To celebrate they release the single Build a Bridge (the first-ever by a UK community sports club)
Tim Holtam co-founded the Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) in 2007 and it has grown since then into a community of over 1500 players a week, including a Downs Syndrome Champion, boys from Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, a former UK Chinese Champion, top junior players from all over Brighton and local club players.
They run 100 tables in parks, schools and prisons and work with refugee groups, travellers and psychiatric patients.
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.”
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.”Tim Holtam says ”It’s a place of hope, solidarity and opportunity. 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.”
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.”
Pedro Santos, a formidable Portuguese player and BTTC Head Coach, is proud that there people from eight European countries and ten from the rest of the world – including Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria.
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.
A year on, I went to the first training session for my new age group. All my friends were up there from school and they turned their back on me. They never attempted to talk to me or make me feel part of it. When I did get a game, it was always as number 15. It was always me, corner forward. Never moved from their to another position, most times not getting any game at all.
I felt, at that age group, the coaches only wanted to coach their own sons and favourites. These players never attempted to pass the ball to anyone on the them, only themselves.
I would come home upset and disappointed and saying while banging my head off a wall, “why am I not getting a go at this sport”. But I kept going back because I loved the sport. At this stage I didn’t really trust my teammates, coaches and more importantly my club.
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.”, says Tim Holtam
Watch BTTC’s first single Build a Bridge click here
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.
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 ways – 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.”
The club’s success on uniting migrants and struggling natives is an incredible feat, but really only the tip of the iceberg.
A boy who has ADHD says “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 around 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.”
Tim’s own mantra is simple, but underlines the humble nature of all BTTC’s volunteers, staff and coaches: “Get good at table tennis, get good at anything, and then pass the skills on to the next generation.”
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