facebook invites. 

I’d love to learn more about that! I wish Minnesota had this weather all the time, I wish I could use my bike in the winter. I’m sure once winter comes I will be excited for spring and summer to ride my bike. I will definitely keep my bike safe this winter so next summer In’Sha’Allah [God Willing] I can use it again. 

In’Sha’Allah [God Willing]! It’s so fun, I love the feeling of riding in the spring and summer after a long time indoors. 

That reminds me of another feeling I’d like to share. Sometimes when it’s raining and I need to bike to work, I remember thinking “oh my gosh, what do I do? Why didn’t I cover my seat?” Sometimes I worry about my bike condition or getting wet.

Oh, I get that! Sometimes I’ll put a plastic bag over my seat or phone when it’s raining. 

Oh yeah? That’s a good idea! When the rain starts and I’m biking, I think, ‘well, my bike is already wet, I might as well enjoy it!’ Like, let’s take a shower! 

I love that perspective, I wish I was as happy about getting drenched!

[laughs] Yes, I might as well enjoy it. 

You told me a little before, but could you share a little more about your journey here? About your life before coming to Minnesota in your own words?

This is a good question. But, this is a very long and at the same time, a sad story. I will summarize it to bring my emotions down. 

You don’t have to share anything you don’t want to. There’s no pressure.

It’s okay, this story should be told again and again until my emotions aren’t as high. Any time I think about it, it gives me a bad feeling. So, my country falls [Afghanistan] at the hands of the Taliban, I’m not sure what people know about the Taliban here, who they are and what they are thinking. But, when my government fell down to their hands, they were and still are opposed to women’s freedom, and education, women working. I don’t know what their problem with women is! When that happened, I lost my job, I lost my identity, I was not able to go out and I had to strictly wear the hijab. 

That’s when I decided to leave my country. It wasn’t easy to decide this, to leave behind my family, friends, my hometown, everything and decide to come to another country. But I knew that I had to do this.  At the time, I was working on a project related to the US embassy, and they helped us get a visa and all. It took me about five to six months, yeah, five and a half months from when I left my home in Afghanistan and settled in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. 

During these five months, I fell into a depression, I was homesick, missing my family, and moving from one country to another wasn’t easy. We left Afghanistan and stayed for about 40 days in Islamabad, Pakistan. Then, we traveled together to Qatar and spent one month in a refugee camp. We have been to a  lot of refugee camps on our way to Minnesota which had problems. Some of the kids didn’t have their parents, and some of the parents were without their kids. Some adults, like me, were without their families. It was hard. 

But the good thing was that everybody could feel each other’s emotions because everyone came from the same background. So they could talk to each other and share their emotions. After some time in Qatar, we came to New Jersey for two months. There, we were not able to go outside of the camp, we were all in one environment. I was impatiently waiting for the days to come to an end when I could come out of the refugee camp. 

Coming to Minnesota was also interesting because I haven’t even heard of Minnesota at all. On the last day, they told us we were going to Minnesota. I remember thinking, ‘Where is Minnesota?’ Then I started searching on YouTube and Google about Minnesota, and there were good points and bad points about Minnesota. Maybe not bad, [laughs] but it was stressful for me to think about the cold. We came to Minnesota in February and it was very, very cold. For one month, we stayed in a hotel.

It was such a long journey, but then Spring came, and I like Minnesota more now! I have friends now, and they are like family. And, I found a community in biking, they make it more enjoyable. 

What a powerful story. Thank you for sharing. It must have been difficult.

It is difficult, sometimes I miss my mom and dad. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m in the US, and I tell myself to open my eyes and open my mind. I try to live in a better environment and recognize this is a great opportunity for me. Sometimes, I go back to my memories, and even though I left my hometown, I still miss it. 

Of course, I remember when I left my hometown and celebrated Eid away from my family for the first time, it was so different without everyone coming together to celebrate. I remember feeling very homesick. 

Yeah, Eid was just a few days ago! Eid here is not as fun as at home, but people are so kind and they’ve done some programs that give us a feeling of home. But it’s different, definitely. I think coming to the US has given me some cultural shock. Every day I find something new to learn. It’s been about seven months since coming to the US and I’m still learning new things. That’s why I try to engage myself in activities with friends and not feel alone so much.  

Absolutely, seeing friends can help so much! But, before I forget, I gotta say it’s courageous of you to come to a new place and learn to ride a bike within the first six months! It’s so impressive!

It is amazing! I can really say learning to ride a bike has helped me during this journey. It has helped me not feel depressed, when I feel down, I take my bike, play a song, and I go around a park or somewhere that can help me. Even when I’m here, I remind myself I’m alive and I’m excited to move on my bike. I love the feeling of progress on my bike.

I love that feeling. I’m so grateful to you for your time today, Morsal, thank you for sharing your story with me.

Of course, thank you. I hope it helps you and motivates others who are interested in learning about bikes.

Morsal Azizi has continued to volunteer with BikeMN’s Adult Learn to Ride program, assisting at our courses with ACER throughout July and early August this month. Morsal has taken her knowledge and skills to the next level by successfully completing the League of American Bicyclists Smart Cycling course this past weekend. I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to talk with Morsal about her journey and experiences riding a bike, and I hope you resonate as I did with her passion, excitement, grit, and determination in life and on the bike.

Morsal’s Certificate!

BikeMN is proud to help Morsal realize her lifelong dream of riding a bike thanks to our Adult Learn to Ride program. The Adult Learn to Ride program is funded thanks to support from the Met Council. Donations from our members support this program by helping BikeMN achieve our match requirement of 20%. Consider contributing to BikeMN to support this program, which we hope to expand to Greater Minnesota soon!