A former refugee from Lambeth is running an incredible 262 miles over the course of ten days to raise money for a community-based charity in south west London that helps over 1,000 refugees, migrants and asylum seekers each year.
Celestine Agbo, who is 62 years old, is running a full marathon every single day to fundraise for South London Refugee Association (SLRA) in celebration of its 30th anniversary.
Agbo began his ‘Run of gratitude‘ challenge last Saturday, 4th September, and has today completed his seventh consecutive marathon this morning, with three left to go.
He has raised £13,135 of his £15,000 target so far and completed each marathon in under 3.5 hours.
Life as a refugee
Agbo became a refugee at the age of seven and spent several years in refugee camps during the Biafran war in the 1960s, a conflict which is estimated to have killed between one and three million people.
His mother, who was working in the UK at the time, spotted her son on the news and went back to Biafra on an arduous journey to save her children and bring them back with her.
Agbo has written a novel about his story called ‘Dragonflies and Matchsticks‘.
He explained that arriving in the UK at the age of ten was no easy feat.
He said: “For the first six months or a year, whenever I heard a plane flying overhead, I’d just dive for the nearest ditch to hide because we were so used to being bombed by fighter jets.
“And then there was the issue of having literally no English. So school wasn’t a pleasant time, but you’d just get on with it because nothing was worse than what we’d just left.
“Even being chased around the playground by other children was great fun in comparison to running from explosions.”
Agbo told SWL that there was little support and poor provision for refugees when he first arrived here, and is glad to see so many charities like SLRA providing a vital lifeline for people in similar circumstances.
He added: “The fact that wars are still happening is terrible and they should never happen, but they keep erupting all over the world, and there’ll always be refugees.
“I was fortunate enough to escape and start a new life here with my family, and I’m so grateful for that. Every day is a blessing.
“But not a lot of refugees are able to do the same.”
Supporting refugees, migrants and asylum seekers
Agbo, who began working at SLRA as a volunteer, set up the organisation’s emergency food bank at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing together volunteer drivers and distributing food to families in the area.
He said: “I’ve worked with charities for the majority of my adult life. So this is home for me. The work that this organisation does is absolutely phenomenal.”
SWL also spoke to SLRA director Celia Sands, 55, from Lambeth about the work the organisation does and how the money raised by Agbo will help them to continue to provide support for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
She explained the lack of high quality immigration advice available for migrants, and said that although SLRA works with people from a range of backgrounds, one thing they all have in common is that they’ve experienced significant trauma in their home country which has forced them to leave.
She said: “We see a lot of people who’ve been separated from their family, and we also see people who’ve been trafficked to the UK or exploited once they’ve arrived here.
“The process that people then have to go to through to try to work out how our immigration or asylum system works here is really challenging for anybody, even for us who work here and have trained in immigration.
“I hear my colleagues sitting on the phone for hours, trying to trying to find a way for people who’ve just arrived in the country, even to just make an asylum claim. It’s all quite chaotic.”
Sands explained that while support is always needed, there is a particular need at the moment given the recent turn of events in Afghanistan.
SLRA has been working for many years with people who have had to flee Afghanistan, many of whom are extremely concerned about family members and loved ones who haven’t been able to leave.
“Over the last couple of weeks, that’s really been heightened,” said Sands.
“We’ve seen so many of the Afghan people we work with just so anxious and distressed and feeling so powerless.”
Despite the challenges faced, however, Sands highlighted the kindness found in the community in the form of volunteers and others who provide help and support to those facing such difficulties.
She said: “I think in London, and especially in south west London, there’s a lot of goodwill.
“It’s a diverse place, people are generally used to welcoming others who have come here from other parts of the world, and there’s celebration of that.”
How the fundraiser will support SLRA
Speaking of Agbo’s run, Sands said: “It’s an extraordinary thing that he’s doing.
“I know that a lot of people are going to the page and donating, and that’s really helpful for us when we’re trying to support more people and provide more counselling and advice.
“We’re all rooting for him.”
Sands added that money raised from the fundraiser will be invaluable in helping provide additional mental health support to Afghan migrants.
She said: “The counselling we’ve been able to provide makes a real difference to people, and we want to be able to offer more of those sessions so that they can have the chance to come together and talk about what they’re going through.”
Aside from counselling, the money will also be used to provide food, toiletries and clean clothes to people who have just arrived and who are looking for emergency accommodation.
“Just being able to give them clean underwear, socks, and things like that make a difference when they first arrive,” said Sands.
The multi-marathon secret?
SWL asked Agbo what the secret was to being able to run ten consecutive marathons at the tender age of 62, and he told us that there is no ‘magic secret’ per se. Sorry to disappoint.
However, he did give us a few pointers.
Agbo, who lives with his nutritionist wife, has been on a vegetarian or vegan diet for the majority of his life, which he said helps.
He also highlighted the importance of drinking lots of water, eating well and staying active.
He said: “I have appreciation for the self, for the body and what it can do for you. So I try to look after it in return as best I can.
“Of course, it requires a lot of discipline because it’s easy to just say ‘Oh I’ll start tomorrow’.
“But I think running is one of those things that a lot of people can do. When you think of running a marathon – a whopping 26.2 miles – it can be daunting, but you have to take it one step at a time.
“I also think that because of my childhood experience, there’s nothing I’ve ever thought I can’t do. I just think ‘As long as I’m here and I’m healthy, I’m going to try that.'”
Agbo has expressed his gratitude to all who have donated so far to his fundraiser, and encourages more to contribute to the cause.
To keep updated on his run or donate, visit his JustGiving page.