First there was Anh. In January 2015 I was introduced to Anh, a Vietnamese 16 year old in foster care in Brighton. He was a victim of trafficking, from Vietnam in the back of a lorry from China. His journey had taken a year and he arrived in November 2014. The Virtual School for Children in Care asked if Brighton Table Tennis Club could provide some 1 to 1 Table Tennis and English tuition for Anh. I had no idea that this was the beginning of something big, of which we are both the front line and just the start.
In 2007, Brighton Table Tennis Club was set up at the Brighton Youth Centre, formerly the Boys Club, two minutes from the Pier and in the centre in town. The demographic of the local children in the area was white, British and working class, lots of whom were, at the time, and for lots of different reasons, disengaged, not interested, drifting. Some of the success stories of these local lads after nine years are brilliant. One example is of a 14 year old boy excluded from school for throwing chairs and tables around the classroom, who, through involvement with the club and the positive role models it gave him, is now a fully qualified glazier ready to set up his own business and take on his own apprentices this is despite some close shaves and run-ins with the police over the years.
My Spiritual Home
In short, these kids have grown up into (mostly) well-rounded young adults and all of them still pop into the club when not working as successful glaziers, bike mechanics, professional full time Table Tennis coaches, bouncers and Dads. After 10 years in Brighton, on my 30th birthday, I moved to Bristol to set up a new life and start again there with my partner. She was embarking on a new career in teaching and had gained a place on a PGCE course and I had got a three-day a week dream job coaching Table Tennis at a mainstream secondary school, working specifically with youngsters with behaviour problems. 40% of the current intake was Somali. I found incredibly exciting, as it was far more multi-cultural than any school I had worked at in Brighton, and reminded me of growing up in schools in East London, the Isle of Dogs, Pimlico School and at London Progress Table Tennis Club.
It took six weeks in Bristol for me to realise that the depth of relationships with so many people I had left behind in Brighton was too strong to leave behind. We moved back after ten weeks on 17th November 2015. I had a good relationship with the Virtual School for Children in Care in Brighton, a statutory part of every council whose role it is to provide opportunities to all of the Looked After Children in their area. For three years we had run a weekly Virtual School Group session at Brighton Table Tennis Club. All of the players we had worked with from 2011 to date 2015 had been British kids that had been taken into care.
Faisal Gets the Ping
It was then that I met Anh. It went so well that his Social Worker brought a new lad, Faisal, along after five months, in May 2015. Faisal was 16, from Helmand province in Afghanistan and was another unaccompanied minor in foster care. I will never forget his face at the club when he saw the tables for the first time. He had literally never seen or heard of the sport. Having come from a warzone, with no TV, internet and / or phone lines since 2001, chances of Faisal stumbling across a Table Tennis table while in Afghanistan were slim to none.
Like Anh, Faisal turned out to be an exceptional character – eager, hungry and full of fight, passion, energy and enthusiasm. Ready to work for and grasp opportunities that came his way. He has spoken recently of travelling across land in cars crammed with up to 40 people, sometimes 6 to a boot, of walking, getting lifts wherever possible, and of working together with others to walk half way across the planet to escape misery and seek a better life.
The same social worker, after positive feedback from the boys, brought 14 year old Abdul along in October, saying: My boss thinks I’ve got shares in this place. I’m bringing you all the kids we’ve got! Since Abdul I’ve lost track of when they’ve turned up at the club but now we have Hejin (Kurdistan), Biniam (Eritrea), Abbas (Mosul- Iraq) as regulars and 15-20 others that have popped in over the last few weeks and I’m sure will be back for more Ping Pong.
This globalisation of the club’s players makes me think of Nelson Mandela’s love for sport: Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.
Proof of Being Alive
Registering Faisal with Table Tennis England so he can play in tournaments and train to be coach, I asked him for his date of birth. He didn’t know, and didn’t seem to know what I meant. I thought this was a shame and sad that so many arrivals in the UK were given birth dates of 1/1/2000, roughly based on how old they are and to the nearest year but like a reset computer calendar, always the 1st January.
At least I thought so until I met Alex Ntung from Migrant Help UK, at a City of Sanctuary meeting for Brighton & Hove Schools and community groups working to support refugees and asylum seekers. Due to the work we have been doing, I was invited to a Schools of Sanctuary launch meeting for Brighton & Hove. Patcham High School, the school I trained at and worked for six years, is the lead secondary school within the program. It was here I met Alex, an inspirational speaker who was now developing resources for schools. Heres’ a snatch of his biography:
Alex was born into a family of cattle-herders, semi-nomadic and pastoralists in South Kivu, The Democratic Republic of Congo. Growing up he survived extreme poverty, hardship and violence at a terrifying scale (lost many members of his family). Following other instabilities and persecution of his ethnic group, he came to the UK where he underwent a stringent asylum process and later gained an MA in Anthropology of Conflict, Violence and Conciliation at the University of Sussex.
What Alex taught me was that people are born in places around the world where what matters is that you were born in the rainy season or the winter, or the summer. Or in places where local councils don’t have records in filing cabinets. What matters is that you are born at all. As a human.
I need to see proof of your date of birth, sir. Is me not standing here in front of you, proof to you that I am alive.(Alex Ntung Brighton & Hove Council, City of Sanctuary Meeting March 2016).
Multicultural Ping: Celebrating the Diversity
In Brighton September 2015 there were thirty unaccompanied minors in foster care. Since September that number has doubled and is increasing weekly. All of the boys I have met (there are now a number of girls too I am told) have come through the Calais Jungle, in lorries and arrived in Brighton, announcing themselves at John St. Police station.
Brighton has a population of 300,000 and has sixty unaccompanied minors in its care. I don’t know how this compares with numbers across Britain but it feels huge. The human story of each of these individuals warrants its own book, and we need to listen to each story as the story of a human, a person, an individual. Not a mass or horde of illiterate Jihadists smashing down the gates to get in.
Brighton Table Tennis Club employs an amazing team of international coaches, from Italy, Portugal, Germany and China. It is crazy to think that just because you happen to be born in Sicily or the Azores (Portugal) in the EU that you have more of a right to go anywhere in the world than someone from Helmand. At the club we have started writing the numbers from 1-11 in as many different languages that are represented by countries in the club. To celebrate the diversity.
On the 11 April 2016, a new boy called Safi was brought to the club by a pair of very supportive foster carers of a white British lad, also in care, who has been playing Table Tennis for 18 months. Safi is 13 and hails from another war torn city in Afghanistan. He’s on his own in Brighton and has been in the UK for a week. He had not yet met together with a social worker or interpreter with his new guardians and, coming from Brighton, their Pashtu wasn’t exactly fluent. His carer said they thought that they’d bring him to the club because they thought it could help him. After ascertaining that Safi was Afghani and spoke Pashtu, Faisal and Abdul were summoned from their match and introduced themselves. Safi’s face lit up and his eyes opened up as he heard Pashtu spoken for the first time in at least a week since arriving in England. We proceeded to have a United Nations game of doubles, China and Afghanistan vs Coldean and London. Faisal and Abdul interpreted the score and explained the rules to Safi’s, and everyone in the room watching knew that it was a magical moment. (For the record, six in Pashtu is Sphag, like Spag Bol.)
Safi’s carers took the mobile numbers for Abdul and Faisal. They can call them anytime to ask for help with interpreting. The older boys were delighted to have a little brother in Brighton that they could take under their wings, to the mosque, to the Table Tennis club. Safi was understandably pleased that the older boys could help.
That was 1999. Somehow in 2016, at least to me, the whole world feels different. There are millions and millions of people on the move from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Vietnam, Kurdistan and on & on. We all need to be doing everything we can to help.
Rollnets for Refugees was an idea we had at Brighton TTC – to go to Calais and set up improvised Table Tennis tables and run a tournament for everyone who wanted to play. A good idea but organisations involved there put us off by saying that it was difficult there at the moment as the authorities were smashing parts of it up. Doing what you can do in your locality for the people in your area, your neighbourhood, your Ping Pong club, your block of flats, your street, is what each and every one of us can offer. I’m not just talking about refugees and asylum seekers. This is about everyone. Solidarity is radical. Communities need to be united, locally and internationally, against oppression and against war.
The Ping of Hope
Brighton Table Tennis Club moved to a new venue in summer of 2015. We have sole use of a 12-table venue in what was a Catholic Primary school. Incidentally this move coincided with Pope Francis calling on every religious community across Europe to do their part to stem the refugee crisis and offer sanctuary to migrant families.
In front of a crowd of thousands of people in St Peter’s Square, the Roman Catholic leader said it was not enough to simply encourage the refugees with calls for courage and patience. Instead, he suggested, tangible demonstrations of help were required.
As with everything, prevention is better than cure and for as long there is war and horror, there will be casualties and fall out. The philosopher Noam Chomsky said only last week that since 2001, the West’s one and only tactic of using a sledgehammer to destroy anything that gets in its way has resulted in a small, nomadic tribe in the back end of beyond, the Taliban, morph and grow into something now in Libya, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Belgium, Paris and more.
The solution to the world’s problems in 2016 simply cannot be a heavy-handed and/or military one. Steven Pinker has said that religion is a red herring in all of this. It is not a clash of civilizations as the Daily Mail, BBC, Fox News AND ISIS want us to think. It is not Islam vs the West. It is hopeless young men, disenfranchised and so oppressed that travelling to Syria to fight for ISIS seems like a good idea. Hopeless young men that desperately need to feel a sense of purpose, belonging and identity in whatever realm of society they are a part of. Wherever they live, that they have hope, a future, a job and a good life ahead.
Carl Sagan’s said in 1996:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
The quote was put to a cartoon that encapsulates what life is for. That we should put down our guns and put our prejudices behind us. To play Table Tennis (or basically just do anything else that is positive) and be grateful, every day. for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
So, while British Red Cross is stretched to its full capacity looking in Vietnam, for example, for Anh’s parents or in Helmand for Faisal’s family, primarily to let them know that the boys are safe and well on the other side of the world, Anh and Faisal are doing their best to put behind them the trauma they have experienced, and grasp the magnificent opportunity that is life.
Meet Anh – again
I had the privilege of accompanying Anh to the Kafkaesque-Orwellian Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre on the 9th March 2016. This is a detention centre for asylum seekers aged over 18 where this is also an asylum court. They have not committed a crime in seeking asylum but they are locked up and managed by G4Sprivate security staff. According to The Guardian from July 2015 – There are no windows, no wind. The men all suffer mental health problems.
The Home Office had accepted that Anh was a Victim of Trafficking but he had been refused asylum. The hearing was Anh’s appeal against this decision. The barrister from the Home Office argued that Anh’s story that he had given 18 months earlier when he first arrived in England was not credible or consistent and that he could be relocated back to another part of Vietnam and that he would be fine.
The Brighton Housing Trust providing Anh’s solicitor and barrister were fantastic. After three hours the judge closed the court, saying he would assess all the evidence and hundreds of pages of notes from both sides and, as is normal procedure, write to Anh in 14 days with a decision.
Two weeks passed and Anh was waiting to hear about the future of his whole life. On a knife-edge.
On Wednesday the 23rd March 2016, Anh called me at 10am to say he had received a letter from the judge that was 20 pages long and that he couldn’t understand what the decision was. I met him and read the letter with him, both totally unsure about the outcome. Amongst a huge amount of other factors that contributed to the Judge’s decision, two sentences stood out to me: He has settled into Brighton, has a good relationship with his foster carers. He is currently studying, working part time and is an accomplished Table Tennis player, that receives coaching. The appeal is granted on asylum grounds.
Anh, now studying English at college and a Level 1 qualified Table Tennis Coach, has been granted five years leave to remain as a refugee. Before this leave expires he can apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but the success of this application will depend on whether the Home Office believes that he would still be at risk on return to Vietnam, so in that sense, his case is on-going. The asylum claims for many of the other UASCs at the club remain outstanding.
(Names have been changed to protect identities)
NB: Brighton Table Tennis Club has been awarded the first ever Club of Sanctuary awarded by Brighton & Hove Council as part of the City of Sanctuary program. City of Sanctuary is a movement committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. Our network of local groups includes boroughs, towns and cities across the UK and Ireland, all committed to building this culture of welcome across every sphere of society. Wherever refugees go, we want them to feel safe and find people who will welcome them. www.cityofsanctuary.org.
In June 2016, Brighton Table Tennis Club won the national prize from the first Community Integration Awards from Migration Work UK. The Community Integration Awards is a new initiative in 2016, set up to reward and support best practice in community integration and cohesion in the United Kingdom. The aim of the awards scheme is to influence the integration debate with positive examples, and support organisations doing good work in this field so they can flourish. www.integrationawards.uk
The chair of the panel of judges said: We had a synagogue doing terrific work in welcoming new communities, a project to get refugee journalists into training that demonstrates real potential to challenge misrepresentations, a hub for migrant entrepreneurs that may host the next Marks or Spencer and a law centre that had reunited children stranded in Calais with their families in the UK. We were cheered by how much good work was going on across so many fields, and want to congratulate all those shortlisted for their imagination, commitment and determination… but in the end the Brighton Table Tennis Club won because they do something simple and necessary with such flair and enthusiasm.
The Brighton Table Tennis Club is an outward facing and open project, involving a broad range of communities in Brighton, collaborating with social services and schools as well as refugee and migrant communities. The broad remit contributes to migrants and non-migrants becoming actively engaged in a range of different things in Brighton. Working with young people is very positive, especially unaccompanied minors who can find themselves very isolated. Everyone involved can take their learning back into their communities.
The Community integration occurring daily at Brighton Table Tennis Club is very powerful. We are watching through sport, ‘sons and daughters’ of Brighton forming incredible friendships with victims of trafficking from Vietnam and orphaned refugees from Mosul and Aleppo. As the incredible Helen Keller said Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.
Brighton Table Tennis Club has been invited to meet with the board at Sport England in July 2016 to discuss how to successfully engage and integrate refugees and asylum seekers through sport. We hope that we will see cricket, football, basketball and handball clubs follow suit and line up to explicitly welcome these people into their clubs and build stronger communities.
The club’s philosophy is captured by a phrase from Guido Mina di Sospiro’s book The Metaphysics of Ping Pong:
“There exists a supranational tribe that numbers close to four hundred million and goes under the name of The United Colours of Table Tennis. Were it not for TT, where else would you interact, as I have, with anyone from Madagascar? Or Mongolia? Or Suriname? Or Kyrgyzstan? The language barrier is eliminated, as we all speak the lingua franca of TT. In fact, as in time I began to frequent cubs all around the country, every barrier is elongated; class, colour, race, creed and so on. The TT planet seems to be a parallel world, de facto more enlightened, fair and friendly than the one we normally live in.”
Brighton Table Tennis Club on the TV for Refugee Week
- To all the characters in the Club that make it what it is. Especially to Anh, Faisal, Abdul and the others, for bringing multiculturalism and positivity.
- Jon Kaufman for providing the inspiration.
- Fran Coughlan, Lyndsey Grice and Mark Storey at The Virtual School for Children in Care in Brighton & Hove.
- Rishma Hassam at Brighton & Hove Council Children’s Services.
- The City of Sanctuary program in Brighton & Hove.
- Alex Ntung and Jonathan Barnes at Migrant Help UK.
- The Life Skills Department at Patcham High School, Brighton.