A bike is a ‘symbol of freedom’: the magic and beauty of a community project

A bike is a ‘symbol of freedom’: the magic and beauty of a community project

Posted: Thu, 18 May 2023 11:00

A bike is a ‘symbol of freedom’: the magic and beauty of a community project

Sanctuary Wheels turns 1!

In May 2022, with the help of Cyclox, Asylum Welcome and a number of other amazing Oxfordshire-based organisations, we launched Sanctuary Wheels to provide bikes to refugees and asylum seekers across the county. With a shared goal of making Oxfordshire a more welcoming home for those who have moved here to escape from conflict, over 600 bikes have been donated, repaired, and given to refugees in Oxfordshire.

How does Sanctuary Wheels work?

Sanctuary Wheels is a fantastic example of the Oxfordshire community coming together to support refugees and asylum seekers. Bikes are donated by members of the public, schools, colleges and business, and are then refurbished by volunteers.

Cyclox played a key role in the running of Sanctuary Wheels during 2022, with Kathryn McNicoll co-ordinating the project alongside volunteer mechanics and giving out hundreds of bikes to refugees across the county. Sanctuary Wheels is now run out of a warehouse in East Oxford; refugees visit Asylum Welcome volunteer Nasser Salehi who runs the workshop fixing up donated bikes. Nasser tries to find a bike which not only is the right size, but also suits their style. The greatest need are those who are further from the city and in more isolated areas of Oxfordshire, where access to shops, health services, work are more difficult.

Why are bikes so important for refugees?

Gilberto Estrada Harris, from Asylum Welcome, reflects on the impact Sanctuary Wheels has on individuals and the importance of having a bike:

"Sanctuary Wheels is making a huge difference transforming people's lives that arrive here, often with nothing, with no money, with no place to live, no accommodation, no phone, no laptop, and of course no means of transport."

A bike is "a symbol of freedom", helping people to move around and navigate the city, giving access to shops, healthcare and emergency services, and a way to explore and spend time with families and communities.

Max, a refugee who fled from Ukraine in May 2022, emphasises the huge difference that having a bike has made since his arrival to the UK. Not only has having a bike helped him to make connections in Oxford, such as visiting friends, attending GP appointments, going to language cafes, but it has given him a sense of control and independence. Having a bike has played a huge part in helping Max settle into the country and feel as part of society.


Souad, who has lived in the UK since 2018, received bikes from Sanctuary Wheels for herself and her children and told us about the positive impact cycling has had for their mental health, and Osman, who arrived in the UK in 2009 from Afghanistan, talked about the level of freedom and happiness which having a bike brings. You can hear directly from them here.

Not only has Sanctuary Wheels given a means to navigate Oxfordshire and create networks with people, but the project has given Fahad, a refugee from Kuwait, an opportunity to volunteer. Fahad originally came to Nasser requesting a bike, to later return for volunteering opportunities. Nasser told us Fahad needed to be doing something, to be kept busy, to work and learn. He now helps Nasser in his workshop each day, fixing up and distributing the bikes, and helping to keep up with the high demand. Fahad is one of hundreds of asylum seekers who are now staying in hotels across Oxfordshire. Life can be very challenging in the hotels, so the opportunity to volunteer with Nasser is hugely important.


"Owned by everybody" – a true community project

Sanctuary Wheels has been made possible because of the incredible collaboration between the organisations and communities which have been involved, and Gilberto tells us that the work put in by volunteers is part of the "beauty and magic" of the project. Sanctuary Wheels is "owned by everybody".

Thank you to the partners that have been involved so far and have made Sanctuary Wheels possible, including Cyclox, other cycling organisations such as Cowley Road Condors and Oxford University cycling student group, Radley College, Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service and Oxfordshire County Council for supporting the project with the Active Travel fund.

Although we are celebrating the incredible work, kindness and generosity of those who have donated bikes as we reflect on what Sanctuary Wheels has achieved over the last year, the need for bikes is only growing as conflict continues across the globe. If you would like to make a donation and be part of this project to help create a welcoming home for refugees and asylum seekers in Oxfordshire, please visit https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/SanctuaryWheels. To organise bike donations, please email bike@asylum-welcome.org.

Sanctuary Wheels is looking for a new long-term home for bike storage and workshop space, to ensure we can continue giving bikes, and the freedom and independence that comes with cycling, to refugees in Oxfordshire. If you can help in any way, please contact bike@asylum-welcome.org.

Tags: Active Communities, Active Travel, Cycling, Oxford, Sanctuary Wheels