Rohingya refugees find solace in football, dream of contributing to India
The motley crew, called the Rohingya Football Club India, are united by their passion and love for football.Updated: Jun 20, 2019, 07:18 IST
Mohammad Kabir’s eyes light up with excitement as he waits on the periphery of the football field and cheers for his team. The 18-year-old is watching his favourite sport — football, a game that reminds him and his teammates of Myanmar, the country they left behind. Kabir is among the 10 Rohingya refugees from Delhi and Haryana who are playing together in a private football tournament that commenced in the city two weeks ago.
The tournament sees eight teams battling it out every Saturday on the Excelsior American School’s grounds near Golf Course Road. The teams consist of young players from Delhi-NCR and among these, it is the team of Rohingya refugees that stands out the most. Consisting of players between ages 18-31, the team is an eclectic coterie of students, daily-wage labourers, construction workers, vegetable sellers and others who make a living through low-paying jobs.
The motley crew, called the Rohingya Football Club India, however, are united by their passion and love for football. Most players in the team had to start their life from scratch as they trickled into India after undertaking a tumultuous journey from Myanmar via Bangladesh.
Last year, former minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju had said Rohingyas did not have the status of “refugee” but were “illegal migrants”. As per home ministry data, around 14,000 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)-registered Rohingya live in the country while 40,000 are said to be staying illegally as per estimations of security agencies.
Hailing from Busidang in Myanmar, Kabir said he reached India in 2014 via the Bangladesh border. Prior to that, he had left Myanmar for Bangladesh in 2012 as violence intensified.
After two years in Bangladesh, Kabir had to move to India, leaving behind his ailing parents.
“We left home in a boat and managed to reach Bangladesh after much difficulty. People known to us were living in India and we decided to come here. My parents, however, were too grief-stricken to undertake another journey. They decided to stay put in Bangladesh itself,” said Kabir, who now lives in Chandeni camp 2 in Mewat.
Along with peers from the refugee camps, Kabir works in a meat factory from 9am to 8pm. The daily grind takes a toll but football, he said, was a small mercy that helped them recharge ever so occasionally. The “beautiful game” was a source of hope and happiness, he said.
“I started playing football as a child. It used to excite me a lot and I was also a part of the school team. We would watch Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on TV and tried to emulate them. Those were happy days, but things changed when we had to leave our country,” Kabir said.
Moving to a new country meant leaving behind prized possessions, including the football that he played with. But the love for the game accompanied him to Mewat. Kabir, along with other football enthusiasts, has started practising football on a makeshift ground that came up in Chandeni earlier this year.
QUEST FOR A FOOTBALL GROUND
Chandeni village in Nuh is home to three Rohingya refugee camps located in close vicinity of each other. In February this year, a makeshift football ground was set up in the area, after the efforts of some football enthusiasts bore fruits.
“I used to see children playing football on the same ground, without any training or equipment. There was no fencing and plain concrete all around. Children would often fall on the rugged ground and hurt themselves. Seeing this, I reached out to other boys in the camps who used to play football and asked if they would pitch in to make a makeshift ground here,” said Jafarullah, 31.
After efforts and many talks with the locals, village residents allowed the refugees to make arrangements for a football ground at a piece of land that is under litigation. “We requested the owners to allow us to play till the time the dispute was resolved. After getting permission to set up the ground, we got funds and bought some footballs. We also put fencing around the lawn,” Jafarullah said.
Following the setting up of the ground, refugees in Mewat have started forming teams of 10-11 players. The goal, they said, was to practise football and channelise their energies in a constructive endeavour. Additionally, the game has also given them a chance to bond with local residents in the area.
“We have started reaching out to people, and now even local residents come and ask if they can play with us. We readily welcome the locals, and they have started joining us. Watching us play, they have started taking a greater interest in the game. They even thank us for putting an arrangement for the game in place. Relations between the two groups have improved significantly,” he added.
Noorul Hussain, 23, a member of the Rohingya football team, said the game had given them a chance to interact with Indians on a personal level. “I miss my friends from Myanmar a lot. I am reminded of them whenever we play football. I do not have many friends here. But football is helping me bond with others who love the game. It is helping us build bridges and giving us a chance to cherish the shared memories of playing football with friends,” he said.
Hussain came to India in 2017 via the Bangladesh border after crossing the Myanmar border by the sea. He is married and lives with his wife and two children here. His parents, however, live in Bangladesh. The family was driven out of their home as violence began escalating in Myanmar. Now, he works as a construction labourer in Mewat. “There are days when we find work, and days when there is no work at all. Once or twice in a week, we get some work. On other days, we try and make do with the little we have. However, the despondency begins to bog one down. On such days, football gives us hope when there is none,” he said.
He has two daughters aged two and three. Hussain said he would encourage them too if they decided to play football later on.
The journey ahead
Sabber Kyaw Min, founder of Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, which has put together the team for the ongoing tournament, said the football team was meant to make a meaningful difference to the lives of Rohingya refugees in the country. “Our aim is to familiarise Rohingya refugees in India with football, train them, and make a team with some of the best players. We want them to become a part of professional teams. They have been through a lot of trauma already, and we want them to use their passion for football in a constructive manner,” Sabber said. Currently, the football team is being managed in partnership with a private sports company, which facilitates the team’s practice sessions, and donations through UNHCR and individual donors.
However, carrying forward the team has not come without its fair share of challenges. Ali Johar, a Rohingya youth leader from Delhi, said the game had helped to dispel false notions about the community but there was still a long way to go for the players to enter the mainstream of the sports’ infrastructure and set-up in the country. Many refugees want to represent India some a day, an aspiration that is still a pipe dream, and by some distance.
“Rohingya refugees are often seen through a particular ideological lens. There is a lot of misinformation and stereotypes about our community. Football has given us positive exposure and enabled us to tell the world that we are just like them. We are normal human beings. We have also got the chance to make many new Indian friends. Football has paved the way for constructive change, but sustaining the momentum is proving to be a challenge,” Johar said.
He said that due to lack of documentation, many bright players were unable to participate in national tournaments. “In Hyderabad, two very bright children of ours were selected for the nationals but they couldn’t proceed due to the mandated linking of the Aadhar card, a document that we do not have,” he said.
He, however, added that the Rohingya people would keep striving to better their football skills, and possibly contribute to India in some way. “Through football, we want to talk about our community and give back to India as well,” he said.