Sanctuary Runners – From Ireland to the World

A Note from Graham Clifford, Founder

Even in the early days of Sanctuary Runners I started to receive emails and messages from people in other countries asking about our initiative – about our unique model of doing things ‘WITH’ rather than for people.

The simple concept with the big impact.

In 2019, just a year after being established, we were named by the European Commission as one of the top ten ‘Solidarity-Through-Sports’ initiatives as part of their Europe-wide Be Inclusive Awards.

During the darkest days of the Covid19 Pandemic our virtual Run Through Africa project, powered by our incredible team, saw people take part in countries from South Africa up the east coast of the continent, across to West Africa and right the way over to Tripoli in Libya where it finished. 

School children in the Central African Republic ran with the Sanctuary Runners thanks to the influence of an Irish teacher, our ambassadors and diplomatic teams abroad opened their doors and even the relations and friends of Sanctuary Runners now in Ireland took part in countries such as Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Ghana, Libya, and Ethiopia.

The international dimension of our work has always been there – just beyond the horizon.

The virtual Cork City Marathon of 2021 enabled us to get Sanctuary Runner teams taking part in Cologne, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Rennes, Coventry, Rio de Janeiro, Zimbabwe, Dubai, Boston, London, San Francisco and elsewhere – all wearing their Sanctuary Runner blue and running in solidarity, friendship and respect with all those who are displaced. See: https://www.rte.ie/news/2021/0606/1226360-sanctuary-runners-cork-marathon/ 

And news of our endeavours reached the United Nations in both New York and Geneva.

In March 2022 I addressed a meeting of the influential ‘Group of Friends of Sport for Sustainable Development’ at the United Nations in New York to speak about our initiative, its aims and unique structure. As a result, Sanctuary Runners was asked to consult on a report from the Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres to the UN General Assembly on the power of sport to attain greater community integration and social cohesion within society.

What began as a small Irish initiative having an impact on a global scale.

Sanctuary Runners was short-listed for a prestigious international Leadership in Sport Award alongside major global sports brands including Arsenal FC and Adidas Awards in an event which took place at the Natural History Museum in London.  See: https://sanctuaryrunners.ie/2022/08/11/the-sanctuary-runners-take-on-the-gunners-for-top-international-sports-leadership-award/ 

And in 2022 I presented at the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement conference held at the International Conference Centre in Geneva at the invitation of Nasc (the Migrant and Refugee Rights centre)  and the Government of Ireland. See: https://sanctuaryrunners.ie/2023/07/03/international-conference-in-geneva-hears-of-sanctuary-runners-impact-on-mental-health-of-refugees/ 

Meanwhile the queries kept coming from individuals and groups seeking to collaborate or start their own Sanctuary Runners group abroad – queries from Brussels, Edinburgh, London (where we piloted a group in west London), San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Newcastle, Brighton, Swansea, Nicosia, Milan, Bilbao, Sydney and beyond.

We played our part too in shining a light on the suffering of so many innocent victims of brutal wars in Ukraine and Palestine – working with the Irish Red Cross to hold two dedicated runs for the people of each country.

See: https://sanctuaryrunners.ie/2023/11/17/sanctuary-runners-to-hold-a-national-run-for-gaza-amid-humanitarian-crisis/ 

At the end of 2023 I was asked to return to Geneva by UNHCR Ireland to present at the Global Refugee Forum – again championing the role of sport to break down barriers between people, to act as a positive agent of change but only if all were involved as equals. To reiterate the line “Refugees don’t want your pity, they want your respect”.

The ambition to explore ways to grow our Sanctuary Runner footprint has been ever present and is one of our stated aims in our constitution.

And now I’m delighted to say I will be moving from my former role as CEO to the new position as ‘Head of International Development’. I can do this because we now have a small, but fantastic, team in place who are doing a great job managing and growing Sanctuary Runners in Ireland.

It’s an incredibly exciting, and much-needed, transition at a time when many wish to sow division, suspicion, hate and fear in societies across the world. I believe our model can adapt globally and I’m looking forward to work with others to make that happen. 

I am so very proud that we can take a concept, tried and tested successfully here in Ireland, where we now have 40 groups all around the country and bring it to the world.

The evolution to the point where our focus can broaden would not be possible were it not for the tireless efforts of the entire Sanctuary Runner team – staff, directors and volunteers across Ireland.

Their continuous dedication to the initiative, hard work and energy to create new groups and participatory events is inspiring and is the reason why over 15,000 people have taken part in a Sanctuary Runner activity since we took our first steps in February 2018.

It’s why we were named ‘Best initiative to promote inclusion in sport’ at the Irish Sports Industry Awards in 2022. Now a registered charity I know everyone is determined to continue that momentum in Ireland.

I’ve been so honoured to have met so many incredible people through Sanctuary Runners over the years who have taught me so much about building bridges, community integration and what can be achieved if we just stop, listen and extend the hand of friendship to all.

I want to take those learnings and help people and communities across the world.

We have one particularly exciting project waiting in the wings which will bring our Sanctuary Runner concept global and in the coming months I will be exploring how to further enhance our blue wave of solidarity, friendship and respect.

Of course, as founder of Sanctuary Runners I will continue to help out on the home front and you’ll see me at runs across Ireland for many years to come!

And I look forward to working with our new CEO (see: www.sanctuaryrunners.ie/careers ) who we hope will be recruited in the near future, and the rest of the amazing Sanctuary Runners team.

To continue to build momentum, bridges and hope one step at a time.

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