The Sanctuary Runners enabling Irish residents to run alongside, and in solidarity with, asylum seekers and refugees in Direct Provision

Following a long and distinguished career as a journalist Graham Clifford saw first hand, the plight of migrants accross the world. Always wanting to do something for them; and being a keen runner himself, in 2018 Graham created The Sanctuary Runners – where members of the local community can run, jog and walk with members of Direct Provision and migrants to Ireland, creating greater solidarity and a community where local people can do something with migrants rather than for migrants.

  1. What is The Sanctuary Runners? What problem(s) are the company solving?

The Sanctuary Runners is a solidarity-through-sport movement where we use running, jogging and walking to bring together asylum seekers, refugees, other migrants and those in wider Irish society. We focus on solidarity rather than charity and our initiative is now nationwide in 30 locations – with over 4,000 regular participants. We focus on doing things ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ people and are eager than everyone involved, regardless of their background, nationality or legal status, is treated equally. While having obvious mental and physical health benefits for everyone involved it also contributes, we believe, to positive societal change and understanding of migration. It’s simple…but very effective. It tackles misconceptions and ignorance and provides a positive environment whereby Irish people can meet, befriend and better understand migrants and where migrants can meet, befriend and better understand Irish people and Irish culture. Win – Win.

  1. What is your background, what led you to founding the company?

I worked for almost 20-years as a journalist, feature writer and broadcaster before establishing the Sanctuary Runners. I started my career with Radio Kerry and went on to work for RTÉ Radio 1, the Irish Independent, the Business Post, the Irish Post in London, the Irish Times and BBC Regional Radio. I was fortunate enough to have worked across the world and reported on migrant flows into Europe in 2015 travelling on foot and by train with mainly Iraqi and Syrian refugees as they made their way from Budapest to Vienna and on to Munich. I also reported from Refugee Camps in Northern Africa and from parts of Sub-Saharan Africa where poverty, disease and conflict led to outward migration flows. I was always intrigued not just by who migrants are as individuals but also on the understanding and appreciation of migrants as individuals in countries like Ireland. And so one day I was taking part in a running race in Dungarvan, County Waterford in January 2018 and the idea of using running as a way to build a bridge between those inside and outside the gates of Direct Provision centres just came to me mid-race.

  1. Where are you now in terms of growth of the company? What plans do you have for 2022 to grow it even further?

We now have 30 groups across Ireland – the most recent in Letterkenny, County Donegal. We have approximately 4,000 people, including around 800 former or current asylum seekers or refugees who are part of the movement. In 2022 we hope to grow our existing groups and set up another half dozen in Ireland. On November 6th we will launch our first overseas group in London and then throughout 2022 establish groups in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brussels, Cologne and in a number of cities in Australia and the USA. Also, over the coming weeks we will launch, for the first time, Sanctuary Runner merchandise. We have teamed up with the Irish Athleisure company Gym + Coffee to make Sanctuary Runner hoodies. All the revenue generated from the sale of the hoodies will go back into the movement. Also we are in the process of seeking charitable status having acquired company limited by guarantee status earlier in the year. We are now busy strengthening and broadening our structures and resources to enable us to move on to the next level.

  1. What partnerships have you developed with other businesses since your launch? Are there more in the pipeline to be announced?

We have partnerships with the Tomar Trust – a philanthropic charitable trust in Ireland, with Athletics Ireland (who support us by funding our regional development officer roles), with Gym + Coffee, with Cork City Council, The Parkrun Movement and many other local authorities across the country.

  1. Sanctuary Runners isn’t the only company you launched, can you tell me about Translate Ireland/Covid-19 World Service and of the Together Ireland Community Integration Project? How do the different companies integrate together?

The Together Ireland Community Integration Project is basically a lab for ideas to enable and enhance greater community integration across Ireland. It is part of the Tomar Trust portfolio. In October, 2021 we will be launching a new initiative via this route. The ‘One Town – One Voice’ Community Singing programme will seek to build groups in towns across the country who come together to sing regularly with particular focus on multiculturalism, diversity, community integration and fun. Its another way of bringing people together in a positive and relaxed environment. We’re basing this new programme on the success of the Fermoy International Choir which we established in 2019. And there will be more output from the Together Ireland Community Integration Project in 2022 including the establishment of a network of social groups across the country.

Translate Ireland produces multilingual video messaging for migrants in Ireland in areas such as health, services and immigration. The service works with migrants to Ireland to produce these video messages for other migrants with the likes of the HSE and Department of Justice commissioning work. It is a successor of an initiative called the Covid19 World Service where we produced video messaging in over 40 languages for migrants in Ireland about the virus and restrictions here.

The Covid19 World Service won the ‘Best Response to Covid19 in the Not-For-Profit’s sector at the Irish Medical Times 2020 National Health Awards. 

  1. How did the pandemic affect your services? Were there any positives you have taken from this period?

Translate Ireland evolved during the pandemic. Without the obvious need for multilingual information I’m sure it would not have surfaced when it did. It opened up people’s eyes to the lack of culturally appropriate Multilingual information that exists for migrants in Ireland and triggers much bigger questions as to why these resources haven’t been made available before. We have big plans for Translate Ireland and hope to adapt it to work in other jurisdictions in the next three years. See TranslateIreland.ie

  1. Direct Provision is one of the most repressive and repulsive institutions within Ireland today. If someone reading this is passionate about ending Direct Provision what can they do?

The very first thing you should do is get to meet with those living in direct provision – find ways (like the Sanctuary Runners) to interact with asylum seekers and refugees on a respectful, equal footing. If you can’t find a way, create a way. But don’t just shake your head and say: ‘isn’t it awful without trying to make a small difference’. People have been advocating for the closure or repurposing of Direct Provision for over 20-years with minimal success and I have great fears that the current promises to completely overhaul the system will dwindle and frustrate in the years to come. Advocacy, campaigning and demanding change is necessary but progress is incredibly slow.

For me the main area which can be improved is the process. Of course, conditions in centres need to be improved and checked on a regular basis and respect shown to those in Direct Provision. More services and more listening is vital. But if we can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes for applications to be processed that will have the biggest impact on the life or an asylum seeker or refugee and their families. We need to front load assistance to people when they come because so many initial applications are doomed to fail because of a lack of understanding. This means more culturally appropriate legal advice, counselling and interpretation services. People can lobby their TDs and elected representatives about the process because this is something which can realistically be changed quickly.

But the biggest thing you can do is turn the lens away from the migrant or Direct Provision centre and towards yourself. Ask ‘what am I doing about this?’. ‘Is this the society I want for me and my children’, challenge yourself to say ‘why have I not done more or anything?’ – Without this self-analysis we just go through the motions and there is a limit to the personal responsibility we feel for such a shocking system which we, as taxpayers, to fund.

  1. How would someone interested in joining the running community go about it?

Just drop us an email to info@sanctuaryrunners.ie and we will do the rest

  1. As a registered charity how do you go about fundraising for your services? What methods do you find most suitable?

We are now seeking our charitable status so technically are currently a not-for-profit social enterprise. As well as grant allocations and locked in funding we generate revenue by selling merchandise (hoodies). We do not, and will not, fundraise in the traditional sense and those who join us never have a to pay a cent – even for the running tops we provide. Neither will they ever be asked to fundraise. In 2022 we plan to stage our own race series in conjunction with Athletics Ireland and this, we hope, also has the potential to generate additional revenue. 

  1. Are there any other organisations in the Irish Diversity and Inclusion Sector that you are big fans of?

I greatly admire the work of the Irish Refugee Council and having worked so closely with them, and especially their CEO Nick Henderson, in recent years have seen how they’ve carefully managed to tackle huge issues in a considered and effective manner. I’m seeing a major shift in how corporates understand the need for diversity and inclusion in the workforce – and not in a tokenistic way. Its taken some time to get there and we are far from there yet but we’re moving in the right direction.

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