Bikes for refugees: Sanctuary Wheels

Bikes for refugees: Sanctuary Wheels

By Kathryn McNicoll

Sanctuary Wheels logo showing stylised bicycle

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Cyclox started refurbishing donated bikes to hand out to key workers. This was only possible with the help of up to 20 furloughed mechanics around the city who were happy to give their time, and the generosity of the donating public. The demand was enormous. We handed out about 380 bikes and only stopped because bike donations dried up and the mechanics had to go back to work.

This year we were asked by Asylum Welcome if we could do something similar for refugees. The answer was of course: yes! Just as long as people still had bikes to donate. The Sanctuary Wheels project was launched.

Our first group of refugees was a small number of unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, but it quickly became clear that, as Oxford is a city of sanctuary, there would be a lot of Ukrainian refugees coming here and many of them would appreciate bikes too.

Giving people independence

Ukrainian families are given a small amount of money when they arrive in the UK, but this doesn’t go far in terms of travel when you think of the cost of bus fares in the city.

Donated bikes offer a free mode of transport and they also provide a bit of freedom and independence.

Imagine having to flee your home, once a house in a normal Ukrainian town, now a pile of bricks and dust, and travel tortuously to a strange country. You have probably had to leave your husband/son/father behind to fight in a war that you didn’t ask for and you are worried sick about them. Your host family is very kind, but the food is different and you don’t speak their language. A couple of months ago you were living a full, independent life and now you are totally dependent on the kindness and generosity of strangers. As grateful as you might be, some independence would be welcome: and this independence is what we hope the bikes will give.

How it works

Woman cyclist wearing headscarf and waving having been given Sanctuary Wheels bike

As with our Bikes for Key Workers project in 2020, we are once again supported by Active Oxfordshire, as well as Asylum Welcome and Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. All donated bikes are refurbished before being handed out, some by TRAX. Trax is an Oxford-based charity supporting young people in learning practical skills, in this case cycle maintenance – a win–win arrangement. The Windrush Bike Project in Witney, and Farcycles in Faringdon, are also contributing bikes and mechanics to the cause, in addition to handing out bikes in those areas.

This scheme is different from the key workers’ project in that we also have a lot of younger people wanting bikes, from very young children to teenagers, so we need a wide range of bikes to cover all ages. (We have recently given a little Hoy bike to a two-year-old.)

Support for beginners

Cycling doesn’t seem to be as popular in Ukraine as it is here, so – understandably – there are some pretty wobbly recipients. However, help to develop cycling skills and build confidence is on hand. Support ranges from host families offering gentle encouragement and timely reminders to cycle on the left, to Wheels For All Oxford offering a car-free space for practise during their sessions at Horspath athletics track, to Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service organising Bikeability lessons.

It’s a real community effort: everybody is pitching in.

By the start of Refugee Week 2022 (20 June) more than 80 refugees had already been given bikes. The look of happiness on some of their faces when they try out their bikes – children and adults – says it all.  

Read more about Sanctuary Wheels.

If you have a bike to donate, or are a host family, you can email Kathryn:


2 Responses

  1. […] Cyclox played a key role in the project’s first year. Trustee Kathryn McNicoll worked alongside trained mechanics to give out hundreds of bikes to people living as refugees across the county. […]

  2. Lucky Singh says:

    Hi there,

    I would like to ask whether you guys provide asylum seekers with bicycles. Need one to keep me fit, as I am feeling unwell, because of my overweight.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.


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