Characters of Cork: Sanctuary Runners founder creating inclusivity in communities

A Kerry man who now calls Cork home, Graham Clifford has established himself as a passionate advocate of inclusivity in Cork.
Characters of Cork: Sanctuary Runners founder creating inclusivity in communities

CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.

Bringing people together, regardless of nationality, legal status, culture, religion, sexual orientation or gender, is most important for Sanctuary Runners founder Graham Clifford.

In 2018, he set up the non-profit movement to enable Irish people to run alongside, and in solidarity with, asylum seekers and refugees in direct provision.

Graham says that his goal is making positive things happen and finding ways to build more cohesive, respectful communities.

His passion for helping others was inspired, he says, by “spending hours sitting by the fire with my grandmother, who was blind in later life, and hearing stories about life years ago and witnessing her kindness, compassion, and respect for all, in my grandparents’ farmhouse in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, from where I come. My grandmother, Hannah O’Sullivan, was one of the biggest influences on my life.

CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.
CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.

“When I was 18, my boss in a company called Fexco, in Killorglin, told me I was going to Lourdes as a helper at Easter to work with young people with special needs: No choice given.

“I was totally out of my depth, but learned on the job and went back year after year; even met my wife, Catherine, there. The experience of volunteering there created a blueprint for what I’ve done since.”

Graham says he is grateful to be able to meet “the most wonderful people every week” in his work.

Sound, decent, brilliant people. All just wanting to be part of something positive and progressive.

Graham, who worked as a feature writer and broadcaster for nearly 20 years in Ireland, the UK, and Australia, says that much of his work focussed on migration and the people behind the headlines.

“I was frustrated that there are very few ways for people in host communities in Ireland to get to meet and know those coming from other countries and vice versa.

“I’d seen in the UK, America, and France how that can lead to parallel communities within the wider community and misunderstandings; that’s no good for anyone.

CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.
CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.

“While out for a run in Dungarvan in 2018, I came up with the idea of the Sanctuary Runners. Using something as simple as running, jogging, and walking to bring people together, including, and especially, asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants.”

While Covid-19 put a stop to the Sanctuary Runners’ participation in events such as the Cork City Marathon, the group is back this year and set to take part in the Cork Rebel Run, in conjunction with Cork Sports Partnership, at the Munster Technology University campus in Bishopstown on Sunday, October 23.

We have about 40 participants, who are either from direct provision centres in Cork or part of the recently arrived Ukrainian community, and a similar number of Sanctuary Runners from the wider community, but would love to have more people join us for what will be a wonderful morning out at Bishopstown.

In 2019, Graham set up the Fermoy International Choir in the town he now calls home and since then the choir has had 200 members from 30 countries.

From next week, the choir is looking for more towns to become part of the new One Town One Voice project, which helps people to establish community singing groups focussed on integration, bringing people of different backgrounds together through shared experience.

Graham says that his proudest achievements are his four children, Molly, Aoife, Aodhan, and Cillian.

Founder and CEO of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.
Founder and CEO of the Sanctuary Runners, Graham Clifford.

“On the home front, I’m so proud of each of those little legends. In terms of work, though, establishing the Sanctuary Runners and watching it grow has been incredible.

“We recently appointed a new Ireland lead manager, in Corkonian and former Irish sprinter Ailís McSweeney, so the next steps are even more exciting than those already taken,” Graham says.

“Also delighted with Translate Ireland, a company my wife, Catherine, and I set up during Covid-19, which produces vital multi-lingual video information for migrants and was named ‘Public Health Initiative of the Year’ at last year’s Irish Healthcare Awards,” he says.

Sharing with The Echo the best piece of advice he has received, he encouraged others not to assume to know what someone is going through on first impressions and never rush to judge.

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