St Johns 10102023

What next after Homes for Ukraine? Innovative project supports longer term solutions for Ukrainian refugees in York

York St John University Occupational Therapy students team up with York City of Sanctuary for ‘The Backyard Project’



York St John University students have teamed up with the charity York City of Sanctuary in a groundbreaking initiative called “The Backyard Project”, aimed at addressing the urgent need for affordable rental accommodation for Ukrainian refugees in York.

Since March 2022, York has welcomed over 380 Ukrainian refugees under the Homes for Ukraine and Family visa schemes. These schemes grant Ukrainians the right to live, work, study, and apply for benefits in the UK, limited to 3 years.

Ukrainians living as guests in people’s homes was always a short-term solution and after eighteen months, Ukrainian families are having to seek new options. However, finding suitable rental housing is a significant challenge due to housing shortages, high rents, and limited financial resources.

A fresh approach was needed to engage with private landlords and find ways to encourage affordable rental housing to refugees. This is where “The Backyard Project” comes in. York City of Sanctuary had been offered the private rental accommodation last year by supportive landlords wishing to help Ukrainian refugees.  In this first project, a dilapidated backyard garden for a Ukrainian refugee mother, Liudmyla, and her two daughters, was given a make-over.

The project, which took place from June to July 2023 in readiness for the summer holidays, was carried out by students from York St John University’s Occupational Therapy Department as part of their final year research project. In consultation with the Ukrainian family, they created a peaceful and vibrant outdoor space, offering a place to relax, unwind, and connect with nature. Funding for the project was through York City of Sanctuary.

By working with landlords in this way, it is hoped that more property owners in the city will come forward to support the growing refugee community, offering affordable rent and a place to call home.

Four Occupational Therapy students worked on the project: Libby Cartwright, Nikoletta Szabo, Sophie Rowland and Katy Wood.

Libby and Nikoletta, two third years at York St John University, said: “We found the project to be an empowering and a rich learning experience. We are grateful for the lovely connection and friendship we built with the family through a mutual interest in gardening, where we learnt new skills from each other, had fun along the way and learnt more about the Ukrainian culture. We enjoyed spending time with Liudmyla whilst we developed the garden and valued her insight and input.”

Liudmyla, Ukrainian refugee and tenant, said: “During the month of conscientious work of the students, we considered various options together and helped each other in solving many issues. Now the garden has an incredible atmosphere, calm and cosy. When the weather is good we spend a lot of time there, especially during the summer holidays, and my youngest daughter plays with her friends. Personally, I spend a lot of time in the fresh air in the evening after work studying English.”

“From the bottom of our hearts, the girls and I thank you for your help funding and organizing work in the garden.”

Rebecca Russell, Project Lead at York City of Sanctuary, said: “We were delighted to work on The Backyard Project with the Occupational Therapy team at York St John University. From the start, the students took the lead and worked with the Ukrainian refugee family to create a peaceful garden. Their consideration of the family’s needs and hard work has made this community-based project a joy”.

“This project is a first step as we engage with private landlords to find solutions to the housing crisis for refugees in York. There is no easy answer, but this project shows how working together we can make a difference and hopefully encourage more landlords to come forward.”

Liz and Martine, the owners of the property said: “Before Liudmyla and her daughters moved in, our previous tenants had destroyed not only the interiors of the house but also what had been a lovely, easy to maintain garden. While we had to tackle the mess inside, unfortunately we weren’t in a position to do anything about the garden except ensure it was cleared of all kinds of debris.

“We are delighted with the work that the students from York St John University did in the garden. We are so happy that it has made a big difference to Liudmyla and her daughters who love gardening and who are enjoying the relaxing space.”

Dr Hannah Spring and Dr Fiona Howlett from the Occupational Therapy team at York St John University, said: “It was an honour to make a difference to a Ukrainian family in York. Our students put their occupational therapy skills to use and worked collaboratively and compassionately with the family to create a meaningful outdoor space for their enjoyment.

“Thank you, York City of Sanctuary, for the opportunity to collaborate on an important social justice matter. We look forward to more projects together in the future.”

While “The Backyard Project” has been a resounding success, the need for affordable rental housing for Ukrainian refugees in York remains urgent. York City of Sanctuary is calling on private landlords and letting agents to consider renting to refugees at affordable rates.

If you’re interested in getting involved and would like to find out more please contact York City of Sanctuary at: