Action Foundation joined forces with a local chess club this week to put on the very first competition for refugees and asylum seekers at The Word (National Centre for the Written Word) in South Shields.

It was all the idea of our InterAction Project Support Officer, Tareq Ghaleb, himself a refugee from Yemen, who enjoys chess and thought it would be a great way to forge links between migrants and the local community. He said:

“We are trying to break the isolation for asylum seekers by introducing many activities so they can make friendships.

“Chess is a very popular game worldwide and the rules are the same everywhere. When I introduced it as an idea between the asylum seekers and the refugees they really welcomed that and they said they wanted to join and participate in this competition.”

Tareq contacted one of the oldest chess clubs in the region, the South Shields Chess Club and its chairman, Eddie Czestochowski, immediately agreed to help.

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Eddie paid out of his own pocket for room hire in The Word library and brought along chess sets and clocks so the competition ran smoothly.

He said:  “My dad, who was Polish, taught me how to play chess. You usually get your first influences from your parents, then you start to beat them and they don’t want to play you any more!

“Chess is an international language. You don’t need to be able to understand your opponent to play. It goes across international and age boundaries. Most chess players I find are nice people.”

Hanieh, an Iranian refugee and the only woman taking part in the competition, said she had learned chess in her childhood. “In my country every child learns to play,” she said.

“In fact some of the best chess players in the world come from my country.”

Eight countries in all were represented by the 10 players in Tuesday’s competition – Botswana, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Palestine, Albania, Yemen and of course, Geordieland!

Johnson Mangwegape, from Botswana, who arrived in the North East just four months ago, said he had loved the chess competition. He said:

“It opens up the mind, it refreshes your brain and relieves stress. This was very great. I enjoyed the challenges. We had some very good players and it was really fun.”

And Elton Tota, an Albanian father, who has been supported by Tareq at the South Shields Drop-in STARCH (South Tyneside Asylum and Refugees Church Help) added: “I learned to play when I was 10 years old and I now have two girls – five and two months. It’s a beautiful game and I will teach my daughters to play when they are old enough to learn.”

Elton came second in the competition, but it perhaps unsurprisingly considering the popularity of the game in Persia, it was an Iranian who took first place – Alireza Shahverdian, who has also played since childhood.

Ali remained unbeaten by any other player throughout the afternoon. “I like all sports,” said Ali. “I love chess and would like to play regularly with a club.”

Eddie may just have found some new recruits!

Huge thanks to South Shields Chess Club, who, with the support of South Shields Library Services and the charity Chess in Schools and Communities, offers a regular CHESS FOR ALL SESSION at The Word, South Shields Central Library in the Atrium Area on the ground floor between 10am and 12 noon every Saturday. It is open to players of all abilities and from children and complete novices to champion chess players who are more than happy to pass on their skills.

The chess tournament is an example of how Action Foundation’s InterAction team is working hard to end social isolation and promote better health amongst refugees and asylum seekers.

The South Shields work at STARCH is currently being funded by the GPs’ federation, South Tyneside Health Collaboration and by The Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland Know Your Neighbourhood Fund which is supporting initiatives in South Tyneside that can help boost volunteering and tackle loneliness, helping participants improve their mental and physical wellbeing, develop new skills and form social connections.