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How sport offers a sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers

Sport is at the heart of vital support for asylum seekers and refugees in Newport, South Wales – boosting wellbeing and social inclusion, and providing a diversion from the temptations of crime. 

The Sanctuary Refugee Welcome Group, a small charity operating on less than £100,000 per year, has partnered with Alliance of Sport members Newport Live to provide a range of sports activities tailored for people who, for a variety of reasons, have ended up on the north shore of the Bristol Channel.

Open five days and three evenings a week, The Sanctuary offers drop-in advice and support, English language classes, gardening and even bike repairs, as well as an ever-increasing range of sports sessions, including Pound Fit classes, five-a-side football, badminton, volleyball, bike rides, table tennis and netball. 

These activities are specifically tailored to groups including BAME males, women and unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people who are in foster care, having arrived on British shores without their parents. 

The partnership with Newport Live, which delivers many of the sessions, is supplemented with funding and support from the Millennium Stadium Charitable Trust, Wales Netball and the local Seedbed Christian Community Trust. 

“It’s not about the football, the volleyball or the badminton itself; it’s about the positive bi-products that exercise gives them,” says Mark Seymour, Project Manager at The Sanctuary. “Our only goal is that the participants are sweaty and smiling at the end of a session.

“Nearly all refugees and asylum seekers experience some form of mental health issues because of the circumstances they’ve faced, be it torture, imprisonment, rape, exploitation, modern slavery, death of loved ones or just not being particularly well treated by the UK immigration system. We take a holistic approach to their wellbeing and exercise is an important part of that.” 

Many asylum seekers arrive in Newport with no English language, survive on very small benefit handouts and face many cultural barriers, particularly the women. As Mark says: “They are not the type of women who will turn up in Lycra for a Zumba class!” 

He adds: “Lauren Boyd, from Newport Live, has provided great advice, encouragement and creative thinking on how to empower hard-to-reach groups through innovative approaches to health and fitness. 


“The Pound Fit class has a creche and a really good local instructor. We’ve built it up to around 15 women now, none of whom would exercise otherwise. Culturally, they just don’t do it. But in an enclosed room, where they can remove their headscarves, they know it’s a safe place. There’s lots of sweat and lots of laughter. 

“At our badminton session one guy said to me: ‘For this hour, I can forget about problems with the Home Office and what happened back home, and just focus on hitting the shuttlecock.’” 

The Sanctuary, which began in 2005 as a small, church-led support group, now has an average of 32 people per day through its doors. Staff have learned plenty as they have gone along in terms of outreach and engagement techniques. It can be tough work. 

One of the Sport Wales-funded projects, for example, required the taking of everyone’s names, dates of birth and ethnic backgrounds. Language barriers meant this took up the entire first session. It was what Mark calls a “very white, middle-class approach to engagement” and, frankly, didn’t work.  

Mark elaborates: “You’ve got to put an awful amount of time and energy into outreach with these types of groups. You’ve got to do a lot of talking to build momentum and lift their confidence enough to take part. 

“Part of that is finding what we call the ‘gatekeepers’ and Lauren [from Newport Live] calls the ‘pied pipers’. In every community – whether it’s refugees or on a council estate – if you can identify the influential individuals and get them to ‘buy in’ and understand what you’re all about, they will bring their crowd. 

“They are usually gregarious, they know everybody and perhaps don’t always follow the rules. We’ve put a lot of time into selling our vision with those types of people, because we know if they’re on board, they will bring their tribe.

External sports providers looking to develop exercise opportunities for hard-to-reach groups need to think differently and partner up with those community projects which have already got a relationship with them. So, in our case, we bring that relationship, which we’ve built up over time, and our partners provide the activities.” 

As well as mental wellbeing and social inclusion, diversion from crime is another element of The Sanctuary’s impact. Staff recently engaged a cohort of young unaccompanied asylum seekers in foster care in a project to address a concern that some project participants may experience pressure from others in their community to attempt to coerce them into criminality, drug-dealing and extremism. 

Like all the most impactful projects, The Sanctuary is based on ingenuity and solid partnerships. As Mark says: “It’s common for many of the asylum seekers and refugees to struggle with sleep, and some experience issues with their mental health and are often prescribed anti-depressants. But if you’ve laughed, made some friends and had some exercise, that’s a positive step forward in helping them overcome some of the challenges they face in rebuilding a successful future.” 

For more information about The Sanctuary, visit their website here.

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