A community leader says he can't imagine what life would look like for the disadvantaged families he helps without the vital funding the charity he founded receives through The Health Lottery.
Mesba Ahmed, 54, founded London Tigers to help bring BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee) communities together through their shared love of sport. And he says the grants the project receives – the most recent being £40,000 over the next two years - are a lifeline for helping support families from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Imagine living in an area where you don’t know anybody, you don’t speak the language - these families would be totally isolated and lost [without the funding], and then that can affect their mental health and well-being,” Mesba explains.
“We have refugees from Afghanistan in our community and they can feel very vulnerable. It isn't just the language barrier.”
There are other things that can cause tension such as behavioural issues, family break-ups, or low income.
Mesba added, “We do a lot of mentoring work in our programme, engaging the boys and girls, developing, educating and encouraging them. The whole idea is that they don’t feel lonely or isolated, they get to make friends, and not just them, but their parents too.”
Mesba, whose own father was a community leader, set up the project in Westminster in 1986 to bring together the diverse South Asian community who lived there and create equal opportunities. The project then moved to Southall.
London Tigers has since seen families from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka bond through their love of sport and form one close-knit community.
He said, “We wanted people to feel connected to their community. Football is a universal sport and cricket is a much-loved South Asian sport, but we have other sporting activities like tennis or basketball at our complex too.
“We thought if we can entice the families to come here, and let their kids play, see that engagement, then they will feel comfortable and have a sense of belonging. They will then feel confident about being part of a society where English might not be their first language.”
Around 45 boys and girls aged between eight to 14 are currently enjoying the facilities at the sports complex in Southall. But it isn’t just the children who get to take part - adults also get to join in sessions, such as yoga, while their children play.
London Tigers is also helping those outside the immediate community, with initiatives such as supporting a mental health programme for the over-40s at a mosque in Tower Hamlets, as well as working with young people in schools.
Mesba says, “I grew up feeling passionate about football but there was nothing happening in my local area. I was involved with all the youth clubs around me, but nobody wanted football teams - and that's how London Tigers started.
“Around the end of 1999 some of these children I had mentored became adults, one was in the Post Office, another a driving instructor, another started his own building company. I said, ‘Do you want to give back?’ I got them involved with football coaching and it grew even more from there.
"Now we are managing three facilities and are working on other programmes in schools like mental health projects and educating kids about knife crime. It's not just about running the football session and cricket session for the boys and girls, it’s the long-term, it's the bigger picture to help these families. We educate, teach a discipline and also encourage them to give back later on by volunteering.
“The funding we get is so, so important because it is helping what I call the hidden communities: the hard-to-reach people who don’t have that kind of resource.”
As well as helping signpost families to support that is available outside of London Tigers’ remit, such as financial advice and food banks, Mesba and his team of trustees and volunteers have also helped other ‘Tigers’ around the country.
“We've got Oldham Tigers, Birmingham Tigers, Ipswich Tigers, and they're all following this model. We're trying to inspire everyone nationally. It's not just about having a football team, but these projects can actually impact the whole community if they really want - and I can see that already happening.”
London Tigers Factfile
London Tigers empower disadvantaged communities through sport
Main focus is football and cricket, but active in many sports
Centres in Southall, Tower Hamlets and Westminster
£40,000 grant awarded using money raised through The Health Lottery
Previously awarded £37,728 (2021 - 2023) and £37,930 (2015 - 2017)