At the Cologne Celtics, we came into contact with Graham Clifford during the height of the 2021 Covid Lockdown. As we could not meet up on the pitch for training, several of our club members developed an interest in running. This interest was further developed by our involvement with the #RunningHome initiative. Cologne Celt, Stephen O’Rourke, was even on the committee of the group.
Graham got in contact with us regarding participating in the Virtual Cork City Marathon and representing the Sanctuary Runners. Cologne and Cork are partner cities, and our club is committed to developing further relationships with the Rebel City, as demonstrated by our close ties with the Städte Partnerschaft Cork-Köln Verein. Several of our members and their friends and family got involved and ran virtually alongside people worldwide.
Graham is the CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners. The group has grown from a one-off team for the Cork City Marathon 2018, to 28 groups around Ireland with thousands of members. They have now spread the message and set up groups outside of Ireland but are looking to grow further.
According to their website „Our model brings together Irish residents, refugees and asylum seekers to run, jog or walk on the same Sanctuary Runners team. We are non-political and our focus is on humanitarianism, solidarity and positive action…“. As Graham states later in this interview – it’s about (working) „with migrants“ rather than „for migrants““.
Graham took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. The full chat can be listened to here:
Hi, Graham, can you introduce yourself to us?
I can, Oisín. My name is Graham Clifford. I’m a Kerryman stranded behind enemy lines in Cork. I’m the CEO and founder of the Sanctuary Runners and a few other initiatives as well. I was a journalist and a broadcaster for almost 20 years until fairly recently.
Brilliant. So what are the daily tasks or your daily routine as the CEO of the Sanctuary Runners? Do you have one?
I’ll start from literally minute one. We have four small kids, so I look after them first. But no, my daily tasks with the Sanctuary Runners… it’s a very fast-evolving movement, and therefore, every day is different. We’re organising events and setting up new groups in Ireland and elsewhere.
Recently, I was over at the United Nations in New York, giving a presentation. So we get queries from those guys at the moment. It’s everything from sourcing runners (running shoes) and running gear for people to advocacy level, I suppose you’d say, with maybe with politicians or whatever.
How many groups are there now, at the moment (May 2022), for the Sanctuary Runners around Ireland and elsewhere?
Yeah, around Ireland, there are twenty-eight groups at the moment, and we’re hoping to grow quite a lot in Ireland over the next two years. Due to the Ukrainian situation, we’re setting up groups in places we previously might not have.
We also have three groups now in London. The plan is to set up in Italy, Cyprus, Belgium and Germany in the coming months and in the US and Canada.
It’s such a simple concept, I suppose, Oisín, bringing people together through running. There’s nothing like sports to break down those barriers. Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy busy.
It’s such a simple concept, bringing people together through running.
That’s not all I do. I also have a company where we produce multilingual video messaging for migrants. So that’s really busy as well. And another few things. So it’s all good. It’s all in the same family, all in the same vein, what I do, I guess, but I think it’s really important to do it.
So you are the founder of the Sanctuary Runners. You are the CEO of it. So how did the Sanctuary Runners start? Where did the idea come from?
As I said, I worked as a journalist for many years. I was always interested in stories related to migration and immigration and looking at who are the people who are forced to leave and why. Similarly, I was looking at the host communities. I was always intrigued by the actions or the inaction of host communities, including our own. I always wondered how we can square how we work with migrants?
Anyway, I reported from refugee camps in Western Sahara. I did a lot of work in sub-Saharan Africa, Kosovo, and other places. I also travelled on foot with migrants in 2015 across from Budapest to Vienna and onto Munich, at the height of the refugee crisis. It was mainly Iraqi and Syrian refugees at the time.
Anyway, soon after that, I was going through a midlife crisis, and I decided to take up running. I was running in the John Treacy ten-mile race in Dungarvan one freezing January morning, a ten-mile race. I was thinking about all these ideas, and then I looked around, and I thought that there’s a really lovely, strong running community in Ireland that’s developing. Runners and those involved in running or in sports in general, I think, perhaps have a better sense of social justice and so on than maybe wider society.
So I said, okay, let’s get a team in the Cork City Marathon in 2018. We ended up with 200 people running as „The Sanctuary Runners“, and about a quarter of those were refugees. It took off from there, really, Oisín. It was only supposed to be one race, and it just took off from there.
What do you think has been the most significant achievement of the Sanctuary Runners movement so far?
Okay, I have to try to put this delicately. If „The Sanctuary Runners“ was made up of refugees and Irish people who all thought like me and who are all „bleeding-heart liberal lefties“, as I’m describing myself here, then that would really have achieved nothing. It’s more about, like, we would have people who run with us, Oisín, who would have barely crossed their county bounds!
We did an impact study two years ago. We’re doing another one at the moment. And it showed that 78% of the Irish people who run with us had never met an asylum seeker or refugee before. Now, 81% would say they’ve developed friendships with refugees and asylum seekers. So I suppose that’s what I really like.
That’s why the movement is essential. It involves getting people who otherwise would never get engaged with an initiative to do with asylum seekers or refugees. But actually, if you provide an easy path to do it and wrap it in positivity and fun, people come along. It’s not rocket science.
But if you look at it in Germany as well as in Ireland, there’s a dearth of these kinds of initiatives. So I think there’s a big gap there.
And I believe that through shared experience… like, Irish people are a bit mad, as, you know if they know somebody personally, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter where they’re from. They love that relationship, and they love to find out about the other person. That’s the most significant thing.
78% of the Irish people who run with us had never met an asylum seeker or refugee before. Now, 81% would say they’ve developed friendships with refugees and asylum seekers.
When you’re getting people who otherwise would never have engaged to start understanding that actually, this person is the same as me. Their skin colour, passport or their first language or their religion might be different, but your man is „a gas man“, and I love going running with him. And that’s it. You simplify everything.
Yeah, absolutely. We have players ourselves in the Cologne Celtics from Greece, Finland, India, and different countries, come together and play hurling and Gaelic football. And it’s brilliant, it’s just brilliant.
Your journalism career is really what brought this. Did you always have an interest in bringing people together, or was it from your journalist experience?
When I was in secondary school… When I started college, I used to work for the summer in a weekend job with Western Union money transfer. So you spoke to people from all over the world on the phone.
I always had a complete fascination with geography in the world, and it was through soccer that you’d get to know every capital of every country and different names through football clubs. World Cups would get you madly excited, and you would get to see the colour of the strips, so, therefore, you know, the colour of the flag. I have young lads now, and the same thing is happening. The African Cup of Nations was on recently, and now they know where all the countries in Africa are.
I was more of a feature writer than a journalist in my career. And feature writing is all about building up these nice relationships with people and sustaining them, trying to be sound and pleasant to people because you’ll need them again in the future. Those jobs involved bringing people together and working with people all the time.
Then when I was doing the Western Union money transfer thing, my boss one day said, Next Easter, you’re off. And I said, „why am I off in Easter?“ She said, „because you’re coming to Lourdes“, the pilgrimage place in France. Now, I wouldn’t be religious at all, but we used to go with children with special needs, so I did that. I ended up doing that for about 20 years.
That was where you literally would step out of your everyday life, and for a week, you’d be working with kids and teenagers with different special needs. You would have to give all of yourself. There was no other way. That was probably the foundation of what I went on to do in later life. Plus, I met my wife there, so that was quite handy. That helps!
You might have answered it slightly, but what does the future hold for the Sanctuary Runners movement? What are your hopes for? Do you have plans for the next five years or one year, or how do you plan forward?
Yeah, we just finished working with a consultant at the moment, and you make these strategies for the following X amount of years. So, yeah, the next three years, we’re building up to (the Olympics) Paris, 2024. My aim is to establish those groups in Europe and establish the groups in the US. We’ve been talking to some municipalities, councils and government authorities, NGOs, etc. In the United States, they’re very eager to get it going there.
My long-term vision is that the Sanctuary Runners should be everywhere in those other countries. I think it’s the kind of concept that there should be no impediment to it. We’ve had runners on a one-off basis in places like Tokyo and Shanghai and Australia and Africa so far. But to cement that, I suppose, to grow it – that is the aim.
The whole thing about the Sanctuary Runners, which is the most essential part of it really, is that it’s about doing stuff „with migrants“ rather than „for migrants“.
Often I feel that if you look at the whole approach in Ireland is about the integration of migrants, which you can find if you go to the relevant government Department.
Then they’re confusing integration with assimilation. I’m saying, „lads, that’s not the way that’s not going to work“ you look at France, you look at the UK, you look at the US, that doesn’t work! You need to be a lot cleverer than that.
My long-term vision is that the Sanctuary Runners should be everywhere in those other countries… To cement that, to grow it – that is the aim.
So my hope is that we can build all these groups everywhere. We can create and develop this „blue wave“ of positivity, decency, and solidarity. But at the same time, you can say, right, change your approaches, guys. If you do that, you can have lots of initiatives like this, and it will achieve a lot more, and everybody benefits.
As you said, when you meet people, and you put a face to them, and you hear their voice, and you get to know them, it changes from being a statistic to a real person you know. And that’s so important.
Totally. When I was young, we didn’t really talk to people from Cork, but through sports, I realised that they were the same as Kerry people. I’m only joking because I know you’re a Cork man!
Jeez, I wouldn’t go that far!
I should have said with my journalism, Oisín, sports, GAA, and everything. So I was the sports editor of „The Irish Post“ in London for a good few years as well. The funny thing about being a sports journalist and if you’ve interviewed any of them before, they’ll say the same. It’s funny because you love sports so much that it can take the good out of it a bit when you become a sports journalist.
So I was happy at it for a good few years, but I was happy to leave it because it was nice to watch a game without trying to follow every little thing going on.
But there was some great time with the journalism. I found Daniel Timofte in Bucharest. You know Daniel Timofte; his penalty was saved by Packie Bonner. Through the Romanian community in Ireland. I tracked him down, and I got him talking to Packie Bonner for the first time. They had never spoken, so they had a hands-free telephone conversation for about 20 minutes. It was all surreal.
But yes, sport is such a vehicle for so much more. And I’m finding that with „The Sanctuary Runners“ as well.
Sport can be so helpful to society if used correctly.
Judging by the date, you also started (well co-founded) an organisation called Translate Ireland during the first lockdown. Is that right?
Yes. So my wife is a GP (General practitioner – doctor), and when the pandemic started, we looked around, and all the information on Covid was in English and Irish here. We thought, okay, almost 90,000 people would have said that their standard of English was very poor or they had no English at the last census. So in the context of a pandemic, you’re going; it doesn’t make much sense if you’re not communicating with a big chunk of the population.
Plus, you would have had similar in Germany, I’m sure; you’d have parts of your population that would be very siloed. And they wouldn’t be reading the Irish Times and wouldn’t be watching RTE.
So we started doing that, but doing it with healthcare workers from those countries living and working in Ireland. So it’s a trusted, familiar face and it kind of mushroomed from there. We won two big national awards, which was great.
The best thing about it is we’ve had hundreds of thousands of views of videos, and now we’re doing stuff like all types of different areas of health. And what it’s done is it has held a mirror up to the likes of the Health Service, where they’re saying, why do we not have these resources? This is a bit daft.
There are 200 nationalities in the country, so it only makes sense that you would you can do it. It makes sense from two different viewpoints. One, people should have a human right to have information about health care, but the second is that it should improve how your health care system works. If the patient understands a lot more, of course. Yeah. It’s a no brainer, really.
Where I live, there would be lots of young Brazilian lads who work in food processing. So they would be on their phone, they would watch at the time at the start of the pandemic, like, Brazilian TV or listen to (President Jair) Bolsonaro, or they’d ring home, and mom would say, „no, Covid? I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m not worried about it here.“ So I was saying, guys, you need to open your eyes here to the health authorities and start producing trusted information in different languages.
When I looked around the world, even in Germany or other European countries, it was interesting still to see how little multilingual information is there.
Often, the information will just be in a text format. So that’s presuming literacy already. Sometimes you’re translating poorly written German or poorly written English into Swahili. It just doesn’t work. So you have to make sure it’s culturally appropriate.
Does Translate Ireland provide services in „just“ the health services, or has it expanded to other areas?
It’s expanded into other areas, such as providing services for the Department of Justice in terms of visas. We’ve done stuff for Women’s Aid in terms of domestic abuse, and we’re working with Sport Ireland.
Sport Ireland (for the first time) is coming up with a diversity and inclusion policy across all the different sporting organisations. Our workload is enormous, and it really impacts everything. It’s not enough just to translate a poster or to translate documents. If you want to make sure it lands, you have to be more innovative. We’re flat out with that.
We’re working on a huge project at the moment that should land next month, which will be a big one with the HSE. And so we’re excited about that as well.
Do you know what I love about it as well, Oisín? I love the fact that you had all these healthcare workers working away, and they were invisible. So if you turn on the news, the head of the Nursing Union or the Doctor’s Union or the consultants Union or whoever speaks, they’re all Irish. We’ve managed to find all these healthcare workers and bring them under one roof, from a nurse’s aid in a hospice to a consultant. We have an Eritrean cardiac consultant in Waterford. It’s nuts! It’s great to give visibility to these people as well, I think. And it’s healthy to do it.
Yeah, it’s modern Ireland. It’s different from many years ago. It reflects the real country that we have today, which is fantastic.
Yeah. And I think if you can do that in a non-threatening, kind of respectful, gentle, sensible way, but you don’t scare people to death. Some people don’t like change. I get that. But there’s a way of doing it. I think that’s the approach that needs to be taken.
So we came into contact last year with the Virtual Cork City Marathon. We had a team here in Cologne with the jerseys on, and we ran all over the Rhineland. I think we had a group in Dusseldorf, Bonn and Cologne.
How was that experience of the Virtual Cork City Marathon that the Sanctuary runners organised?
That was mad! We ended up with something like 1700 people in 40 countries running. We had people in Zimbabwe, China, Brazil and many more. I remember you being on the television, Oisín! Well, it was great. It was the most multicultural team that had ever come together in the world for a running event. Admittedly, I am basing that off the top of my head, I’m sure. But I couldn’t imagine there’s been one much more multicultural, because not only had you the 40 different countries, but within that, you would have had lots of nationalities. So it was lovely. It was really good.
It was mad when we look back on that whole Covid time in years to come, but the Virtual Cork City Marathon gave people a focus for a while. There was lots of virtual stuff, and sometimes they would drive you mad. There seemed to be constantly virtual things, but this one was different because we added a new country every day. It was cool.
I suppose we won’t be able to do it for this year’s marathon to the same degree, but undoubtedly blended events make a lot more sense, in my opinion, for what they should do with the Cork City Marathon, for example. It could be any marathon, but they should really try to reach people from Cork worldwide and use that diaspora cleverly. By doing that, you’re making those connections with people. At the same time, I’m sure if you are a Corkonian living in Cologne or in Perth, Australia or in Rio de Janeiro, you’d like the idea that you were running alongside Cork people all over the world.
Yeah, definitely. I took part in the Virtual Cork City Marathon myself last year, and it helped to feel connected to the whole thing. It was a nice feeling when I saw the social media posts and the comments afterwards.
What are your plans for this year? The Cork City Marathon is coming up in a month’s time, the 6th of June.
That’s right. I think 30 days or something like that.
So we have a few hundred people who will be taking part in Cork on the day. So they will be a combination of Irish people, refugees in Ireland, and people from other countries, European countries who are living and working here. Also, we will have some Ukrainian people who’ve recently arrived who are eager to get involved as well.
Our job is to try to organise it, and it’s nuts because you’re trying to get people on buses. It’s crazy as, after all, the relay teams will be made up of five strangers who have never met before… Then they have to try to recognise the (other) person, but it works.
It will be brilliant as you have this team with somebody from Ukraine alongside somebody from Syria, alongside somebody from Afghanistan, alongside somebody from Kerry who’ll be just running together. The Ukrainian guys I was talking to yesterday thought that it was important that the plight of the many was understood and respected as well as their own situation.
It’s going to be great.
We have loads of people running in relay teams. We also have some in the full marathon and some doing the half marathon. So our job is to try to organise it, and it’s nuts because you’re trying to get people on buses. It’s crazy as, after all, the relay teams will be made up of five strangers who have never met before. They might have met or never met, but we put them together on WhatsApp, so they’re WhatsApping each other in the build-ups in a week or two leading up to the race.
We are trying to put a refugee on every relay team, and the rest are non-refugees. So it’s a bit wonderfully chaotic, and you’re trying to get people on time to the start of their leg to be there by the time that the person finishes. Then they have to try to recognise the person, but it works. It works. We have colour-coded handovers and all this. So it’s nuts.
I tend to go out and do the last leg of the last relay team. That’s what I’ve done in the past. So at least then, you know, everybody is more or less fine.
Then we have a big street party on one end of Prince’s Street in Cork City. I also set up community singing groups with lots of different nationalities. So in Fermoy, we have a choir with 28 different nationalities in it, and they’ll be coming down to Prince’s Street and singing.
We’ll have drummers from Burundi, and we’ll have a Palestinian guy I’ve known for a few years who has a restaurant/cafe in Cork, „Izz Cafe“, quite famous now, there who is going to be preparing food. The Lord Mayor will present medals, and we’ll capture it all on video. It’s a lovely day.
That sounds fantastic. That sounds like a brilliant day out.
Yeah. My hope would be wouldn’t it be great if you could do something like that in the Cologne Marathon in October? November? November, I think.
We could definitely learn a lot from that!
And I think what we’ll do is we’ll use the Cork City Marathon as a template and we are putting a video together for it this year. Cork City Council has really been helpful. So my hope is that we say to the local government in Cologne or wherever, this is what you get out of this for yourselves.
But also it’s great craic, and it’s very positive, but that’s our hope to convince other cities to do something similar.
Yes, brilliant. So my final question is, are the rumours true that a group from the Sanctuary Runners are coming to Cologne soon?
Yes, that’s the plan. So I managed to strong-arm the twinning Department in Cork City Council, and I said I would love to head over to Cologne. We’d also love to get the guys from Cologne here as the time is short in terms of this year’s Cork City Marathon.
But we can definitely, and we plan definitely, to send maybe two or three of the Sanctuary Runners from Cork over to Cologne and meet people over there and perhaps take part in the marathon and develop those kinds of links so that we can start a group in Cologne and then in a year’s time, get some of the guys, maybe some of the guys from the club over to Cork to experience the Cork City Marathon. That would be brilliant.
Yeah, we’ll get that up and running. And again, once the lads are over here, they have to come down to our club, come down to play a bit of hurling, play a bit of Gaelic football. They’re more than welcome.
That’d be brilliant. Thanks, Oisín.
If you would like to get involved with the Sanctuary Runners, make sure to check out their social media and website. If you are interested in establishing a Sanctuary Runners club in Ireland, Germany or elsewhere worldwide, make sure to get in contact with Graham and the rest of the team at email@example.com.
If you would like to know more about the Cologne Celtics GAA Club, make sure to check out the rest of our website and our social media platforms. Alternatively, contact us directly if you would like to play our sports or to engage our club in other projects.
More photos from Clare Keogh can be found at her website: https://www.clarekeogh.ie/
Top image courtesy of Graham Clifford.