“On a Tuesday we have young Irish travellers being coached by Afghan unaccompanied minors, the world’s first Table Tennis coach with Down’s syndrome and local white British kids.”
This matter-of-fact introduction to Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) from its co-founder, Tim Holtam, perfectly captures the diversity of Britain’s first Club of Sanctuary.
Tim, 32, is sitting outside on a metal ping-pong table with his feet dangling off the edge. One of the UK’s most iconic seafronts is visible less than 20 metres away.
Immediately behind him is an old school hall, leased to him by a local Canon, and the venue where hundreds of refugees, migrants and native-born Brightonians assemble every week.
But they’re not just there to learn table tennis. While the club’s staff and coaches boast an impressive array of ex-international stars, its real purpose is far more meaningful.
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It began ten years ago as a means to help white working-class kids from Brighton’s deprived neighbourhoods.
With those kinds of values from the very beginning, we’ve now expanded into working with adults with learning disabilities, children in foster care, refugees and homeless people." Tim Holtam
“Any group that could benefit from some social engagement and some social inclusion and some fun through table tennis is welcome,” Tim explains.
“In February 2007, me and co-founder Harry McCarney had two old tables in the Brighton Youth Centre; over ten years it’s grown and now we’ve got over 1,000 people a week playing on over 100 tables across Brighton in schools and outside.”
In May last year, BTTC became the UK’s first Club of Sanctuary. The Sanctuary title was previously only given to cities and schools. It is a grassroots scheme, created in 2005, that honours places that “take pride in the welcome they offer to people in need of safety”. BTTC has also been given substantial grants from Sport England to support its refugee integration work.
Tim adds, as an afterthought of the club’s progress: “Yeah, it’s become a bit of a thing.”
It is just after 3pm on a Friday. Tim waves at a mother wheeling her pushchair down the road and warns me he will soon have to rush off at 15-minute intervals to collect kids finishing at school in his van to bring them to that afternoon’s training session.
He is beaming with pride as he takes me inside, introducing the kids and coaches, and showing me round the newly-refurbished venue.
Immediately, a long trail of flags lining the furthest wall in the main hall catch your eye: the bright colours of the tropes from Brazil to Japan each hung in honour of a player at the club who hails from that country.
When I quiz Pedro Santos, a formidable Portugese player and BTTC Head Coach, on the nationalities of the kids at the club, he reels off a list of eight European countries and ten from the rest of the world - including Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria.
“I was just thinking about the people that actually play in competitions, so not even talking about the social aspect of the club,” he adds.
On the same wall as the flags are four maps: three of the world’s populated continents - North America and South America; Europe and Africa; and Asia and Oceania - and a hyperlocal one of Brighton and its neighbourhoods.
Each new addition to the club puts a pin in the map to show where they have come from, and the mix is extraordinary.
A ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner - with all the letters spelt out in individual ping pong balls taped together - is the final flourish that completes BTTC’s backdrop.
Ping pong might not seem like an obvious way of supporting refugees and vulnerable migrants, as well as native-born kids born into impoverishment, but to Tim, it made perfect sense.
“I think that the newly-arrived refugees that don’t have a support network - unaccompanied minors, they don’t have parents with them - they can come straight into the club and make friends, feel like they’ve got a support network, get good at something, get some attention, and learn English.
“The refugees have benefited, but the host community - their peers, if you like - they’ve benefited because they feel like they’re helping but they’re also getting to know Farhad, Ahmed and Naqeeb.
It’s just kind of seamless community cohesion through playing ping pong together. Tim Holtam
“It doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult thing to set up. Just put table tennis tables up, people come and play together and then everything else just happens naturally.”
Farhad, one of the refugees Tim refers to, was forced to flee Afghanistan and arrived on the shores of Britain in the winter of 2014.
“When I came first to this country, I didn’t know anyone, and also my speaking English was not good,” he tells me.
“I was living in [nearby] Newhaven, and my social worker said to me ‘Come, there’s a table tennis club, I’ll take you there - you can find friends there’ because I was alone and really bored.
“And then I started doing Monday and Tuesday lessons here, every week. And then I found some English friends here and Tim - he has helped me a lot.
“So now I’m enjoying table tennis and this is my first year that I’ve been playing for the Brighton League in Division two with Team Afghanistan.
“It’s really good for all of us, especially for refugees, when they come to this country they don’t know anyone. When they come here they find friends and then they get better English, because everybody’s speaking English together.”
There is certainly no shortage of evidence that one of the ways BTTC helps migrants integrate into their new host community is through learning the native language.
Tim shows me a clip on his phone of another coach at the club, Wen Wei, who hails from Shanghai, teaching English to Ethiopia refugee Samir.
Wen Wei tosses the ball to Samir, and the pair take turns reciting letters of the alphabet in order each time they hit it back over the net. Wen Wei does the same exercise with numbers and months of the year.
Pedro does his fair share of English teaching to new kids, too: “In terms of confidence, I think that’s the most important bit.
“They don’t know what to do or who to talk with, but after two or three sessions they’re already engaging with lots of people and lots of different people, not just British but also migrants.
“So I think this club helps in terms of integration, especially helping the migrants to integrate with the British and the European culture for those that are out of Europe.”
Pedro adds that English-speaking coaches at the club also help their foreign-born players with school work, and refugees to decipher complex paperwork.
And what of the club’s commitment to native Britons?
“We had a session here once about each flag on the wall: you had to say what was the country, try to count until five in that language and one curiosity of that country. We always had someone from that country to help,” Pedro responds.
“I think it works both way - for migrants, who learn a lot about the British culture and speaking English and how to live in England, and for the British, I think they get a bit more culture, a bit more knowledge by learning from other countries and cultures.”
After speaking to me, Pedro gets on with the serious business of beginning a warm up for that afternoon’s training session.
Sasha, 13, is one of the most enthusiastic participants. He throws himself into exercises - including jogging while bouncing a table tennis ball on the thin edge of a bat - and speaks excitedly to the other young players.
Later, while Farhad assists Pedro and Tim in teaming up kids to practice rally with each other, I speak to Sasha.
“I’ve made good friends with the refugees here, like Ahmed, Naqeeb and Farhad,” he says.
“It’s good to make friends with people who we get to know a bit about their background, especially as they’ve been through a lot being refugees.
“It’s good to know what they’ve been through.”
The club’s success on uniting migrants and struggling natives is an incredible feat, but really only the tip of the iceberg.
A boy at that afternoon’s session who has ADHD tells me: “I’ll be coming here when I’m 60.”
Another player, Chris O’Flinn, who has Down’s Syndrome, says: “It’s been a fantastic year for me because it’s like a family round here.”
He gestures behind him to the wall of flags: “Can you see the flag of Ireland? I came from Dublin, Ireland, to Brighton to be a part of the table tennis since Tim opened the fundraising for the refugees.”
Chris went to Sweden earlier this year with the BTTC disabled squad to compete in a club exchange.
He has already been there three times and Germany twice, all courtesy of the EU.
The Erasmus Plus fund donated €50,000 (£42,000) to sports clubs including BTTC involved in the exchange scheme to subsidise travel and competition costs for 300 players to go on exchanges in six countries.
That funding is set to rise to €500,000 next year, thanks to the FIFH club in Malmo, Sweden. They are the “driving force”, Tim says, behind the expansion that will see a much larger number of countries included.
But Tim admits that Brexit could precipitate a massive change in the fate of the squad’s ability to participate.
“It’s a bit unclear what’s going to happen to the funding,” he says.
“It’s an amazing project, taking 20 people from Brighton to Sweden, to Germany, and they will come here. This year, the club in Sweden has organised an even-bigger 12-country project, and we’re one of the lead clubs on that.
“But post-Brexit I’m not sure if anyone in this country’s going to be invited to those projects, so it’s a bit unclear what’s going to happen there. But it’s been amazing and I hope that that can carry on.”
I ask him what that would mean to the people he and the club give so much happiness to.
“We would be banished to our little island,” he says. “It’s going to be much harder to take people to Europe if we need visas every time we go. It’s unclear how it’s all going to play out but it’s going to make things much more difficult.
“We’re taking kids to Portugal, we’ve just got back from Sweden, and if that has to stop then that’s a big shame, because the kids learn so much from doing those trips.
For some of the players we have organised them getting passports as they have never had opportunities to go abroad before. Their involvement in table tennis has enabled it." Tim Holtam
“Residential trips for anyone, especially abroad, become memories for life. They are formative experiences and if the funding is taken away and travel is made harder then it will close the horizons of young people.
“For the rest of your life you never forget going to Sweden for a week to play table tennis when you were 11.”
Despite the uncertainty, Tim is positive about the club’s fortunes at home, and hopes to build on the mantra of the man who taught him the sport all those years ago at school.
“I love my job,” he says. “I had something similar for me, as a kid. I had a table tennis coach aged eight who got me playing on the Isle of Dogs, and then a history teacher who ran the best table tennis club in the history of the country in Willesden High School, London, called Progress Table Tennis Club, and that’s what I remember as a teen.
“Going away with him - Jon Kaufman - amazing guy. He’s the motivator, he’s the inspiration.
“He sees what’s happening round the country with people that he’s inspired and he says things like ‘It’s the ripples’, so I’m hoping that some of these kids, when they’re older, they’re gonna do something similar.”
Tim’s own mantra is simple, but underlines the humble nature of all BTTC’s volunteers, staff and coaches that was the greatest takeaway from my afternoon there: “Get good at table tennis, get good at anything, and then pass the skills on to the next generation.”
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