Playing ball to reform and uplift the needy

- April 10, 2024
| By : Yusra Nazim |

Saif Ullah Khan, a national-level rugby player, is leveraging the power of rugby to transform lives and aid those in need

GUIDE: Saif Ullah Khan with the women’s rugby team

Saif Ullah Khan, a former international rugby player, used to be a bully as a teenager. He would often get into fights to show how tough he was. But everything changed when he discovered rugby, a sport he didn’t know much about before. It helped him view life differently. Recognising its potential for positive change, he now utilises the sport as a tool to uplift urban slum residents in Delhi.

The 27-year-old started an NGO called ‘Yellow Street’ with cousin Yusra Khan and later formed a rugby club called Delhi Wolves in 2016.

“Delhi Wolves is a rugby institution and rehab for the survivors of social disorganisation, building aspirations and emotional intelligence of individuals to help them restart their lives with full potential!” Saif told Patriot.

He trains individuals from diverse backgrounds, aiming to channelise their anger into enthusiasm for rugby.

“My students come from diverse backgrounds and different walks of life. They have used the spirit and values of the sport to change themselves and the ecosystem around them.”

Reform through rugby

Saif, who is the founder and ex-President of Rugby Association of Delhi, as well as, the Joint-Secretary of the Wheelchair Rugby Federation of India, has built a team comprising former beggars, inmates of correctional facilities, school dropouts, and residents from the south Delhi slums of Okhla Tank, Madanpur Khadar, Jasola Flyover, Jamia Nagar and Nizamuddin.

Under Saif’s guidance, these children learn far more than just the rules of the game. Through rugby, they grasp principles of discipline, solidarity, resilience, integrity, respect, and empathy – invaluable lessons that extend beyond the field.

Saif’s commitment to the cause is evident in the way he conducts his training sessions. Every weekend morning, he gathers his ‘wolfpack’ – as he fondly refers to them – for intense drills and practice matches.

CHANGE: Aslam was into substance abuse before Wolfpack changed his life

“Firstly, rugby is a mixture of athletic and combat skills, with dance-like routine and laws/rules which lead a player to go through a change process to qualify for the main team. The passion leads to discipline, tolerance and self-control. Secondly, rugby held my hand when I gave up on life and it has been my institution and rehab since I first took a pause and started to reform my story.”

He added, “The organic transference of passion and progress in weekly training and allied activities have been a motivation for me to continue creating more change stories and involving street children and reformed juveniles into sport.”

Saif’s impact extends beyond the park.

Recognising the importance of education, he ensures that the children under his tutelage value both sports and academics. Many of them have refrained from dropping out of school, broadening their capacity to learn and succeed.

Social Welfare

Saif, who calls his players — both boys and girls — wolves, involves them in not just sport but social work too.

During Covid-19, Saif’s ‘Wolfpack’ came forward to aid people by providing them with essential items like oxygen cylinders, rations, and hospital beds to fight the pandemic.

‘Wolfpack’ and Goonj, an NGO, created a war room from where the whole team operated to help people in coping with the pandemic.

“We started helping people during the first wave, but the second wave was more challenging for us as we saw people having different requirements, for example oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and hospital beds,” said Saif, who is also the national development manager of Indian Rugby Football Union.

“We started planning and verifying SOS messages. Our team used to talk to people and we tried fulfilling their requirements. Our team collaborated with other sportspersons, who also wanted to help during the grim situation,” he said further.

Saif says his players and the union managed meagre resources during the pandemic.

“Sports is a medium which tells us how to deal with pressure and be disciplined. We had a team consisting of people who allocated resources, verified leads and then distributed,” he explained.

“The spirit of rugby which is about togetherness and moving forward as a team helped us in the relief work. We got tired but we didn’t stop our relief work,” he added further.

Christmas almsgiver

Saif and his team run a mission called ‘Secret Santa and Rugby Fairy’ every year on Christmas. During this event, they approach people living in slum areas like beggars, house-helps and others deprived of resources.They ask people to make a wish about the thing they want, and following that they collaborate with different people and NGOs to fulfill those wishes.

“We have kickstarted so many journeys by granting wishes, ranging from washing machines and bicycles to even essentials like a chimta (tong) for making rotis. These seemingly small yet significant contributions make life easier for many, and throughout this journey, I’ve been amazed by how people have stepped forward to help others.”

As rugby continues to grow in India, so does Saif’s vision for the future. As a Rugby Development Manager, Saif is working to spread the sport through grassroots programmes, juvenile homes, and institutions. He is also collaborating with the Kofi Annan Foundation and its Kofi Annan Changemakers programme.

GOOD INITIATIVE: Saif and his team run a yearly Christmas mission, which distributes goods to the needy

Aslam, who is part of the ‘Wolfpack’ and is an actor as well as a rugby player, was a victim of substance abuse and part of gangs in Nizamuddin Basti before Saif held his hand.

“My mother was my father’s third wife and worked as a masseuse. I never received love from my father, which led to anger issues and a loss of emotional connection with my family. Due to the environment in our area, we as children naturally began engaging in these behaviours because it was all we saw,” says the 21-year-old, who is also the Assistant Coach for Delhi Wolves, as well as its Coordinator.

“When I started playing rugby, I wasn’t even aware of the actual game. I thought it was football and decided to quit just after three months. However, when I started playing rugby with my friend Danish, it helped me with anger management. I began feeling like part of a family with the Wolfpack. I found a good mentor, and Saif Bhai taught us the true meaning of power and values.”

Aslam has participated in various rugby championships, including the 2019 Junior National State Championship in Chandigarh (placed 4th) and the 2023 Third Division All India Championship.

Additionally, he engaged actively in Covid-19 relief efforts and has become an integral part of the Delhi Wolves team.

Spiralling effect

Pooja Verma, a 20-year-old resident of Jaitpur and daughter of a milkman, was strolling around in her area when she found some people, including Aslam, playing with a ball. She went to meet them.

That meeting changed her life. She joined Delhi Wolves and began playing rugby.

GIRL POWER: Pooja Verma’s mother was initially against her taking up rugby, but her persistence paid off

“My mother wasn’t happy earlier as rugby is a contact game and she was worried about me getting hurt. I left the game after a few days as I thought I was not capable of playing it.”

Pooja took up rugby again after her friend insisted on it.

“We barely had anything to eat during the lockdown. We used to eat once a day, unaware of what we will eat for the next meal. My family also objected to me wearing shorts and going alone to the field.

However, I found out that I can get government jobs and employment through rugby. That is when I decided to fight every challenge and play rugby.”Pooja is a national-level rugby player and recently got selected in the Indian rugby camp. She was part of the Junior 7s team that won silver medal at the nationals in 2021, Senior 15s team that won national gold in 2024. She is also the under-14 sub-junior coach with ‘Wolfpack’.