BRIGHTON, England: “We don’t talk about Farhad and Amine as refugees,” Tim Holtam said, as he drove along Brighton’s seafront on a recent wet and windy morning. “They are table tennis coaches before they are anything else.”
Sat directly behind him were the subjects of Holtam’s matter-of-fact introduction: Farhad, an 18-year-old asylum-seeker from Afghanistan; and Amine, 16, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who had arrived in the UK a few months ago. Both were wearing red t-shirts with the logo of Brighton Table Tennis Club printed on the back.
A former teacher and international junior table tennis player, Holtam is co-founder of Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC), which helps refugees and asylum-seekers integrate through table tennis in this popular seaside resort south of London.
BTTC is one of many clubs across the country using sports to bring refugees and locals together. Since it began in 2007, the club has welcomed hundreds from all walks of life, including the elderly, adults with learning disabilities and children in care, while running a number of dedicated classes for refugees and asylum-seekers.
For its work with refugees, BTTC was awarded 'Club of Sanctuary’ status in 2016, the first club to be given this title by City of Sanctuary, a nationwide movement which recognises cities, schools and local groups welcoming those in need. In July 2017, Sport England, a national governing body, commended the club for its “ground-breaking” work helping refugee integration in Brighton.
The club’s success has been driven by Holtam’s belief in table tennis as a tool for positive social change. For Holtam, the sport is “a great leveler,” and a way of creating “a seamless cohesion” between groups, regardless of their age, ability or background.
“What really makes the sessions is having Farhad and Amine as positive role models for the children”
Holtam recently witnessed the life-changing potential of table tennis in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, home to over 80,000 Syrian refugees, where a project run by the International Table Tennis Federation, with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been training refugees to become coaches.
“It’s the perfect model for engagement,” Holtam said. “Light relief against the stark realities, beneficial to everyone’s mental health.”
Back in Brighton, the club’s most recent venture – training in local schools – is supporting students from minority backgrounds who have English as an additional language and have been struggling to integrate into school life. These outreach projects also offer refugees and asylum-seekers the opportunity to give something back to the local community by passing on their paddle skills.
Holtam parked outside Hove Park School, a local secondary school on the Brighton’s outskirts.
The session, watched by UNHCR, took place in the school’s main assembly hall. Holtam, Farhad and Amine swiftly set up the tables, as a group of excited school children burst through the doors for their lesson.
After a short demonstration, the children were put into groups – two or three per coach. For the next thirty minutes, the hall echoed with the patter of ping pong balls and the laughter of children. Throughout the session, Farhad and Amine took their coaching roles seriously, guiding the children and demonstrating the sport.
Farhad and Amine’s bilingual skills also proved useful. In one instance, Farhad was able to speak Pashtu with a boy, also from Afghanistan.
“What really makes the sessions is having Farhad and Amine as positive role models for the children,” said Holtam.
After the session, Holtam and his team returned to the club – recently moved to its newly renovated home in Brighton’s Kemptown area – which was already in full swing as volunteers and coaches prepared for the afternoon session. The club runs 25 weekly table-tennis sessions; this one was for adults with learning difficulties, followed by a session for local kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It is bringing people together and that is all we want.”
In the main room, the décor conveys diversity and inclusivity. A row of large country flags adorns the far wall, each representing the nationality of club members. In the opposite corner, sits a large and colorfully-decorated Refugees Welcome banner.
Despite their intense morning, Farhad and Amine were more than happy to join in. As the matches continued, the two refugees were clearly at ease.
Coming to the UK as an asylum-seeker in 2015, with little grasp of the language or culture, Farhad’s initial experience was overwhelming. “Everything was new,” he said. “I couldn’t understand what people were saying. Actually I had a really hard time.”
Everything changed when his social worker referred him to BTTC. “My social worker said, ‘Come and see this table tennis club. You will enjoy it. You will make friends. You will learn to speak English.’”
So I came here to see Tim [Holtam], and I became interested in the sport, because it was teaching me English and table tennis. That is why I love it now.”
Amine, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who spent six months in the Calais ‘Jungle,’ also struggled adapting to life in the UK. “When I came here I felt nervous. I didn’t know anyone,” he said.
“Since joining the table tennis club I have made loads of friends.”
As afternoon became evening, the table tennis continued. Amine, Farhad and Naqiib, another refugee from Afghanistan, were playing a high tempo rally against Harry Fairchild, a coach at the club and the UK’s first professional player with Down's syndrome. For the refugees BTTC is more than a sports club: it is an opportunity to make friends, learn English and find a community.
“People are working together, helping each other,” Farhad said. “It is bringing people together and that is all we want.”
This story is part of a series exploring the ways people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome.