Sharon Bavington, our Assistant Near Neighbours Coordinator for West Yorkshire, writes about her experiences of visiting John, the project leader for Harehills Football League and tells us more about how John is making an impact within Harehills through his Near Neighbours funded project.  

John’s an amazing guy; of Nigerian heritage and strongly rooted in his community in Harehills. Challenged to work here in 2011 he’s been making inroads into the community ever since.  We met in Banstead Park, one of the spaces he uses to engage with the young people of Harehills.

After locking up his bike, we set off on foot to walk the streets of this incredibly diverse neighbourhood.  John greeted a guy across the street, they loudly exchanged a few sentences in a language I didn’t know. He was speaking in Roma. He mentioned that he had has taught himself a bit of Roma over the last few years.

We called at a terraced house, in a long row of other terraces in this cheek by jowl community, and met Florin, a Roma friend, who has been helping John connect with this community, run the football leagues, and help with the supplementary education classes they are running with their Near Neighbours grant.

After a brief chat, we were off again, through the houses and onto the shopping street. John seemed to know everyone we passed, from the young men, to the mothers with children in push chairs and the young people coming out of school, chatting to them all in their own language as we went. We headed for the library and a space to sit and catch up about his project. John spoke about some of the issues within Harehills:

“Because of segregation, suffering is not shared. There’s so much tension between the migrant groups in Harehills, issues are deeply rooted in prejudice. But people are actually neighbours, prejudice may be of the heart, but we can at least help people know their neighbours names, and start to build some relationships where trust can begin and experiences can be shared.”

The project is reaching 30-40 young people on a regular basis from Roma, Nigerian, Gambian, Somali, Caribbean and British Pakistani backgrounds. The football league ran through October with a half term tournament, attracting a diverse group of young people built through John’s wide connections in the community.

It was hard to counter bullying and prejudice amongst the groups, as young people from different communities didn’t want to play together, and parents wanted to keep their children away from the ‘other’, some withdrew, but a good group engaged with the game, and litter picking and leafletting the area about environmental concerns too. The football will start again when the weather improves “playing together brought them together, it will be good to see if this has endured over the winter.”

Alongside the football, John has been running literacy classes, every Saturday 9-11am:

 “There is a literacy crisis in this community, regular time out of school is affecting kids negatively; it affects their ability to enjoy studying, and hinders them moving up levels. We measure progress not just in ability but by confidence. Some kids have been pushed up two classes.  We want to encourage more home study and are producing packs to help parents monitor their kids work, changing habits in families, and building principles of self-directed study.”

John wants to use the grant to keep engaging, to invest more in equipment and resources, and especially in training his diverse group of volunteers “the coaches we use need to be better equipped to understand the context we are working in, how to relate better to people who speak a different language or who are of a different religion, we need to train them to be peacebuilders.”

I asked John: ‘why does this matter?’ He replied that it mattered because “of tomorrow, children have to have the right education, the right skills, and we have to invest in that today.  This is important because it is possible to have a more peaceful Harehills, we just have to have more meaningful interactions.”