Cricket sessions a big hit for vulnerable women in East London

“Cricket was not just a sport for them, it was a support network.”

“These women have come a long way from being homeless to being able to sustain themselves socially, emotionally, and economically,” Asma Haq of the Marks Gate Relief Project (MGRP).

Along with her husband Saud Siddiqui, Asma created MGRP and has been running community cohesion activities and women empowerment and social welfare projects to support the local community in Barking and Dagenham.

A philanthropist from a chemical engineering background, Asma moved to London from the UAE 15 years ago and since then has been an important member of the East London community, starting by offering free chemistry tutoring to GCSE and A-Level students and at one point running a soup kitchen out of her own home.

Focusing on local youth and women, MGRP is a non-for-profit community interest company that relies on volunteers to boost community engagement and provide education. MGRP is run and managed by a team of dedicated female volunteers and for the last couple of years has been using cricket to help refugee and disadvantaged women find confidence and a sense of belonging.

Many of the women who have attended the sessions since their inception are from diverse backgrounds and have experienced trauma, finding themselves in East London after leaving countries such as Uganda, Mauritius and Pakistan. Some of them are homeless, some of them have previously been sexually exploited, some of them are victims of domestic violence, forced marriages and female genital mutilation, and some came with young children to feed.

When Asma initially started running the cricket sessions two-and-a-half years ago, the take-up was low.

“They were very reluctant,” she revealed. “The first session was a no-show. I advertised it, I promoted it. I personally invited women to come down and attend. It just didn't work out.”

Asma had to offer incentives, fully understanding that something like cricket wasn’t a priority in these women’s lives at that time.

“What I would do is I tell them to come play cricket for a bit and then I will give you some extra food or extra clothes or a storybook for your child. Something additional which they thought was more valuable and necessary compared to cricket.”

A lot of thought also had to be put into tailoring the sessions specifically to the women’s needs. Two particular concerns were about accessibility and the presence of men.

“I had to make a lot of adjustments and convince these ladies it's going to be good fun. I made sure it's indoors, I made sure there were no men allowed, I made sure that the women could wear absolutely anything they wanted to wear.”

Slowly but surely attendance started to grow and the women would start coming back when they realised the sessions weren’t just solely about playing cricket.

“Cricket was not just a sport for them, it was a support network. They started to get to know each other. They started bonding with each other, talking to each other, sharing their trauma. Rather than me talking to them and counselling them one-on-one, they were counselling each other and they grew from strength to strength.

​​”As time passed, not only did these women heal emotionally, but also socially and economically. A lot of factors were behind the success of this project, not just the cricket. I want to clarify that. However, I think cricket was the core factor. A catalyst.”

The idea to use cricket as a form of social bonding came through a combination of chance and necessity. Initially, Asma had been running community gardening sessions, but these could not take place year-round due to the weather. She needed something indoors.

A chance meeting with an ECB employee introduced Asma to the Activators programme, part of All Stars Cricket.

Asma received training on how to run sessions and free kit to host the them, and since then other women from the MGRP community have been trained as Activators, one even studying English for two years to be able to participate in a first aid course.

“We are heavily reliant on volunteers. We only have so much funding available. I really didn't have the capacity or the energy to be buying the cricket kits. The ECB was happy to provide me with all of this, all the kits for running indoor soft cricket sessions, free of cost.”

The work MGRP is doing is focused on the future, not just of the women currently involved but also their children.

“I'm really looking long term,” Asma said. “I see that one generation down they will have happy families and become educated professionals, earning and contributing back to the economy. In the past two years, I’ve seen generations of East London thriving. I can see it already happening. It's not just a vision. It's happening now.”

This story appeared in this week's edition of The Cricket Paper