Hurricane Harold helps out

When Trinidadian-Canadian Harold Hosein visited Cuba in 2002, he noticed how many people were riding 50-year-old bicycles...

Harold Hosein. Photograph by Krystyna Henke

It’s a grey day in late October, threatening rain. Harold Hosein is standing inside a 40-foot container, in a scruffy warehouse yard on the edge of downtown Toronto. The landscape is featureless, squeezed between highways and the lake; the elegant glass towers of the city hover in the distance like a desert mirage.

There’s no elegance in this scrappy yard, where Hosein and a group of volunteers are painstakingly loading the container with old bicycles. But the recipients won’t mind; nor will they care that most of these bikes look as if they’ve been through a war. For them, the contents of this container could change their lives.

That might seem a melodramatic statement, but it is the simple truth. The bicycles — rusty, scratched, and twisted — are headed for Cuba, where they will go to students, teachers, orphans, and community workers in rural areas where public transit is, to say the least, problematic. Mobility is the most basic ingredient for progress; and in a very humble way, this shipment will help.

Harold Hosein is the man behind this heroic effort. Trinidadian by birth, Hosein, 65, grew up in Reform Village; he’s lived in Toronto for almost 40 years. He’s a familiar face (and name) to many city-dwellers, being the resident meteorologist for both City TV and Radio 680 News. Hosein is married, with two grown daughters; and in the mid-1990s he and a group of pals amused themselves by singing calypso at local Caribbean venues. His sobriquet was Hurricane Harold, and in retrospect, it’s pretty appropriate: it must have taken near-hurricane-force energy to have moved more than 1,500 bicycles to Cuba over the past two years. As one of his friends puts it, “Harold is a very charismatic guy. If he wants to make something happen, it does.”

It all started with Hosein’s first vacation in Holguín, south-east Cuba, in 2002. “I saw a need for transportation of the cheapest variety,” he recalls. “I saw 50-year-old bikes, still being ridden, and a severe lack of public transportation.” These were not earth-shattering observations, but unlike most other tourists, Hosein’s mind jumped to a solution. “It struck me that we [in Toronto] throw away bikes by the thousands and they end up in landfill sites. This seemed like a way to divert them from the sites here, and put them to good use down there.”

By April 2003, Hosein had launched Recycle Your Bicycle, a non-profit volunteer organisation, to collect and ship unwanted bikes and bike parts to Cuba. Canvassing his employers for support, Hosein persuaded City TV to allow them the use of its parking lot for a “bike drive” on Earth Day. It was billed by the television station as a local environmental project, with the focus on improving conditions in the City of Toronto; the Cuban aspect was secondary.

But, whatever the pitch, the results were phenomenal. “We got 400 bicycles,” says Hosein. Not only that; the publicity for this event raised interest in other communities, which also collected used bicycles for the cause and sent them to Toronto. Storage, meanwhile, was another major issue, but again the stars were favourably aligned: he was referred to Ron Smith, the executive director of a government-funded programme called Innovations Toronto. Smith offered Hosein free storage space at their warehouse — a godsend, as the bicycles continued to pour in, from private donors as well as from the city itself, which had raised an overflow during its own bike drive.

“So,” Hosein recounts wryly, “we had bicycles, we had transportation [to the warehouse], we had storage; all we needed was money.” Money, that is, to ship the containers to Cuba, and cargo space does not come cheap. But that did not deter Hurricane Harold. He started fundraising: hitting on his friends, soliciting donations. He needed about Cdn$7,000 for two containers; he raised about $3,000 and put the rest on his personal line of credit.

“He’s ready to put his own money behind his mouth,” comments Ron Smith. “That is what makes it work.” So far, Hosein estimates that he has sunk about Cdn$8,000 of his own funds into his Cuba project. “While I am working, I can do it,” he explains, “but when I retire, we would have to find ways of raising money.”

Hosein shipped three containers — a total of 900 bikes — in 2004, and three more in 2005. Along the way, he learned a valuable fact: that there is a lot of air space between packed bikes, which can be stuffed with all manner of other objects. Accordingly, the manifest list for his last container included everything from (used) computer and medical equipment (leg braces, crutches, bedpans, even two electro-cardiograph machines), to clothes, books, housewares, and toilet seats. Recycle Your Bicycle has morphed into Recycle Your Everything.

“I find that Cubans are very appreciative of whatever you give them,” Hosein says. “New or old, small or plenty. A good mountain bike in Cuba costs US$100 — but a Cuban works for $7 a month. So it’s unaffordable.”

Laureano Cardoso, the Cuban consul general in Toronto, speaks for his countrymen when he says, “We are very thankful for the work that is being done by Harold, and the people who support him. We have a lot of difficulties with transportation, due to the disappearance of our links to the Eastern Bloc. Cuba is 1,200 kilometres from one end to the other, so transportation plays a very important role.” Hosein’s project, he explains, is in sync with the Cuban government’s own efforts to introduce bicycles into the rural areas. “A bicycle saves money, is good for the health, and releases public transit seats for those who really need it.” On that drizzly October day, Cardoso is in the warehouse yard, diligently wheeling bikes out to the container.

So are a dozen or so other people, middle-aged Torontonians mainly, who have adopted the cause. Some, like Hosein himself, have been to Cuba many times, and have developed a genuine empathy for the people. “They are a very loveable people,” declares Veronika Valant-Bric, who actually hails from Slovenia. Others, like a woman called Christina, got involved because “I don’t agree with the [US] blockade of Cuba; it’s the people who are suffering. I think this is a worthwhile cause.”

Volunteers do everything from transporting donations to the warehouse to organising and packaging them, keeping an strict inventory of everything that comes in and out, and, of course, stuffing the container. Several bicycle mechanics have joined the team, and they try to make most of the bikes rideable before sending them off — often bringing or buying the necessary parts themselves. “I think,” muses Hosein, “ people realise when you’re doing something good, and if it clicks with them they say, ‘I want to help.’ We struck a chord.” Or, in Smith’s words: “Anything to make people’s lives a little easier is a very worthwhile cause.”

Given the nature of Cuba’s political system, Hosein’s shipments cannot be sent directly to individuals; they must go through an official conduit, in this case, an organisation known as ICAP (the Cuban Institute of Friendship among Peoples). With branch offices in each provincial capital, ICAP — says Cardoso — “takes care of fair distribution, and makes sure that all donations reach their destination — after all, people are people.”

People are people indeed — and the ones at the receiving end of Hurricane Harold’s largesse no doubt consider themselves very lucky. “We’ve seen some of the kids in Holguín who’ve received bikes and scooters,” says Hosein. “All of the neighbourhood kids line up so they can get a ride.”