Sanctuary Runners: An Irish Organization Breaking Barriers With Running

A profile of Sanctuary Runners, a non-profit organization supporting asylum seekers in Ireland through running.

By on December 28, 2023 | Comments

Ireland is not a country with a long history of immigration. Rather the opposite, as Irish people in the past migrated all over the world — to escape the great famine in the 1840s, and through difficult years in the country’s past when home had little to offer.

More recently, however, Ireland now welcomes thousands of asylum seekers each year, with many escaping wars, famines, and myriad difficult circumstances.

For many of these people, the first port of call is a federal support system called direct provision. Direct provision is the name used to describe the accommodation, food, money, and medical services asylum seekers receive while their international protection application is being assessed. Unfortunately, this can be a lengthy process, and many find themselves living in the limbo of a direct provision center for months or years, waiting for an opportunity to be fully integrated into life in Ireland.

One great initiative that is helping to bridge the gap — and welcome these new arrivals more wholly into Irish communities — is the non-profit organization Sanctuary Runners.

Sanctuary Runners - 2022 Rebel Run

Sanctuary Runners at the 2022 Rebel Run in Cork, Ireland. Photo: Sanctuary Runners

Sanctuary Runners was founded by keen runner, Graham Clifford, from Kerry, a county in the southwest of the country. A direct provision center had recently been established in his local rural community, and he felt strongly about the need to integrate its residents into the community and provide a proper welcome — but saw no structures currently in place for locals to befriend them. The idea to put together a running group came about while Clifford was racing the popular John Treacy Dungarvan 10 Mile road race.

As Ailís McSweeney, Ireland Lead of Sanctuary Runners, explained: “[Clifford] thought this would be a great way to get to know people, because running or walking together side-by-side is such an easy thing to access, and it can be quite nice having a chat when you’re shoulder to shoulder. So, from that, he put together a Sanctuary Runners team in the relay at the 2018 Cork City Marathon. Some 250 people ran in a Sanctuary Runners t-shirt there.”

The idea grabbed the attention of runners in other parts of the country where there were direct provision centers, and people started to ask, Can I do this in my community? “So, a group started in Limerick, [a city in the south of Ireland,]” recalled McSweeney. “It just started to grow organically when people said, ‘Let’s bring our communities together.’ People from all different backgrounds, nationalities, legal statuses — it could be a way of building bridges in our community.”

Sanctuary Runners now operates 40 groups around the country, each with a core group of volunteers. Volunteers from each group organize regular meetups for social runs or walks, arrange to attend many of the free Saturday Parkruns around the country, and target races for the group to participate in. They also regularly visit direct provision centers to extend the welcome to new arrivals.

McSweeney described some of the challenges asylum seekers in Ireland face: “When people come to Ireland, they don’t have much choice about where they live, the kind of accommodation they’re in. They might have come here fleeing some traumatic circumstance. Their life’s really up in the air, they’ve lost that control, and the conditions where they’re living might not be that great. So, even thinking of signing up to something, getting out of where you’re living, might be challenging. And there is the language barrier.”

She went on, “What Sanctuary Runners do is extend an invitation. And then, more subtly, help break down some of the barriers people might have — the need for gear and other things like that.”

Sanctuary Run - October 1, 2023, Dublin

Runners taking part in Sanctuary Run, an event by Sanctuary Runners on the Sport Ireland National Cross Country Track in Dublin, Ireland, October 2023. Photo: Sanctuary Runners

In 2023, Sanctuary Runners formed an alliance with the Irish trail running community — She Summits — to introduce a trail running element for some of the Sanctuary Runners groups based close to trails and mountains.

McSweeney shared: “I think there was a mutual admiration for what both organizations did … So, we chatted with Alicia [Christofi-Walshe] at She Summits and tried to figure out a way to work together in some way. Our group in Bray, [a coastal town south of Dublin,] were really keen to be able to explore the trails near them particularly, around Bray Head, so we put together an eight-week trail running series of exploring Bray Head. It brought a whole new element to the group there, it was a bit of a challenge, attracting people who were more interested in running than the walk and the coffee as well. It was really lovely to see two groups of runners coming together and making friendship and connections, because that’s what Sanctuary Runners is all about.”

McSweeney, herself a former international sprinter, who held the Irish 100-meter record for close to 10 years, is keen in her role with Sanctuary Runners to extend their offering to many different types of running and adventure sports.

She said: “We are keeping our minds open to different partnerships, like with She Summits, and with Athletics Ireland. We did a wonderful series with Swim Ireland last year called Sanctuary Swimmers, all about open water swimming and community integration through that. We did something with Mountaineering Ireland as well, a hill-walking day. We are just trying to explore all the beautiful parts of Ireland and getting people to exercise in them in whatever way works best.”

(Athletics Ireland and Swim Ireland are respectively the governing bodies for the sports, and Mountaineering Ireland is a federally funded organization supporting mountaineering and hiking.)

Deirdre Balfe is a Dublin-based Sanctuary Runners volunteer, who has been involved with the Poolbeg, Dublin, branch of the organization since September 2020. She felt compelled to become involved following a tragedy in her local area, which highlighted the struggles of many people living in direct provision, and the greater need for community integration.

She explained: “I heard about Sanctuary Runners through a friend, and then there was a young man in a direct provision center in my hometown who took his own life. I just thought, There is a community where people have made such an effort to come to this country, and it’s so important that we make them feel welcome. For me, it’s a very non-political and non-judgmental way of getting to know people.”

The runners Balfe welcomes in her group come from a range of countries including Zimbabwe, Algeria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Botswana — most commonly, from Ukraine and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

She shared, “I make it a point not to ask [about people’s backgrounds] as it might be traumatic, but sometimes they’ll tell you. It really makes you think about how privileged you are when you hear some people’s stories and reasons for coming here.”

The group sees a high turnover, as new people arrive seeking asylum, and others receive their work permits and can progress on their journey to full integration — but enduring friendships form along the way.

As Balfe said, “When people come initially and they’re not working, they are really crying out for an outlet — to get out of the direct provision center and start meeting people. Then a lot of people end up working in the caring and service industries and then they tend to work weekends [when many races and Sanctuary Runners events take place], so you will see a fall off, but people stay in contact in different ways.”

About their weekly activities, Balfe said, “We piggyback off the Parkrun on a Saturday morning in Poolbeg and, also, we target other runs to participate in. Ones we have participated in in the last year include the Raheny 5 Mile Road Race, the Remembrance Run, and the Irish Runner 5 Mile.”

Patience Dube is from Zimbabwe and has been in Ireland since March 2023. She heard about Sanctuary Runners and joined soon after her arrival.

She told iRunFar, “During that time, I just wanted to get outside. I was just in a bad space and needed something to distract my mind. It helped me a lot — going out and meeting people and just knowing that there were people going through the same things as I was going through.”

Dube had not been a runner prior to arriving in Ireland, but the social outlet of Sanctuary Runners became a vital lifeline to her, and she said: “It was something I would look forward to — I had nothing to do all week, but I would look forward to Saturdays with Sanctuary Runners.”

Deirdre and Patience - Sanctuary Runners - Remembrance Run

Deirdre Balfe (right) and Patience Dube (left) representing Sanctuary Runners at the Remembrance Run. Photo courtesy of Deirdre Balfe.

Dube quickly made friends through the Saturday outings with Sanctuary Runners, and they began to organize their own meetups for walks and runs during the week, which became central to her social life, and she added: “Through Sanctuary Runners I got to know one of the ladies, Yulia [Shebek], who has become my best friend. We kept in touch, and we always have each other’s back.”

Together, Dube and Shebek — who arrived in Ireland from Ukraine — have done a number of road races in the Dublin area, and also taken part in open water swimming, and the two now eagerly dive into whatever outdoor adventure is on offer.

Further to the social outlet, the act of running has become a form of therapy for Dube, who said: “Now I run a lot. Sometimes 12, 15, or 18 kilometers, or more.” She also shared that she finds it a great stress reliever now to just go out the door and run far, without a plan or set route. Her goal for 2024 is to build up to the marathon distance.

Of the founders and organizers at Sanctuary Runners, she said: “I don’t think they realize how much they have done for us.”

Yulia Shebek also arrived to Ireland in March 2023 and — similar to her friend, Dube — had not been a runner at home.

She recalled, “My first race was the Poolbeg 5k on June 10, 2023. There were different distances of one mile, 5k, 8k, or 16k. I was very proud of myself because I’d never run before.” Shebek attended the race together with a large contingent of Sanctuary Runners, and loved the solidarity of the group activity.

She shared, “I loved the tremendous support from the members.  I liked that we were all wearing the same t-shirts, with different capabilities, but with one goal — to reach the finish line.”

Both very sociable women, Dube and Shebek have become “Parkrun tourists,” and love visiting different Parkrun locations where Sanctuary Runners has a presence and meeting new people.

She said, “Everywhere we go, we meet very friendly, kind, and sincere people. My English is still weak, but this does not interfere much with communication since we have a common interest and hobby.”

Patience and Yulia - Sanctuary Runners

Patience Dube (left) and Yulia Shebek (right) in their Sanctuary Runners t-shirts. Photo courtesy of Yulia Shebek.

In this way, Sanctuary Runners has used the language of running to break down barriers between people, and the benefits are felt throughout the communities of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland, and by the local Irish communities who are all the richer for having them.

Call for Comments

  • Have you heard about Sanctuary Runners in Ireland?
  • Do you know similar organizations working in other areas of the world?
Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.