R.Afique Mohammed lists the fortnightly rations given out by United Nations staff. “A kilo of rice, a little oil.” Think for a second. “Dahl, some vegetables. There were many people and little food. It was never, never enough. “
It was all Mohammed ate for the first 13 years of his life, as he was born in Kutupalong, the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp and home to nearly a million stateless Rohingya who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh.
For the children of the camp, however, as coveted as any of those foods were the plastic bags in which they came. They duped them, then took them to meet their friends and began construction. “We would put them all in a big bag and we would squeeze it, we tied it with a string and we made a soccer ball,” says Mohammed. “We played with it, without shoes, on the ground.”
Real football was rare in Kutupalong, but Mohammed occasionally caught a glimpse of a courtesy from a visitor from Bangladesh. He memorized its shape as a prototype. Suffice it to say, given the materials available, the result was no heavy lifting.
“As soon as you have 10 kicks, it kicks off one side,” he remembers. “So you have to take out the plastic again, tie it up with rubber bands. But all we did was play. We woke up in the morning and kicked the ball, came back again, went back to playing soccer. It was everything we expected. We weren’t doing anything [else], waiting for someone to take us out of the camp. “
Mohammed did not see a professional soccer game of any description until shortly before he left camp for Australia. There was no television inside the 10x10m bamboo hut that he shared with 16 family members, but the nearby UN office had one, and they let in about 100 people to watch the 2010 World Cup matches. “So we [would] sneak out to watch for a few minutes, “he says.” That was the first time I saw real football. It’s crazy. “
When a teenage Mohammed arrived in Brisbane with his mother and two brothers, for the first time he held a real soccer ball in his hands. It was a cheap from Kmart but perfectly round and round, just as I had imagined. “I was just crying, holding the soccer ball,” he says. “It was the best time of my life. I can’t describe it. “
The initial challenge was adjusting his first touch to a ball that behaved very differently from a package of crumpled plastic bags. But he soon mastered the skill and joined the 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 their immediate family’s English language skills were non-existent and they longed for community.
In 2016, Mohammed founded Rohingya United.
“We are very young, so my cousin and I created the club and we thought that maybe in the future we could enter the league,” he says. “We just got everyone kicking the ball in the afternoon. That’s how it all started. We have a lot of community members who come to see us, so this is very important to us, because we represent that community and the Rohingya name wherever we go. “
The team grew so large that he was forced to create a second, called QR The Brave. Both parties play in the Q-League, a Queensland-based multicultural competition that offers migrant and refugee communities the opportunity to play soccer without paying exorbitant registration fees that would otherwise make their participation impossible.
The league has teams representing not only the Rohingya, but also the Nepalese, Somalis, Punjabi, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Spanish, English, Korean and Sri Lankan, as well as Australians.
“Everyone loves their life now, better than we used to live. They have their own opportunities, their own goals. But another with 1.6 million people still hopes to get somewhere like me. I’m still fighting for them to be with me here. We have a lot of space here in Australia. Why can’t they come here too? “
As of the end of June 2017, an estimated 35,480 people from Myanmar were living in Australia, according to the Australian Refugee Council. There are more in extraterritorial detention centers.
One of them is Abdul Sattar, who was recently released after spending years in Nauru, and at the Brisbane International Transit Center and the makeshift detention center at the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel and Apartments.
“He was a refugee fleeing for his life, then when he came to Australia and they locked him up,” says Mohammed. “I can play football. I know other friends in the camp community, and when I go to Australia as a refugee I can leave and live fully. I have the freedom.
“My whole team fought and joined the protests to get those refugees out of the detention centers and into the community to have a better life. When they released him, he was very happy. We help him get a house, a driver’s license and transportation … he does not have a visa so he cannot study or work. All he does is wake up, pray, eat, and call me to ask where we are playing. “
Mohammed, who has a diploma in IT, works for Football Queensland and Multicultural Australia, and uses 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 care. medical.
But he keeps coming back to the sport.
“That’s the best way to always connect with Australians and other communities around me,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s soccer, netball, whatever you play. Even if you can’t speak English, in the field you can because your body speaks the same language. “