Direct provision Dublin Marathon runners: ‘I will just follow the fastest runner, because I don’t know the route’

The not-for-profit Sanctuary Runners focus on the positive act of integration of Irish people and those living in direct provision centres through the simple act of running

The October morning sun is dancing colour and light around Fairview Park, just north of Dublin city centre, and with it a group of not all super-fit looking runners.

Bounding with energy and wild enthusiasm, they’re finishing up some warm-down exercises after their last group run ahead of the Dublin Marathon, set for Sunday week, October 29th – complete with a merry chant which sounds something like a “heigh-ho, heigh-ho…”

Recognisable and already known to many by their distinctive T-shirts in swimming-pool blue, the Sanctuary Runners are for more than five years now a sort of microcosm of successful community integration. Their simple aim hasn’t changed: to bring together Irish people and those living in direct provision centres for a run in their area, typically the short Saturday morning 5km parkrun at venues around the country.

They have broadened the aim to bring in anyone living in emergency accommodation, given how much that situation has also worsened. Only now it seems are they moving up to the marathon in increasing numbers. This time, over 26.2 miles – or 42.2km – there is no such thing as any shortcut.

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“Dublin is my first marathon, and I’m feeling good,” says Koffi Kpoglo, who arrived here from Togo in September 2022, and is now living at an emergency accommodation centre for refugees on Dublin’s Gardiner Street.

“It is a long way, but I have no real fear, no nerves, no.”

Lovemore Murewa, originally from Zimbabwe and currently living in the direct provision and emergency accommodation centre at the former ESB block in East Wall, is also tackling the classic distance for the first time.

“Training is going so-so, because I have a slight knee problem,” he tells me. “But it’s always easier when we run and train together as a group, and it’s exciting for me.”

As it is for Janet Jones, also a first-time marathon runner, with the Dublin event by chance also falling on her birthday. Originally from Nigeria and living in direct provision in Clondalkin, she shows us a photo saved on her phone of marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, with his message: “When you start struggling, just smile!”

There’s a message too from Graham Clifford, former journalist and co-founder of Sanctuary Runners, who has travelled up earlier this morning from his home in Fermoy, Co Cork. Their obvious “spiritual leader”, he’s duly leading by example too, running in Dublin on Sunday week for the first time in four years.

“And the good news is there is no ‘wall’ in Dublin this year,” Clifford says with a smile, referring to the marathon’s dreaded metaphorical “wall” that runners can hit around the 20-mile mark. “Cutbacks and all that!”

By now, the marathon runner somewhere inside of me is getting slightly anxious. It’s fine to be all laid-back and smiling, but do they all fully realise what exactly is in store?

Do they not know Con Houlihan once described the marathon as a sort of horizontal Everest, with almost as many perils, particularly as you get closer to the finish?

Do they have any idea the original marathon runner in Greece all those years ago didn’t actually live to tell his tale?

With that also comes the realisation that this is no ordinary group of runners, in many more ways than one: running 26.2 miles through the streets of Dublin is nothing compared to the marathon journey most of them have already had to complete to escape war or persecution.

Any additional challenges and obstacles to training for a marathon while living in direction provision or emergency accommodation – and they too are many – are unquestionably helped by the shared spirit and enthusiasm of the Sanctuary Runners, including those not running in Dublin.

In all the Sanctuary Runners team for the Dublin Marathon will number about 40, with participants from Ghana, Togo, South Africa, Croatia, Nigeria, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Bolivia, with the rest all from Ireland.

It’s no surprise to find they have their own WhatsApp group, sharing articles and advice on injuries, words of encouragement, details of a recent run on Strava perhaps – anything to help keep up the motivation, just in case anyone does have doubts.

When you get this community behind you, it just gives you a different feeling, and you say ‘Let me do it, I want to do it…'

—  Noel Selorm Adabblah, originally from Ghana

Clifford and his Irish colleagues from the Sanctuary Runners are also handing out marathon running packs including new running socks, plasters, blister packs and petroleum jelly.

“Everyone here is treated as their own autonomous adult, that’s part of the whole point, but at the same time they mightn’t have the disposable income, and even if they are working they just mightn’t have the time to spend money on these small things [that] they might consider a luxury anyway.

“And yes, while they are all mostly young and fearless, they’ve all have been getting proper guidance as well following a training plan as best they can over the last few months, so they do know what’s ahead in that regard.”

Indeed, Kpoglo, from Togo, is being coached by Noel Selorm Adabblah, who was himself trafficked into the fishing industry in Ireland from Ghana. He entered direct provision after after he eventually got to move on from that life, and now lives independently, working as a welder.

It will be Adabblah’s third time to run in Dublin, finishing his first go in 3 hrs 17 mins, having cycled to the start line from the direct provision centre in Ballymun (and back from the finish).

“I think at the moment he is in a comfortable position,” Adabblah says of Kpoglo and his training. The two runners coincidentally are originally from opposite sides of the Togo-Ghana border in northwest Africa.

“I’m sure he will finish… I mean, you can tell from his smile and everything! He has fallen in love with running. I’ll give him four hours. And I tell him ‘Just look out for our blue T-shirts’, because that is always a motivation.

“It’s what inspires most of us; this is a community, we come here without any relatives, nobody; [we] have been through all these challenges, and when you get this community behind you, it just gives you a different feeling, and you say ‘Let me do it, I want to do it…’”

Kpoglo adds: “It’s a bit difficult to train in the mornings and go to work in the afternoons, but I manage to deal with it. Sanctuary Runners helps us a lot. It’s like a family. The most difficult thing is integration, but thanks to the support, everything is going well at the moment.”

Accommodation is still the most difficult thing to deal with as a refugee in Ireland; I find it easy to focus on training because I have coaches and friends who help me through my training

—  Kahumburuka Ivan Tuahuku, originally from Botswana

Charity Mkwebu is running Dublin for the second time (finishing last year in 4 hrs 17 mins): originally from Zimbabwe, she’s also living in direct provision in East Wall, which has previously been subjected to a series of protests over immigration, and is less than ideal for marathon-training purposes.

“Before coming here, I was always a sports person, but not long running,” she says. “I started with the parkrun in Poppintree, in Ballymun, and the 5km, and I just kept going. For me, that’s the secret, just to keep going.”

The Sanctuary Runners are keen to emphasise that none of their events are races, and that what they do has nothing to do with the issue of race. It’s all about asylum seekers and refugees and Irish citizens coming together as one without fear and about being visible doing that, too – all under their founding motto of solidarity, friendship, respect.

The team at the Irish Life Dublin Marathon have been of assistance too. Kahumburuka Ivan Tuahuku, originally from Botswana, is running Dublin for the first time, and certainly has the pace, having won the Sanctuary Run 5km at the Sport Ireland campus earlier this month.

Tuahuku, who came here in 2022, is living in direct provision in Tallaght, having already spent several months living at Pairc Uí Chaoimh stadium in Cork and in tents in Athlone, Co Westmeath.

“I decided to run the marathon because I want to take part in community events, to help me interact with other people in the community,” he says, with part of his marathon guidance coming courtesy of Cecil Johnston at Tallaght Athletic Club.

“Accommodation is still the most difficult thing to deal with as a refugee in Ireland; I find it easy to focus on training because I have coaches and friends who help me through my training. I realised running is my talent and I have to show it out, with the encouragement from other Sanctuary runners, friends and my coach.”

For Gladis Gimena Vela Esquivel, who arrived in Ireland from Bolivia in April of this year, the challenge of training for her first marathon while living in direct provision is likewise made immeasurably easier by the support of her fellow runners.

It’s also about bringing a little more diversity to the marathon and for people watching as we run by, to reflect that diversity of the city and the country

—  Graham Clifford, co-founder of Sanctuary Runners

“It is a goal that I always wanted to achieve, to run in a marathon,” she says. “Now the Sanctuary Runners gave me the opportunity to run a marathon and I decided to take it without thinking too much about it. This will be my first marathon. I want to feel strong, prove to myself that I can. I run to feel free.”

Zoran Vesel from Croatia has run many marathons before, only not in Dublin, and he’s eying up an improvement on his previous best time of 4 hrs 5 mins.

“Running I know is not easy... but at some point, I realised running has changed my life,” he says.

As for his race tactics come marathon Sunday, he says: “I will just follow the fastest runner, because I don’t know the route.”

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To further inspire and assist with their marathon effort on Sunday week, the Sanctuary Runners will set up two cheering zones along the route, with the first at Terenure, around the 18-mile mark, the other shortly before the mile-to-go mark.

“It’s also about bringing a little more diversity to the marathon,” says Clifford, “and for people watching as we run by, to reflect that diversity of the city and the country.”

Some of the Irish runners also running on Sunday week are Leah Benson and Darren Hanlon, two long-time members of the Sanctuary Runners group, along with Deirdre Balfe, Marc Hand, Deirdre McGinn and Michael Doyle, all from different professional backgrounds and cross-sections of Irish society. From Athlone to Letterkenny, Tralee to Youghal, there are now about 32 Sanctuary Runners groups across Ireland, with more than 1,000 regular runners.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 has brought ever-worsening pressure to bear upon the country’s emergency accommodation. Part of the problem is that those seeking or in need of integration are increasingly spread out, not just in direct provision centres: they are now also being housed in emergency accommodation, hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels and pre-reception centres, all in the queue to get into another queue.

First set up as an interim arrangement in 2000, direct provision was never intended to last so long or cope with so many people. The living conditions have often been described as an “open prison set-up” (or in some cases worse) – a lonely existence which can last for an average of three or more years.

In 2021, the Government published a white paper that set out a plan to end the “expensive and inefficient” system by next year – that’s now being pushed out even further again.

For Clifford, one of the original aims of the not-for-profit Sanctuary Runners was also to steer clear of negativity, including any unnecessary or unwanted conversation around the personal situations of those living in direct provision. The focus instead was to be placed on the purely positive act of integration through the simple act of running.

“And the part I’m most looking forward to about the Dublin Marathon is when we all get together after the finish and share our experiences,” he says.

All are already safe in the knowledge there will be no mention of the wall this year.