Rohingya United: the football team bringing together refugees

Rafique Mohammed lists the fortnightly rations doled out by United Nations personnel. “One kilogram of rice, a bit of oil.” He thinks for a second. “Dahl, some vegetables. There were a lot of people and little food. It was not ever, ever enough.”

It was all Mohammed ate for the first 13 years of his life, having been born inside Kutupalong, the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp and home of almost one million stateless Rohingya people who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

For the camp kids, anche se, just as coveted as any of those food items were the plastic bags in which they came. They snaffled them, then took them to meet their friends and start construction. “We’d put them all in one big bag and squeeze it, tie it with rope and make a soccer ball,” Mohammed says. “We would play with that, without shoes, in the dirt.”

A real football was a rare sighting in Kutupalong, but Mohammed occasionally caught a glimpse of one courtesy of a Bangladeshi visitor. He memorised its shape as a prototype. Suffice to say, given the materials at hand, the result was not heavy-duty.

“As soon as you have 10 kicks, it’s ripped off one side,” he recalls. “So you have to get the plastic again, tie it with rubber bands. But all we did was play. We woke up in the morning and go kick the ball around, go back again, play football again. It was all we looked forward to. We were doing nothing [else], just waiting for someone to take us out of the camp.”

Mohammed did not see a professional football match of any description until shortly before he left the camp for Australia. There was no TV inside the 10x10m bamboo hut he shared with 16 family members, but the UN office nearby had one, and they let about 100 people in to watch 2010 World Cup matches. “So we [would] sneak in to watch a few minutes," lui dice. “That was my first time seeing actual football. It’s crazy.”

When a teenaged Mohammed made it to Brisbane with his mother and two brothers, he held a real football in his hands for the first time. It was a Kmart cheapie but perfectly full and round, just like he’d imagined. “I was just crying, holding the soccer ball," lui dice. “It was the best moment in my life. I cannot describe it.”

The initial challenge was adjusting his first touch to a ball that behaved very differently to a scrunched-up bundle of plastic bags. But the skill was soon mastered, and he joined Brisbane community club Virginia United for two seasons. In general life, those first 18 months were difficult. Some cousins already living in Australia offered help, but the English language skills of his immediate family were non-existent, and they craved community.

Nel 2016, Mohammed established Rohingya United.

“We have a lot of youth, so me and my cousin created the club and thought maybe in the future we can get in the league," lui dice. “We just got everyone down to kick the ball around in the afternoon. That’s how it started. We get a lot of community members coming to watch us, so it’s really important for us, because we represent that community and the name Rohingya wherever we go.”

The team became so big he was forced to create a second, called QR The Brave. Both sides play in the recently formed Q-League, a Queensland-based multicultural competition offering migrant and refugee communities a chance to play football without paying exorbitant registration fees which would otherwise render their participation impossible.

The league features teams representing not only Rohingya people but also Nepalese, Somali, Punjabi, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Spanish, English, Korean and Sri Lankan, along with Australians.

“Everyone’s loving their life now, better than we used to live in. They have their own opportunities, their own goals. But another one at 1.6 million people are still hoping to get somewhere like I was. I’m still fighting to get them to be with me here. We have a lot of space here in Australia. Why can’t they come here as well?"

At the end of June 2017, uno stimato 35,480 people from Myanmar were living in Australia, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. There are more in offshore detention centres.

One of those is Abdul Sattar, who was recently released after spending years on Nauru, and in the Brisbane International Transit Centre and the makeshift detention centre at the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel and Apartments.

“He was a refugee running away to save his life, then when he comes to Australia and he got locked up,” Mohammed says. “I get to play soccer. I get to meet other friends in the camp community, and when I go to Australia as a refugee I get to go and live fully. I have the freedom.

“My whole team fought and joined protests to get those refugees out of the detention centres and into the community to have a better life. When he got released, he was so happy. We helped him to get a house, a driver’s licence and transport … he doesn’t have a visa so he cannot study or work. All he does is wake up, pray, eat and give me a call to ask where we’re playing.”

Mohammed, who has a diploma in IT, works for Football Queensland and Multicultural Australia, using his own experience to help asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants find a place to live and work and access services such as transport and healthcare.

But he keeps coming back to sport.

“That’s the best way to connect for me every time, with Aussies and other communities around me," lui dice. “It doesn’t matter if it’s football, netball, whatever you play. Even if you don’t know how to speak English, on the field you can because your body speaks in the same language.”

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