“PROTESTS come and go, but friendships last,” says Graham Clifford, a co-founder of Cork’s Sanctuary Runners.
The Sanctuary Runners are a new group of running enthusiasts, a mix of Irish people and residents from direct provision centres, and they are taking part in the Cork City Marathon for the first time this year, on Sunday June 3.
At a training session at UCC’s Mardyke running track, Graham is amongst a large group of runners of all levels of ability and a vast array of nationalities, preparing for the upcoming marathon on a sunny evening. Middleweight boxer Spike O’Sullivan has even shown up for a little motivating pep-talk, and spirits are high.
Graham, a journalist and broadcaster originally from Kerry but now living in Fermoy, founded the Sanctuary Runners with photographer Clare Keogh. Having reported from refugee camps in North Africa as well as having spoken out in his writing about the “inhumane” conditions of Ireland’s Direct Provision centres, the brainwave for the Sanctuary Runners, the first Irish initiative of its kind, came to him while he was training for a run of his own.
“It’s not so much about doing something for people in direct provision as it is about giving Irish people the opportunity to show solidarity and run alongside people in direct provision,” he says.
“It’s hard for people to meet people who are in direct provision. If you stopped an Irish person on the street they wouldn’t know can they go to a centre or where do they meet people, so this is just making a bridge and it’s taken off and it’s been fantastic.”
The bridges, Graham says, have been built particularly well amongst the five-person relay teams participating: arrangements for training have quickly given way to social outings, with Irish and international runners meeting for coffee even on days they’re not running. This was precisely the positive impact Graham had been aiming for.
“It’s just getting people together who under normal circumstances I guess wouldn’t come together,” he says. “It’s really great.”
The plight of those living in Ireland’s direct provision centres has been frequently reported on and been the subject of numerous protests and forms of action. Residents can face a wait of many years for their asylum claims to be processed by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), who paid out over €400 million to private firms to run the centres last year.
In some centres residents sleep six to a room. 8% of Irish asylum seekers have been living in direct provision for over five years — 1,420 of these are children.
On top of room and board, residents are given an allowance of €21.60 per week and in many centres are not allowed to cook their own meals.
Although the ban on asylum seekers working has been lifted this year, the risk of institutionalisation is high for those living in such a system for many years, facing an uncertain future that is outside of their control. The mental health benefits of regular exercise are well documented, and Graham thinks this is of particular benefit to the runners from direct provision.
“For a lot of people, the motivation to stay active isn’t really there and so a lot of people, especially the women, had stopped,” Graham says, “although I found in general that the guys do better with doing things like joining local football teams.”
At the Mardyke training session, the mix of abilities is clear: some runners are tackling the full or half marathon, but the option to participate as part of a relay team is also there.
More than 160 people have signed up to the Sanctuary Runners for this year’s marathon, and at least 50 of this number are resident in Cork’s direct provision centres: there’s an impressive 30 nationalities taking part.
The philanthropic Tomar Trust has funded running shoes for all the runners from direct provision, while Cork City Council has funded t-shirts for the group as well as a celebratory meal with Our Table Pop Up Café after the marathon.
As Cork City Marathon coincides with the month of Ramadan, there are several Muslim participants who have trained but who won’t be in the running: during Ramadan, adherents of Islam fast for 20 hours out of every 24, not even consuming water.
But Kuwaiti Ali AlShomera says he’s happy to put his fast on hold for a 24-hour period to take part.
Ali, 24, lives in the Glenvera Hotel, where he shares a room with five others. He’s been in Ireland for just six months.
“I’ll cancel one day of my fast,” he says. “I’ve waited for a month to do this and I will eat, and be strong and ready.”
Ali is going to try for the full marathon. Keeping himself busy while he lives in direct provision is important to him: “I’ll do any sport. I like doing this because it’s very friendly.
“There are many people from different countries and we talk and laugh together, and I get to meet Irish people too.”
Lilita Jaupag is from northern Albania. She has lived in the Ashbourne House centre in Glounthaune with her husband and 17-year-old daughter for a year and a half. She has never tackled a marathon before but is also aiming to run the full 42km. As a novice runner, training was tough at first.
“The first time was so hard I couldn’t move the next day. I had pain in my legs, but it was so much fun. I’m going to do the full marathon. It’s my first time: why not? I’m enjoying it,” she said.
For Lilita, making the most of her time while she waits for her claim to be processed is important, and staves off worries about the future; in Ashbourne House, she knows people who have been waiting for six years for their claims to be processed.
“We do a lot of community things, and my daughter is very happy in school,” she says. My husband does the Men’s Shed, and we do Tidy Towns and Meals on Wheels. We use our time for good things.
“I hope to integrate into this community but,” she shrugs and smiles, “life is a surprise.”