Before he lived in Cork, Hafiz Bilal Ahmed did not have much interest in running. As a child he played cricket at school but never really considered the benefits of running as an adult. Ahmed was living in the Kinsale Road direct provision centre on the outskirts of Cork City when he first heard about a group called Sanctuary Runners.
“The first few months before I got work permission were really hard so I went on these long walks. When Covid happened I had so much time on my hands I set goals for myself because I had nothing else to do. I read books but then dieting and losing weight became my goal. I was too big back then, I lost about 48kg in the end.
“At first I went running alone within the 5km because there were so many restrictions, it was my exercise first thing in the morning and then I walked at night. Then my friend told me about Sanctuary Runners so I went for a park run and the people there were so kind.”
Ahmed discovered running gave him a sense of relief he’d never felt before. “When you go running it makes you feel like you can do anything. It’s the hardest thing in the world but the best thing too, and if you keep doing it, it feels like you’re flying.”
Ahmed was in his late 20s when he arrived in Ireland seeking asylum from his home in Pakistan. A graduate in computer science from north-eastern Pakistan, Ahmed says he was forced to leave his home because of his decision to move away from religion.
“I don’t have any interest in religion but if you leave your religion, it’s difficult to live there, you can’t talk about it. That’s why I left, even talking about it now is hard.”
Ahmed got away by securing a student visa to study in London but decided to move on to Ireland a few months later because of Britain’s harsh immigration laws. He knew very little about Ireland’s asylum system when he arrived in the country in late 2019.
He found under-the-table work with a pizza delivery service and worked through the early weeks of Covid to meet the high demand of people ordering food to their homes. “For me I was alone at that time anyway so the Covid isolation didn’t hit me much. I didn’t have any money so I had to work somewhere. But when you are working without papers you work long hours for very little money, it was a bad feeling.”
After about four months in Dublin, Ahmed’s Irish housemate told him about the State’s asylum system and encouraged him to apply. Struggling to make ends meet and unable to return home, Ahmed visited the International Protection Office and made an asylum claim. He told them he did not need accommodation support but returned three months later seeking house support. He was initially sent to Dundalk and then moved to Cork.
“I could really feel the Covid virus here,” recalls Ahmed. “There were about 300-400 people in this centre so everyone was getting Covid. They started moving people into isolation and sending them to hotels. We didn’t have the vaccine yet so people were really worried. When people got sick, they got really sick.”
Ahmed somehow avoided contracting the virus and started his exercise regime. Once he had secured permission to work, he found a job with a Cork takeaway but continued running and walking. Despite his initial concerns about Covid, Ahmed is complimentary of the centre where he lives. “This is a good centre, I have a room where I can sleep, I have shelter, that is the best thing. I know English, which has helped me to integrate better. If you don’t speak English it’s very tough, it’s more difficult to adjust.”
In late 2020, he joined Sanctuary Runners — a non-profit group which brings asylum seekers, refugees and members of wider Irish society together through sport. As time passed, he started going to the gym to improve his fitness and in June 2022, following more than two months of intense training with Sanctuary Runners, he took part in the Cork marathon, running the half marathon route through the city.
“That day felt like going to the moon, you’re running for so long,” he remembers. “I just shut down the part of my brain telling me I couldn’t do it. The first 5km was difficult but then you see other people around you are struggling and realise you’re not alone.
“It felt like a huge achievement when I used to be so big and even walking and sometimes breathing was difficult. It was like climbing Mount Everest for me.”
Despite the excitement of the day and support from friends, Ahmed admits he briefly felt lonely and sad as he crossed the finish line. “I felt like Superman but then I realised I didn’t have family waiting for me, it made me feel alone. I’d just achieved the hardest thing but no one was celebrating. Claire (a Sanctuary Runners member) later celebrated with me but when you achieve something so difficult you want your family there.”
Four months on, Ahmed is preparing to run the full Dublin marathon at the end of October. Ultimately, he’d like to run marathons in cities across the world. However, he’s still waiting for a decision on his asylum application. “That’s another reason why I’d like my papers, I want to run marathons in big cities like Barcelona and New York and when I grow old I’ll have medals to show off to my children.”
Ahmed has also started a masters at University College Cork in Mathematical Modelling and Machine Learning after months of saving to cover the course’s non-EU student fees — asylum seeker students must spend a minimum of three years in Ireland to become eligible for the Student Support Scheme.
Ahmed admits the initial weeks of the masters programme have been very challenging. “I’m struggling a lot because I’ve been out of the loop with education for four years. But I’ll push on and keep trying.”
Alongside marathon training, Ahmed also recently took part in the Sanctuary Swimmers pilot sea swimming programme in Cork. “It was my first time in the ocean but it was a really good, new experience. That’s what I’m learning here, to jump on opportunities and see what happens. When I’m running I still think about my problems, but with swimming you’re weightless; all memories disappear when you’re in the water.”
Ahmed is keen to emphasise the support he’s received from Irish friends in achieving his sporting and health goals in recent years. “Irish people are too good; whenever you need help, they’re there for you. Of course I keep missing my family all the time but that’s life, I can’t change that.”