A project which uses sport as a hook to engage and support boys and young men in one of the most deprived wards in Sheffield has been described as a “beacon of hope” by one of its members.
Tenesaye Addisu, now 21, arrived in Sheffield as a child refugee from the civil war in Eritrea alongside his sister. After initially being placed into foster care, Addisu – known as TJ – now works three jobs to support himself and his sibling.
He credits a local voluntary group, Big Brother Burngreave, with helping him to find his feet.
The group was initially set up by Burngreave resident Safiya Saeed in early 2017, and while the chance to play football, basketball and other sports is an initial attraction, it offers much more than that.
New recruits are mentored by those who came through the doors years before, and then ultimately have the chance to become mentors themselves to a new generation. The aim is to equip Big Brother members with skills to help them manage their physical and mental health, enhance their career prospects and avoid being drawn into crime.
TJ, who is now a champion in Big Brother and aspires to one day step up to be a leader, told the PA news agency: “It’s easy to slip onto the bad side.
“If you ask anyone about Burngreave they won’t have anything positive to say about it.
“The importance of Big Brother is to get rid of that stereotyping of places and kids, because you see a lot of kids being stabbed and killed.
“I’ve got a few friends that have ended up on the bad side and sadly passed away. Big Brother is like a beacon of hope of some sort.
“It’s changed me. It’s a good environment to be in. It’s like a family.
“It’s just one place where I actually felt like, ‘Oh, there are other people that are like me, that have come from different outlooks of life like me, and we all have one thing that unites us – our passion for sport’.
“It’s helped me mature and be more understanding of everything. Before I came here, I didn’t really used to talk to people.”
Saeed, who is of Somali origin and did not speak a word of English when she arrived in Sheffield in 1985, initially set up the umbrella Reach Up Youth group which includes Big Brother in 2013, following a double murder in the area.
“There was no ‘go-to’ person in the area,” she recalls.
“The kids were falling apart and there was a lot of depression.”
Saeed recruited her first three Big Brother volunteers in early 2017. Some Big Brother events attract around 350 people, with a ‘core’ group of 70 attending the Verdon Street Recreation Centre in Burngreave most Saturdays.
Saeed admits her knowledge of sport is limited, but has seen first hand the transformative effect it can have.
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“They won’t have a conversation until you throw a ball at them. And they won’t stab each other if they throw a ball at each other,” she said.
Saeed has also set up Sisterhood, which tries to remove some of the barriers to Muslim girls and women competing in sport. Data published earlier this month by Sport England showed that women of Asian and black ethnicity continue to be the groups least likely to be physically active.
Kathryn Mudge, a development manager at the Yorkshire Sport Foundation which assists Big Brother and other local groups in securing funding, admits Burngreave “is at the top, or bottom, of all the wrong lists” when it comes to a range of issues such as crime, mental health and life expectancy.
The Sport For Development Coalition has called on the Government to ring-fence funding for strategically-designed sport and physical activity-related interventions such as Big Brother as part of existing budgets for crime prevention, improving health and employability.
Mudge says a new approach would help those on the ground, such as Saeed, immensely.
“We want the Government to adopt an approach which realises that life doesn’t separate itself into little boxes, and that if you’re doing a (sports-related) project it is going to impact upon crime and also going to impact on community cohesion and health,” she said.
“So rather than Safiya report to five different organisations and fill out five forms, why not have one award, with one mechanism for reporting and one person to have to speak to, but have all the same outcomes?”
Mudge says it would also be hugely beneficial if funding awards could be longer term, rather than Saeed and others like her having to apply every six months.
Asked what life in Burngreave would be like without the project, Saeed said: “If we disappear, the area will echo it. You could just see it turn dark a little bit.
“These boys and men want to be identified now. Now that they’ve touched the sky, how can you tell that person there is some gravity? They just want to keep on flying.”