Asylum seekers find sanctuary running on a Saturday morning

‘It is everything to me, makes me feel happy, so I have to run’

‘How do you spell that?”

“H.I.C.H.A.M... Hicham.”

“Ah, like Hicham El Guerrouj?”

"Yes! Hicham El Guerrouj, 1,500m world record. You know him?"

“Yes! And remember Said Aouita? One of my first heroes...”

With that brief introduction Hicham Lamchaali captures exactly why around 40 of us gathered for the Waterstown 5km park-run in west Dublin last Saturday. It's a 9.30am start, everyone shows up on time, then runs at their own pace.

Because this is not a race, or anything about race for that matter. It’s about asylum seekers, refugees and Irish citizens coming together as one.

Hicham (staying on first-name terms) was born and raised in Morocco, hence the El Guerrouj connection, before leaving, not by choice but necessity, first to South Africa, before coming to Ireland in 2016 seeking asylum.

Since then he has been living in a direct provision centre in Clondalkin Towers, one of 36 such centres in 17 counties, which, according to the latest figures, now accommodate 6,355. As in people, not the number.

There are a lot people with little knowledge of what it means to be an asylum seeker living in direct provision in Ireland. Or, more importantly perhaps, of ways to better integrate with them – just part of the purpose of the Sanctuary Runners, a voluntary group fast making an impact on both fronts.

Things in common

Hicham is a case in point, because what the Sanctuary Runners also set out to highlight is not differences but things in common. Even if it’s just some knowledge of Moroccan distance running. It’s a starting point, and when you’re living in what’s often described as an “open prison set-up”, a crude and lonely existence for an average of three or more years, that can mean a lot.

"This is all about solidarity, not charity, of breaking down the barriers between those in the direct provision system and those outside the gates," says Graham Clifford, a Cork-based journalist who founded the Sanctuary Runners exactly one year ago, along with photographer Clare Keogh.

Their first outing was the Cork Marathon last May, where 51 asylum seekers from the five direct provision centres in Cork, spanning 40 nationalities, were part of 200 runners that ran, or for some parts walked, the 26.2 miles. Such was the response and goodwill, that Clifford felt obliged to grow it from there.

The park-run was a natural fit, the free and voluntary phenomenon sweeping the country (now at 84 locations), running being the great leveller plus the universal sense of well-being, mental and physical.

Beginning with the Ballincollig park-run in Cork, the Sanctuary Runners have spread to similar groups in Dublin, Kerry, Limerick, Waterford and, from later this month, Galway.

The Sanctuary Runners Dublin usually gather for the Corkagh park-run in Clondalkin, yet last Saturday they went on a minor excursion to Waterstown. Padraic Moran from the Sportsworld running club leads the volunteers who accompany the asylum seekers from both Clondalkin Towers and Hatch Hall in the city centre, taking them to Waterstown, where the fun begins.

‘Keeps me fit’

“I love it,” Hicham tells me, “it keeps me fit, healthy, and for me especially important to help to integrate with more Irish people.” He then promptly adds that he is not a runner first, prefers football, and later that day is volunteering at the national basketball finals in Tallaght.

Definitely running at her own pace is Adebayo Hafsat from Nigeria, who saw the Sanctuary Runners as a way to help her recover from a stroke.

“September 23rd, 2017,” she tells me, when asked how long ago it was. “Running makes me feel so much better, so much happier.”

No one is exaggerating. Laurent Gbomene, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, also spent some time in South Africa, before seeking asylum in Ireland. "Running helps with the stress, helps my mental health," he says, not surprisingly given very little about direct provision appears fit for purpose.

Set up as an interim arrangement in 2000, direct provision was never intended to last so long or cope with so many. The 6,355 currently accommodated (almost one-quarter under the age of 12) is above the contracted capacity (6,156), but part of the problem is that some 700 of those granted permission to stay in Ireland simply can’t afford to move out.

They are provided with a bed, food and €21.60 a week for all other expenses, though only six of the 36 have facilities for self-catering. Only since last year were the asylum seekers allowed to apply for a temporary work visa.

It cost the Government an estimated €76 million for 2018, above the budgeted €66.44 million. Asylum applicants rose by one third, and this year are on course to exceed 3,500 for the first time in a decade.

The recent arson attacks on new centres in Rooskey, on the Leitrim-Roscommon border, and in Moville, Co Donegal, add to the problem.

Story to tell

This is just part of the backdrop to the Sanctuary Runners, the reality being direct provision cannot be abolished until some long-term alternative is presented. Sport has always helped bring people together, and Sanctuary Runners is an extension of that.

Afterwards we head back for (free) park-run coffee at The Happy Pear in Clondalkin, where each of the asylum seekers has their own story to tell.

Amara Onwuzulumba, from South Africa, is here with her sons Franklin (10) and David (10). She is already a runner and finisher in the Comrades Marathon in 2016. She is nursing a knee injury, with a doctor recommendation that she not run.

“Yeah, tell a runner not to run!” she says with a smile. “It is everything to me, makes me feel happy, so I have to run.”

Tapiwa Mafeni, from Malawi, runs while pushing one year-old daughter Shallom Nkhoma in her pram.

And before leaving Margaret W Saka, from Nigeria, hears that something about this might be appearing in The Irish Times.

“Give me that pen, please,” she asks, before proudly writing down her name, complete with that middle initial.

And that’s the lasting impression, a person seeking not just sanctuary but something of the self.

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