In 2007 Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) was established, with the aim of working with marginalised young people at the Brighton Youth Centre. Since then it has gained attention throughout the country as a paradigm example of a community organisation that works with and for disadvantaged kids, winning the Equality Award and becoming the UK’s first Club of Sanctuary in 2016. We caught up with co-founder Tim Holtam to find out more.

Could you give us some general background on the club – when did you set up, what were your main aims etc?

BTTC exists to improve health, celebrate diversity and build a strong community.

In the summer of 2015 we secured our venue, the ground floor of The Fitzherbert Centre, in Kemptown, Brighton. We have space for 10 tables, an office and social area. It was an old primary school that had been squatted and unused for a long time but the Catholic Priest, Father Foley, at the St John the Baptist Church next door, liked Table Tennis and had heard of BTTC’s community work and so gave us a key. Sport England have invested a £100k facilities grant and the refurbishment of our venue is about to be complete and it will look amazing.

How is it that you came to have such close links with the refugee community in Brighton?

In 2011 we started running weekly sessions with Brighton & Hove Council’s Virtual School for children in care.

In January 2015 a social worker referred Hoang to us. Hoang was an unaccompanied minor and victim of trafficking from Vietnam, who is now 18, fluent in English, working full time, and is a qualified Table Tennis coach. After a legal battle in which the judge cited Hoang’s membership of BTTC as evidence of his successful settlement in Brighton, he has been granted 5 years leave to remain in the UK from the home office

Since then UASCs (Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children) from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq have got involved, made friends, learnt to play and coach at BTTC.

In 2016 we reached out to all of the local refugee charities and support groups listed on Caroline Lucas’s website and have in the last year made a name for ourselves as a good place to refer new players to and as a model of good practice for community building.

The key point is the club’s ability to normalise the presence of refugees, of people with Down Syndrome, or travellers or anyone really, in a local club, a natural community and in wider society.

The benefits are huge, to both the refugee and ‘host’ communities and the power of friendship. Solidarity cannot be underestimated.

Above: Beyond The Paddle, filmed at BTTC, explores the role that sports can play in the integration and well-being of refugees and asylum-seekers in the U.K

What’s the funding structure behind the club? Do you get government funding as a community service, or are you fully independent? Have recent governmental policies like cuts and a more hostile approach towards those seeking asylum in the UK impacted on the way you work?

We are a fully independent CIO (Charitable Incorporated Organisation) with a strong board of experienced trustees. We have lots of partners that we work with locally and run sessions for including for people with learning disabilities, the homeless, children in care, and people living with cancer to name a few.

Things have been harder for everyone since austerity took hold but we have managed to survive and continue to grow.  Being independent has worked in our favour in many ways. It is tragic watching what is happening to Brighton & Hove’s parks, and Tennis and Bowls clubs that have operated in these public spaces for years and years.

Sport England have just funded us to set up a large three year project working with marginalised groups including the homeless and people with mental health issues.

How would you describe the role that community organisations like sports clubs play in shaping the experience of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK?

I can only really talk about the BTTC but it is amazing to watch the friendships flourish between such a wide range of different people. The perception of Brighton, England and the UK that the UASCs get from being at the club must be so different to the front pages of the right-wing press. The perception (and positive reality) of refugees and asylum seekers that the ‘host’ community get from training, coaching, being coached by these great lads from Afghanistan and Vietnam, is really powerful.

We have a Tuesday after school session where UASCs from Afghanistan, with local 16 year olds and a 26 year old coach with Downs Syndrome, run a session for young Travellers. It is so interesting seeing everyone working and getting on together based on a shared love for Table Tennis.

I understand that you were recently named the UK’s first official Club of Sanctuary by the City of Sanctuary Movement – how did that come about, and what does it mean?

This was a great honour. I taught at Patcham High School for six years and my colleagues and good friends in the Life Skills department were working towards becoming a School of Sanctuary within the national City of Sanctuary network and tipped me off about Brighton’s Sanctuary on Sea. We were already working with a number of UASCs by March 2016 and so it was a natural fit.

It means we are explicitly welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers. We are a club of sanctuary for lots of different people. A safe place for people to escape to, smash a Table Tennis ball around and leave their baggage at the door.

It is great to see that Libraries and Youth Clubs and other Places of Sanctuary are popping up across the country. We hope to see lots more sports clubs join the list, locally and nationally. It has been great for the club in so many ways. The feedback has been universally positive about the A2 posters up all around the club and on our front door that say “Refugees & Asylum Seekers are Welcome Here.”

Could you share with us some high points or major success stories from the club’s recent history?

It’s been 18 months but having our own venue has made such a big difference to what we can deliver. We have sessions from 10am-10pm every day of the week. Harry McCarney, BTTC co-founder and Chair of Trustees, was the driving force behind securing the lease and getting the Facilities Grant organised. If I am the face of the club then he is the brains. He has been a hugely important person in my life since I met him aged 21 and started hatching plans.

How can people, both inside Brighton and across the country, support what you’re doing?

If people are involved in sports clubs then find out about your local City of Sanctuary movement and ask about becoming a Club of Sanctuary.

Reach out to local refugee organisations – offer what you can and don’t wait for people to come to you. Be proactive and give everyone who comes into your club or your life, particularly if they are marginalised and need a leg up, the five star treatment at all times. Be nice.

If people want to support our work we welcome donations which can be Gift Aided through our Local Giving page –

For more info on BTTC and their story, please read this article in Sporting Polemics by Tim, and visit the BTTC website. More information can also be found in this short documentary ‘Beyond the Paddle’. For more information on the City of Sanctuary movement, please visit their website.