Monday 22 July 2019

Billy Keane: 'After running for their lives, asylum seekers now run for their dignity'

The Sanctuary Runners before their run in Killarney. Photo: Clare Keogh
The Sanctuary Runners before their run in Killarney. Photo: Clare Keogh
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Last week in Cork, I met with six runners who were forced to run away from their beloved, but troubled, homelands.

But now they run for fun, freedom and dignity. All of the runners live in Direct Provision and all live in Cork.

Rafi and Nesar are Afghan but came here from different areas of what is a very complex and tribal country, Raj is from Bhutan. He is stateless. Aybe fled Kurdistan. There were two woman present. Lindita came here from Albania. Tinashe escaped from Zimbabwe to Cork.

There is no room here to tell all of their stories. They all need a place to call home, because their own homes are either too dangerous or they are not wanted there, through no fault of their own.

Some of you may say we have enough to do in taking care of our own. There is a sense among some Irish that we cannot cope, or that we will be overrun by asylum seekers.

But then we meet a real person in need of a safe home place, and our hearts melt. "This is how it is with us Irish," I explain to the runners. "Just look at how the school kids fight for the freedom of their friends who are about to be deported."

Is there a worse way to be than looking at the four walls for months wondering if Ireland will ask you to leave or let you stay? Maybe there is a worse place and that place is the runner's homeland.


We heard of one Direct Provision centre where up to six men are packed into a single room. None of the people I met live there.

The men who live in the hell hole are from different cultures. One man might like a beer and another could be a devout Muslim who does not drink. This is not much better than a prison.

There have been suicides in Direct Provision but the impressive Lindita from Albania has found a good place to live, and a scholarship to study in University College Cork. Ireland passed a law allowing asylum seekers to work some little bit, if they can get work.

I offer to write about the bad places. But I'm asked "where will they go if it's closed down?" There's no room at the inn and there are some who want to burn the inn down.

The Cork six are only too aware that Irish people are burning down their new homes. So how, then, can we interact and show them we care?

Graham Clifford is a colleague, a friend and a fellow Kerryman.

The best way to describe him is to borrow the Irish word 'gramhar'. As is often the case, the Irish word can only be translated by the use of several English terms such as 'affectionate', 'caring' and 'lovable'. Throw in 'empathy' or 'full of nature', as we say back home.

Graham has been to Africa in a vain bid to draw attention to the story of Swaziland, where AIDS has ravaged the people.

He wrote about the plight of the victims of an unreported war who ended up in the refugee camps of sub-Saharan Africa. So what is all this doing in the sports pages?

It's because all of these people who came to our shores cry freedom when they run with the Sanctuary Runners.

Nesar is from the province of Kapisa in Northern Afghanistan. He fled The Taliban and ended up in Cork.

The Taliban might have killed Nesar had he stayed on in his homeland. He had the misfortune of being from the wrong tribe.

Graham says: "It's tough on the young Muslim men. When a Irish woman offers to shake hands, they just don't know what to do, culturally it's an unusal gesture. The Sanctuary Runners worry about their English and they know some people are suspicious of them."

Clifford kept the concept as simple as could be: "It's all about the running."

Sanctuary Runners arrange running for those living in Direct provision to run with Irish people on the same team. The asylum seekers run with Irish running groups and clubs. Over 200 ran for Sanctuary Runners in the Cork City Marathon.

Nesar went along for a Park Run before Christmas. He was only here a short time. The young Afghan man wore ordinary pants and old runners. Nesar ran very well.

The people of Cork and Cork City Council have come in behind Sanctuary Runners. There were invitations to Christmas dinners. I tell the runners Cork was burned down by invaders and her people were murdered.

Clifford is literally run off his feet. It has become a huge success and has spread to several other parts of our country. For every xenophobic, fascist and arsonist, there are so many whose contribution is daily and caring. Nesar was kitted out and Graham arranged for him to run in the Togher AC road race just a few weeks ago.

Nesar went off with the elite group, who can fairly shift. Graham feared for him. Remember this young man had been to hell and back, but hell was home, and there was no going back home.

Nesar, with scarcely any training under his belt, finished in the top 40. At the line Nesar could barely stand. In a haze, he made for the blue jersey of Sanctuary Runners. Nesar ran to the blue singlet and collapsed into Graham's arms.

Graham said: "He gave his all. Nesar is a dignified, decent man. It seems to me he ran his heart out to show he was worthwhile and worthy. None of these people are lazy or spongers. They crave work.

"Graham," I ask, "have you details of a bank account for Sanctuary Runners so people can donate?"

"We do not take money," he said. "It's all about running."

For the runners, it is "an escape from the boredom, something to do". For a while, anyway.

Almost every one of the six I met in Cork use the expression "we are all equal when we run". But off the track, equality is a long way off.

It benefits the Irish in that we can learn from and admire these pathfinders. The benefit to the asylum seekers is they feel human and loved and safe.

Nesar said he would love to play volleyball, which was his sport back home. He's looking for a team.

I bid goodbye, with tears in my eyes. And I pray to all of our Gods that the runners will find a home away from home, in an Ireland known as Sanctuary Runners.

Irish Independent

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