Tim Holtam.

Playing Table Tennis at the Za’atari Refugee Camp 4th – 6th April 2018.

I have been following the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Development Program for some years online. Over the past twenty years they have done some amazing projects in Nepal, Guinea Bisseau, Afghanistan, El Salvador and many other places that have suffered natural disasters or been destroyed by war. In 2017, the ITTF became the first international federation of any sport to develop a national association in all 226 countries in the world. A great achievement indeed.

Since Brighton Table Tennis Club (BTTC) became a Club of Sanctuary, welcoming refugees and asylum seekers in 2016, I have been asking Leandro Olvech, the Director of the ITTF Development Program to pay us a visit. The first few emails I sent him he forwarded to Sandra Deaton, Chair of Table Tennis England, the National Governing Body. Leandro is focused on developing countries and in England usually he would pass things to the national association.

In February 2018 Leandro was in London for the ITTF World Team Cup and found the time to get on a train to Brighton. He came to the BTTC and we talked for three and half hours about the potential for Table Tennis to change lives. He is passionate about the sport and it was truly great to meet a genuine, down to earth person in such a senior position. Leandro began his career coaching Table Tennis to disabled players in a tough neighborhood in Buenos Aries.

He loved the BTTC model and especially loved that Solidarity was one of our values. The result of the meeting was that Leandro invited me to celebrate World Table Tennis Day, which is also the International Day of Sport for Peace & Development, the 6th April, at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. This was to be where the ITTF in partnership with UNHCR, Peace & Sport & others, would be celebrating 6th April as their global flagship project supporting refugees.

The Za’atari camp is very close to the border between Jordan and Syria. Eighty five thousand Syrian refugees live there, 40% of them under the age of twenty and 20% under the age of five. Most of the residents have been there for over five years, and they aren’t allowed to leave or work.

The ITTF Nittaku Dream Building for Refugees program will see Table Tennis developed within Za’atari. Nittaku, a top Japanese Table Tennis brand, have donated twenty one new tables, hundreds of bats, and thousands of balls to the three year project which will see seven community centres within Za’atari run by the UNHCR each get three Tables and a timetable of structured coaching sessions. The project is supported financially by Nittaku and The Foundation for Global Sport Development. My costs were paid for with a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

In November 2017 the ITTF organised a Level 1 Coaching course at the Camp for thirty Syrian refugees. Three of these coaches have been asked to deliver the sessions under the UNHCR “cash for work” scheme.

In our group were Leandro from the ITTF, Sarah Hanffou, the French founder of the wonderfully named “Ping sans Frontieres” and Mohammed Atoum, a coach, ITTF expert and former Jordanian national team player.

When we arrived at Za’atari we first went to the house of Ab’dul Rahman, the coach who was the most motivated and committed to the project. When the camp was first established people had lived in tents, but as the conflict in Syria dragged on and the people at Za’atari weren’t going anywhere, there are now caravans or corrugated iron sheds that people live in.

Inside the home of Ab’dul Rahman there are three small rooms; a kitchen, a sitting room/ bedroom and a Table Tennis arena. For his children he had constructed a beautifully home-made table tennis table. Just about standard size and height, and with a net made from a head scarf from his wife with some string carefully stitched in across to the top to keep the net tight. It was a beautiful sight.

Ab’dul Rahman had played in Syria to a social standard. He took the week-long ITTF Level 1 coaching course in November 17 at Za’atari. His six children aged eighteen months to twelve just love it. They play everyday at home and at the local community centre where their dad is the coach.

With Ab’dul Rahman’s sons, Mahmoud, aged 10, and Ahmed, aged 12, we played singles winner stays on, doubles and did some training exercises. The kids can play and we were all very impressed. Mohammed and Sarah, who had seen the level of play twice before, agreed that a lot of progress had been made and that there was a lot of potential for the children of Za’atari to continue to improve.

Ten year old Mahmoud hit forehands past me over and over again to cheers of encouragement from everyone watching. I made sure he was my doubles partner later on. There was a great atmosphere and the universal language of Table Tennis meant that we could communicate happily.

“Suffer- kul” means “Love-all” in Arabic and this gets Table Tennis players across the world excited and ready for a match. I learnt before I came to count to eleven in Arabic so I could score a game and this served me well. I recommend this to any Table Tennis player travelling anywhere.

BTTC have been delivering weekly sessions for the last year at HMP High Down and Down View prisons. There is a uniqueness to the situation in a refugee camp, and a crossover with a prison environment in that there are less distractions from mobile phones, video games, TV and other modern day technologies that have reduced people’s concentration span and ability to focus. If set up and delivered properly, it is clear that there is lot of potential for developing Table Tennis for all in the camp, and the creation of some future champions. The foundations have been set and we will, I hope, see the results develop over the years to come.

In an ideal world the war would stop, Za’atari would close and everyone there would return to Syria. What is so good about learning to play Table Tennis is that once someone has the love instilled in them, they will find somewhere to play, wherever they are in the world. For now though, Za’atari is not going away.

Where else other than refugee camps and prisons are people so able to play so much Table Tennis? It is the perfect model for engagement, light relief against the stark realities, beneficial to everyone’s mental health, provides focus. Much of this is universal. It applies to all people playing Table tennis across the world.

The next day we came back to Za’atari to set up for Friday’s event and had a rehearsal of the session we would be running in four community centres with fifteen players in each. There are thousands of children in the camp. The UN and community centre staff had selected the players to take part in the World Table Tennis Day event. They run educational programs, have a library and facilitate other sports from these centres.

On coming out of one of the community centres, we started playing Table Tennis just volleying a ball over a net with six kids. Within three minutes over fifty children had come to join in. These kids have time on their hands and given the opportunity to play, there is a huge potential.

Ab’dul Rahman and Mahmoud took us for lunch in the colourful and vibrant “Sharms Elysee” (a pun on the Champs Elysee, Sharms was a nickname for Damascus) where we ate incredible falafel and chicken shwarma. Along this central High Street within the camp there are hundreds of shops selling everything imaginable. Shops specifically for mobile phone covers, bicycles, delicious food, sauce pans and children’s toys. This has nothing to do with the UN or NGOs organising the refugees but is the creation of enterprising Syrians, many of whom left behind successful businesses and lives back home.

Friday 6th April arrived and we celebrated World Table Tennis Day at breakfast at our hotel in Amman. Ryu Seung Min, the South Korean 2004 Olympic Men’s Singles Gold Medallist joined us as did Thomas Weikart, the President of the ITTF.

As well as it being World Table Tennis Day, the 6th April was the inauguration of the ITTF Foundation. This will sit separately from the ITTF, have charitable status and spread the message of Soldirarity through Table Tennis.

Ryu Seung Min was playing an exhibition match with Thomas Weikart in front of twenty girls aged nine – twelve. After a couple of points, a fourteen year old girl with a learning disability that wasn’t officially part of the Table Tennis session but spent her days at the community centre moved over and pushed Ryu out of the way. She wanted to play and she didn’t care who he was or what he had won. He took it well and it was a great moment of inclusivity and demonstrated that Table Tennis is for everyone.

The new Nitakku tables and equipment for the project were still in the port so we made do with what was there. It will be brilliant when these arrive and I hope they will get a lot of use. The focus of the project, like any Table Tennis club should be, was on developing young players. I would love to see the community centres develop women’s, 50+ and disability sessions and encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to play together.

In 2018 people are investing a lot of resources in capturing evidence of impact. Monitoring & evaluation. I see the impact that Table Tennis has on so many people’s lives. On their confidence, social skills and mental health. There has been a lot of talk of and research in recent years about Table Tennis being the wonder drug for Alzheimers and Dementia. I am not aware of anyone that has carried out a comprehensive study of the benefits of Table Tennis to people’s mental health. BTTC has run a weekly session at Millview Psychiatric hospital for the last two years and the patients in a secure unit absolutely love it. There is something about playing Table Tennis that means you can’t focus on anything else, you don’t have time to. It is intensely therapeutic. A nurse that had worked at Millview for 15 years said that BTTC sessions were the best initiative she had seen there in terms of engagement and then also opportunities to join the club locally when they were discharged.

Players in psychiatric hospitals are at one of the end of the spectrum but an increasing number of people in especially Western cultures suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. When people pick up a Table Tennis bat you can visibly see them leaving the baggage that they brought with them behind. This could be anything from a child that had been bullied on social media, a homeless person worried about where they will sleep tonight, a prisoner that knows he will go back to his cell and be locked up again, to family members killed back home in Syria. In all of these scenarios and I am sure there are infinitely more, Table Tennis can distract, relax, provide some positive focus and have meditative qualities.

This would unlock a lot of doors and funding streams in an age where the government has employed a ‘Loneliness Tsar’ and millions of jobs will be automated in the next 10 years. Grassroots Table Tennis clubs are perfectly placed to provide individuals with exercise great for both body and mind, a support network that in one’s own local community.

At Za’atari the ITTF Foundation project is not about the integration of migrant and host communities, it is about training coaches to be the local Ping Pong evangelists, to get as many kids playing as possible and to see the myriad benefits that come to any community when this happens.

BTTC came to Za’atari after three years of grassroots solidarity with refugees in a local context. This has led to BTTC being involved in delivering and shaping the future of the ITTF Foundation program. Think Global. Act Local. The best course of action is to drive change yourself.

Today I have the wonderful feeling that the latest session or project BTTC have delivered is always the best yet, and that we are always at the beginning. We have never reached a point where we felt we had completed our goals. There is a lot to do. With the ITTF Foundation, Ping sans Frontieres and others that will come in on this network, BTTC is at the vanguard.

This article was originally published in 2018 on the Sporting Polemics blog.