We caught up with Vicki Sutton from our women’s sport beneficiary, Splott Superstars Netball Club, to find out more about their netball group and their long-term ambitions for the club.
What is Splott Superstars?
In a very basic sense, Splott Superstars is a netball club – however, it's so much more than a netball club! Splott Superstars is a netball club that was created to become a safe place for female refugees and asylum seekers.
It’s a place for them to meet new friend, do exercise, it’s somewhere to have fun and our sport brings a smile to their faces. We're based in South Wales and we celebrated our 4th birthday not too long ago.
How did Splott Superstars get started?
A friend of mine came to me and told me that they knew a family of asylum seekers who had moved into our area who had been coming to our church, so they had some links with our community but said there was nothing they could do outside of college and church.
To clarify, a person is termed an asylum seeker until getting their permanent status from the Home Office to stay in the UK. They then become a refugee, although nobody really likes having that tag. At that point, they are approved to stay in the UK longer-term and can start to seek employment and build a more permanent life here.
So, learning that this family were quite isolated, having been through what they had and didn’t have access to activities outside of the church, we wanted to invite them to a netball club that we were involved with. However, we felt that would be a step too far. Some have played similar sports in their home country but not netball as we know it in the UK and may not feel comfortable in that sort of environment. So, we thought, why don't we set up a club that’s specifically for them? If we know one family in this situation, then there must be more out there that would like this type of opportunity, and that need a safe place where we understand what they're going through.
The next thing I knew, we were in a bank setting up a club bank account and applying for funding from Sport Wales! We had 6 people at our first session including myself and the other coach, Heather. Those four asylum seekers have gone on an amazing journey since that very first session, and they're still involved in the club now.
From that first netball class, Splott Superstars has grown and grown. Charities working with asylum seekers and refugees found out about our project and started signposting women to us because they understood what we were trying to do, and they like the way that we did it, as we understood the importance of safety for these women. When we're not in lockdown, we get a regular flow of new asylum seekers through these charities and from our area.
How many members do you have at the moment?
We have around 20 members, most of whom we keep in touch with regularly.
We have probably had about 25 come through the program altogether. We still keep in touch with them all — some members we won't get regular contact from, but we know they're safe, so that’s the important thing.
What does a typical netball class look like for Splott Superstars?
Pre-lockdown, a session would involve a lot of hugs! No matter what time somebody turns up, whether that’s 10 minutes or half an hour late for the session, there would always be a stop for hugs. It’s sad now that we're not going to be able to do that for a long time – that hug for a female asylum seeker who maybe lives on their own or is living in a shared house with people who don't speak the same language as her, that hug when she walks through the door means everything to them.
Then, we start to warm up, often with lots of fun games. Our classes are designed to be fun, so it’s not necessarily about tactical netball, it’s about getting these women feeling confident to play fun games and start moving their bodies.
Next, we would run through some drills and then finally, we would end up with a three or four-aside at the end of the session.
We often have mixed levels of ability, but all of them have improved since they've started coming.
Occasionally we do go to a larger court. We hire a facility that's safe and secluded because that's what we need for then if we want to play a bigger game of 7-aside. Those times can be a bit more stressful — I know I’ve never blown my whistle so much! But everyone has a really good time.
So, lots of hugs, lots of fun and lots of being me being a bit silly trying to get them to smile!
During the pandemic have you been able to keep in touch using social media or video calls?
We have Zoom sessions every week, which involve a check-in to see how their week’s going, asking each member to rate how things have been out of 10. We then chat through why they may have given themselves a particular score and then make any suggestions to improve how they are feeling. We will then do some exercise, normally a HIIT session or dance-fit, and quite often we will leave them with a positive word to focus on for the week ahead. Sometimes it's appreciation, sometimes it's challenge, sometimes it's motivation. That word is then their focus for the rest of that week and until we see them again. That gives them something to concentrate on and think about, so those Zoom sessions have helped.
When restrictions were loosened in 2020, we met in the park, sometimes with the members' children too. We would do socially-distanced outdoor activities, with the correct equipment sanitising in-line with the government guidelines. Sadly, we haven’t been able to do that since the 18th of December, but we're hopeful we can get back to that soon.
We also split the group into some smaller groups. There are four coaches in the team; each one of us will take a smaller group of women to check in with them and see how they're getting on on a more personal basis.
At the start of lockdown, we were doing a lot of shopping for people, ordering equipment to their houses for them to do things at home, and we've taken a few of them to hospital appointments as well.
This is an example of when it becomes so much more than the netball club; it’s almost a group of friends that support each other. Granted, it's us that gives more of the support, but we learn a lot from them and we get a lot back from them, like the joy they bring when they've achieved something in college, or got their status, or successfully moved house.
It's much more than a sports club, but netball is the common language that's brought us all together in the first place. Netball as a sport may change over the coming years, as it may have to following the pandemic, but that sense of community and friendship won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
How do you go about reaching new women?
We do have to be quite careful about this as we do have people asking to join that aren't refugees or asylum seekers, and we have to say no because that's not what the club is set up for. We’re quite clear in that the club is not for people born in the UK who would have access to the usual clubs and sports groups.
The main way we get new joiners is either through our charity partners, who have seen what we're doing and send vulnerable women or women who they think would benefit from this type of community, the charities send them to our session, women apply through friends of our current members.
We tend to stagger new members joining once every three weeks so that it doesn’t overwhelm them or our current members with too many new faces. Once the new members have settled in over a two or three week period, then we’ll take another new member.
New members joining is managed very, very sensitively and we don't want to be a big club. That would take away from what we're doing, so we're quite content having a group of 20 at the very most.
When people do move on from the club, it’s usually because they’ve moved cities or got jobs. That’s great as that’s always the main goal – that's why these women have come to the UK in the first place, to escape corruption or persecution and make a life for themselves here. The fact that they've been able to do that, and that netball has helped give them the confidence to achieve that, is what we love to see.
What would your advice be to somebody who'd like to take up netball?
I would say absolutely, take it up! Some of my best friends have come through sports, not just netball but any sort of sport. It teaches great teamwork and I've met some amazing people in it. I think it gives you a different mindset that certainly helps outside of sport as well. You do learn a lot from being part of the team.
Netball is definitely the most popular women’s sport in Wales, and it would be great if every woman in Wales played it… and then we can start on the men after that!
Considering post-lockdown too, people won't have had that social engagement that we are used to. Netball not only gives you that — it’s quite an intimate team, there are only 7 players on each side — but it also gives you that fitness element, so it's a great, all-round activity. Plus, it's indoors for the most part, which is always a bonus in this country!
What are the greatest successes that you have experienced as a club?
There are lots of fantastic individual stories that I can't go into too much detail on, but you know, every time somebody gets their status and gets approval to stay in the UK, that's a major win for us because we know they're safe. We know they've escaped persecution and horrendous conditions at home and they are safe.
The other element that’s always positive for us is seeing our members grow in personality over time and gain confidence. Often the women that join are initially withdrawn and guarded in their first session, and then over time you can see their personality change and develop. Often by the end of the session, they’ve completely opened up — they’re hugging each other and saying that they can’t wait to see each other next time.
I don't think we’ve had anyone that's had to leave the UK which is amazing, and this goes to show the power of being part of a social group and what it can do. The type of women that we take on have had a really hard life and they deserve to be safe, so seeing them become settled, for us, is the most rewarding thing.
And that we’ve made it to four years as a club and through a pandemic is a big success!
What are the greatest challenges you had to overcome?
Definitely lockdown. Not seeing our members physically every week has been tremendously difficult. Not having those hugs and also knowing that they're not getting a lot of the physical and social needs that we can give them has been hard.
Our members haven’t become withdrawn to where they were when we first met them, because they are strong people, but sometimes seeing them upset on video calls and knowing that we can’t suggest that we go and play netball or go to see them and give them support is hard. The safety of everyone is paramount, but it is worrying in terms of what isolation could mean for their mental well-being.
That being said, we’ve planned some really exciting things for when we can meet up again, which hopefully will build up their confidence again and undo some of the damage to mental health that this time during lockdown may have caused.
How will the donation from Boudavida help your club?
Running a session is usually fairly expensive because pre-lockdown, we would arrange for the women to come in taxis because it was safer for them. For some of our members, public transport is not a safe place, so following the pandemic, we may need to change our approach to this again and look at something that’s even safer than taxis, which the donation will help with.
The effects of COVID-19 may impact what we can do with group numbers, and it may mean that we change our class structure from weekly sessions into something less regularly, so it's a difficult one to answer because until COVID-19 is less of an issue, we don't know what things will look like. However, we can guarantee that 100% of that money will go on giving good experiences to meet women who have had such a hard time.
Regardless of how we can run future netball classes, the money will certainly help us to put in place things that will help our club to continue in whatever form it looks like longer-term and will be a big asset for us to grow in the future.
What are your ambitions for the club and where would you like to be in a few years?
Being able to hug people again!
Seeing our members in full or part-time jobs and making a lift for themselves in the UK, and being able to help more women in the same way.
We want to be able to continue to run the club in a way that doesn’t require too much resource and maintain our netball group on a small budget. Currently, we aren’t paid to do this as we’re all volunteers. Some people can’t believe that, but I think that says a lot about the society we live in! Why should we not give up an hour a week to help those less fortunate than us?
I’d love to continue using our platform to raise awareness of some of the struggles that asylum seekers have and that these women go through, how difficult the process is to stay in the UK, and how mixed the information for asylum seekers and refugees is. Hopefully, we can continue to make the procedures more transparent for our women and use our position to lobby those important decisions.