Tucked away in a room at the Gabalfa Community Education Centre are a group of people sipping coffee, eating Iranian cakes and chatting. A normal sight you’d think, but this is a FAN (Friends and Neighbours) meeting.
The FAN idea is spreading across the city since its conception in 2003 and groups ranging from six people to 25 can be found enjoying each other’s company and sharing stories, ideas and just general chit-chat.
Gill Saunders, who started the first FAN meeting in Grangetown is proud of how the idea has grown so quickly and organicaly.
She said: “I was teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) in Grangetown and in teaching a class of Muslim women we got chatting to find they needed opportunities to try out their English. They wanted the chance to meet British people and say more than just ‘Hello’ or ‘Goodbye’ as you would in a shop.
“We formed a little group and invited people along. It started as a group for women but we soon found that men wanted to join and it grew from there.”
Watch a FAN group in action
Gill feels it was the chance to meet such a diverse group of people that has made FAN, which has been supported by the Millennium Stadium charitable trust fund, popular.
“It didn’t matter who came to the meetings,” says Gill, “it could be someone who has just been granted asylum, it could be someone who has lost a loved one or students. We have such a mix of people and that’s great, people hear so many different stories and meet so many different people. I think people forget what a rich and diverse population we have in Cardiff.
The spread of FAN has been rapid, with groups being set up outside Cardiff and an estimated 2,000 people taking part. The groups are now spreading across the whole of Wales, Gill is surprised at how much it has grown.
She said: “I didn’t intend for it to get so big, it was just a few of us to begin with but we get calls and emails saying ‘could I set up a FAN group?’ We’ve found that people like this chance, in an informal setting, to meet other people and they become less afraid of the stranger.”
The Gabalfa group is run by Zahra, 53, who lives in Gabalfa and was so inspired by the other FAN groups she had seen she decided to set up her own.
“I wanted a local group,” says Zahra, “so I got a room at the community centre and started the group. I’ve found it a great way to meet people, it improves my English and I’ve met people who I can trust.”
Zahra was born in Tehran, Iran, but has found Cardiff home after escaping political persecution in her home country because of her and her former husband’s outspoken views on the regime.
She said: “I love Cardiff. It is such a friendly place. I originally came to Britain and was in London, but I found it so busy and too loud. Cardiff is quieter and I’ve met so many people.
“One of the best things for FAN for me was when Gill invited me to spend Christmas with her. I cannot go back to Iran, so to spend the holiday with them was great. I really enjoyed it.”
Also at the meeting was John Smith, 53, who is a support worker with The DORS (Day Opportunity Recovery Service) at Whitchurch Hospital.
He said: “I have become a fan of FAN. In my work we support people who have suffered from mental health problems, such as depression, to get back into the community. Meetings like FAN groups are a great way to get them to meet new people and make new friends.
“Coming to a meeting like this gives them purpose and gives them something to get up in the morning for, to get on a bus, be on time and gives them some structure. Once they come to one or two meetings they become hooked and find it so rewarding.”
Nick Jewson, 63, a trustee of FAN and living in Plasnewydd, is full of praise for the way that FAN is run.
He said: “I came to Cardiff two years ago and came across FAN and met Gill and her husband again through FAN. I am amazed at how simply it operates and how quickly it has grown. We have a development worker but the rest of it just happens.
“I really enjoy coming to the meetings, seeing the diversity of people and find that everyone has something to give or receive at the meetings. Most people do speak at the meetings and share their thoughts, feelings or stories.”