Using football to spread the word about the plight of the Rohingya
Robi Alam is a Rohingya refugee. His family fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. A decade later, Robi was born in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Life was hard in the camps, and Robi and his friends would wrap rubber bands around a wad of plastic bags and play football (soccer) until the ball fell apart. When Robi was 10, his family emigrated to Australia, where most people have never even heard of the plight of the Rohingya. To help ease their transition, Robi and some of his fellow Rohingya started playing football again, informally at first, in nearby parks. But their passion grew, and they formed an official club. They call themselves Rohingya United, and their goal is to raise awareness of the Rohingya issue. Now there are Rohingya football teams scattered across Australia, as well as in Canada, the US and other countries.
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IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
During the month of Ramadan—which is a holy month for Muslims around the world—during that time, you’ll find a lot of Muslims who are not only fasting from sunup to sundown, but also really increasing their dollars that they spend towards different humanitarian efforts. And so I’ve been to a ton of events over the years that benefit the Rohingya people, even just to bring awareness and to speak about, you know, the atrocities and the persecution that’s happening to the Rohingya people, and what the UN has declared a genocide.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH WOMAN SPEAKING:
The world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis. We report on the desperate plight of the Rohingya refugees who have been fleeing the violence in Myanmar.
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING:
More than one million Rohingya are in a refugee camp, the world’s largest in neighboring Bangladesh.
NEWSCLIP WITH WOMAN SPEAKING:
Mohammed Khan and his family have been waiting for five years to be resettled in countries like the US or Australia. But with less than one percent of refugees worldwide accepted, it has become nearly impossible to resettle the Rohingya.
IBTIHAJ: What happens to the Rohingya when they’re forced to flee their homes and become refugees around the globe? Where do they go? What happens next?
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
And I’m executive producer Karen Given. For the Rohingya who have made it out of the camps and settled elsewhere, life continues to be hard. There are language barriers, employment barriers and often, a desire to figure out how to fit in while still maintaining their unique identity and community. For a group of young Rohingya refugees in Australia, the answer to that last challenge was football. Here’s reporter Daniel Semo.
[SOUNDS OF ADULTS AND CHILDREN OUTDOORS; SOUNDS OF FOOTBALL PLAYERS TALKING AND CALLING TO ONE ANOTHER]
Nestled among the fig and gum trees common to the state of Queensland in northeastern Australia, a young group of guys are playing an improvised game of football. They’re in a large field at one end of a local sports precinct in the north side of the city of Brisbane. There are all kinds of people around: teams playing rugby, kids batting in cricket nets, families having barbecues. The football players come here to practice every Sunday, but today, they’re not doing drills or running plays. Today, they’ve all shown up in the team colors of either FC Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Because we have Barcelona and Real Madrid supporters in the team, we’re going to play Barca supporters versus Real Madrid supporters. Yeah. So, it’s just going to be a mini-game, basically.
DANIEL: Robi Alam is wearing the purple away jersey of Real Madrid, and he takes it upon himself to organize everything about this mini-game. He lays out the little red cones to mark the boundary lines. He makes sure the teams are even. He gets on the phone to find out where the missing players are. And once the game starts, he plays in the midfield, like his childhood hero, the Brazilian player, Kaká.
ROBI ALAM: He was a midfielder, so I already made my mind that I was going to be a midfielder. So I still play midfield.
DANIEL: Robi liked Kaká even before he saw him play.
ROBI: Maybe it was just a name, because I didn’t really see him there, but I didn’t know how he played and stuff. But I just used to hear a lot of his name, and just, just the name—that his name was Kaká. [CHUCKLES] It’s something different.
DANIEL: After about 10 minutes of play, Robi advances through the midfield and kicks Madrid’s second goal through the small net. His teammates celebrate and rush to embrace him.
[SOUND OF MEN CHEERING AND CLAPPING]
For Robi and the rest of the players, these Sunday practice sessions are not just a way to hone their skills and catch up with friends. They are also a way to keep the community together. The players are all members of Rohingya United, a local football team made up of Rohingya refugees. Many of them came to Australia as children through UN resettlement. Some arrived later seeking asylum. But for all of them, the team represents the clearest way to maintain their connection. The Rohingya are an ethnic group originally from the Rakhine region of Myanmar, near the border with Bangladesh. However, even that simple statement is already controversial in some circles.
So the term “Rohingya” is very much politically contested.
DANIEL: That’s Ashraful Azad, a lecturer at the Kaldor Centre for Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
ASHRAFUL: I completed my PhD earlier this year on the displacement of Rohingya in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Malaysia.
DANIEL: Ashraful says that although the Rohingya see themselves as a unique ethnic group, the ruling government in Myanmar disagrees.
ASHRAFUL: They don’t consider them Rohingya. They say that there is nothing called “Rohingya.” Rohingya doesn’t exist. So the people who are claiming to be Rohingya, according to the Myanmar authorities, they are Bengali people, or they’re illegal migrants or they are just Muslims of Rakhine State.
DANIEL: No matter what the authorities might say, as a researcher, Ashraful believes that the Rohingya have some fundamental characteristics that do make them a unique, distinct group. The first characteristic is where they come from: the Rakhine State in Myanmar.
ASHRAFUL: They have an ancestral connection to Rakhine State, which was previously known as Arakan.
DANIEL: 90 percent of Myanmar’s citizens are Buddhist. The Rohingya are not.
ASHRAFUL: So Rohingya are more than 99 percent Muslims, and that’s, like, inherent part of their identity.
DANIEL: They also have their own language, the Rohingya language.
ASHRAFUL: So these are the three core characteristics of Rohingya, if you want to see them as a distinct group.
DANIEL: Starting in the late 1970s, the ruling government of Myanmar, which was known as Burma at the time, began a systematic campaign to persecute and terrorize the Rohingya people. Their movement was restricted, their citizenship was stripped away, and they were punished for their religious beliefs. This escalated through the 1980s.
ASHRAFUL: So life was becoming more and more restricted, and there was forced labor, like, military came to a village and took away men to work for them, without any pay, forcefully. And there was assault on people, on men and women; sexual assault. So all sorts of factors contributed to fear.
DANIEL: In the early 1990s, the Myanmar armed forces conducted a military operation, euphemistically called “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation.”
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN SPEAKING:
In 1991, the Myanmar military attacked and inflicted slavery, rape and violence on the Rohingya. Their leaders claimed they were simply trying to bring order to the Rakhine. Many Rohingya, again, fled to Bangladesh.
DANIEL: Robi’s family were among those displaced. They fled in the early 90s. They ended up in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in the Cox’s Bazar area along the border. Almost a decade later, in the year 2000, Robi was born in the camp. In fact, Robi spent the first 10 years of his life there. He lived in cramped, dangerous conditions.
ASHRAFUL: So if you have never been to a camp, it’s very difficult to imagine what a camp looks like. Imagine a place, like, several square kilometer, and about a million people living there. So if you consider is—it’s a country, it would be, like, most densely populated country in the world.
DANIEL: Each family is given space for a shelter, about 10 by 10 feet.
ASHRAFUL: And it is made of mostly tarpaulin sheet and bamboos. And they are not allowed to build any permanent structure.
DANIEL: Although refugees have their basic needs met, like food and medical assistance, they are still very restricted.
ASHRAFUL: They are not allowed to leave camp or work outside of camp. And the camps are very congested. And the houses within the camp are also very congested. There is basically no privacy from one family to another family. So, like, every family is attached—every shelter house is attached to the next house. So basically for talking in your house, the people in the next house will hear what you are talking about.
DANIEL: During the rainy season, the shelters could blow over and the ground would turn to sheer mud. But in those muddy, cramped conditions, there was one thing that brought joy to Robi and his friends.
ROBI: Football has always been a big part of my life, because it’s like—football is, like, a go-to thing. Yeah. You go to the fields, you forget about everything. All the problems you’re having and all that.
DANIEL: Robi played whenever he had a chance, with his brothers, with his cousins, with his friends. He played even when he barely had equipment to play with.
ROBI: When we couldn’t afford a proper soccer ball—football—we used to, like, collect plastic bins and, like, we used to put all the plastic in one bag and then, like, wrap it around, make it like a ball.
DANIEL: They would wrap it with rubber bands and hope it doesn’t break before they could get a decent game in. It usually did break soon enough, but that didn’t matter.
ROBI: For us, like, just being able to kick that ball around was pure joy, pure happiness as a kid.
DANIEL: Robi played football even before he knew what football looked like.
ROBI [CHUCKLING]: I actually never saw a live match on TV, so I used to just believe on whatever people told me.
DANIEL: He would hear fanciful stories from the older kids about the famous players at the time, like Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho.
ROBI: They used to say things like, if Zidane can kick a ball, that it would go for, like, two kilometers and stuff. And I used to believe such things. Like, Ronaldinho, he can dribble past, like, 20 players at a time, and that the ball they play are like brick walls, like, as hard as brick walls. [CHUCKLES] And I used to believe those things as a kid, because I was only six or seven at the time, and I’d never seen anything for myself. So I just used to believe whatever I heard.
DANIEL: But even though he hadn’t seen any games, Robi still kicked the ball around, and dreamed about running fast through the midfield, like his hero, Ricardo Kaká. Running free out into open space.
NEWSCLIP WITH MALE ANNOUNCER SPEAKING OVER CHEERING CROWD:
This is Kaká. And he’s got [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to his left. Kaká with a run! Kaká with a run for the goal! [SECOND MALE ANNOUNCER LAUGHS] He went all the way! He didn’t need anyone! Three-nil to Brazil.
DANIEL: In 2010, Robi finally had his chance to run free. He and his immediate family were granted asylum in Australia. In a way, they were lucky, given that Australia’s policies towards refugees have been notoriously harsh and punitive, especially in the last 20 years. In 2001, during his re-election campaign, the government of Prime Minister John Howard made headlines by turning away a boat full of refugees rescued at sea, refusing to allow them into the country.
NEWSCLIP WITH JOHN HOWARD SPEAKING:
We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. [SOUND OF AUDIENCE CHEERING AND CLAPPING]
DANIEL: After the incident, Australia has continued to deny entry to people seeking asylum from the sea. One of the only hopes for a refugee is through an official resettlement program like the one organized by the UNHCR. Out of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, Robi was one of a precious few to get such an opportunity.
ROBI: Australia pledged to take 100 people from the camp, so that was part of their yearly humanitarian intake. I think I would say we just got lucky.
DANIEL: The majority of his extended family were not so lucky, and many are still in the camp to this day, more than 30 years after they arrived.
Robi remembers arriving in Brisbane as a child.
ROBI: I think we came at night. So I woke up in the morning, and I looked outside, and I just saw kids riding on their bikes and stuff. Something I always wished I had, and was able to ride. And then I’m like, “Oh, soon I’ll be on one of these. I’ll be riding these as well.” So I was, yeah, I was very excited.
DANIEL: After a few weeks, Robi got his own bike, and more importantly, a football of his own. No more plastic bags held together with rubber bands. And he spent hours on the internet trying to find out if the rumors were true, if Zidane could really kick the ball two kilometers, or if Ronaldinho could dribble past 20 players at once.
ROBI: So I started watching highlight, and realized that all of those were lies and stuff. But nevertheless, like, I still—2010, 2011, I used to be on, like—my homepage was literally Wikipedia, just searching up football teams and players and stuff.
DANIEL: On weekends, Robi would get on his bike, ride to a local park and meet his Rohingya buddies. And just as they did in the refugee camp, they kick the ball around. First it was all quite informal, just a fun kick-around among friends. But after a couple of years, things got more serious.
ROBI: We just started playing, like, friendly matches, eleven-a-side friendly matches every weekend, because there was a lot—we were seeing that there was Nepalese team, there was Bhutanese team. Why don’t we have a Rohingya team, as well? Even though we were young, we just started, yeah, playing.
DANIEL: Robi was one of the youngest. He was only 14 when they formed.
It was actually quite difficult at that time, because we weren’t sure, like, how to do it here in Australia, because we were pretty new.
DANIEL: That’s Samson Alam, Robi’s older brother and one of the founders of the team. He was one of the only players over the age of 18 when they started.
SAMSON ALAM: And it was also difficult because we had a lot of underage boys, and we had to start talking to their parents and convince their parents to take them to tournaments and, and participate in, in the games where adults are playing, as well.
DANIEL: The cost of registering players in the local community league was another hurdle.
SAMSON: That was actually quite difficult, because the, the boys were not working. They had Visa conditions, and they were not allowed to work at that time, so they couldn’t pay the fee for, like—to register in a league, and couldn’t buy their own jerseys or training gears. So it was quite difficult for them, yeah.
DANIEL: But they pulled together to help each other out.
SAMSON: The boys that were working, they would collect money and put it together and give it to the ones that couldn’t afford it.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
IBTIHAJ: And now back to our story.
DANIEL: In 2014, the team was officially born. With all the money they had collected, they ordered the new jerseys. They were red with black stripes and the team name in large letters across the front. Here’s Robi.
ROBI: We used to have the name “Rohingya Young Stars,” because we were all young and stuff. And I remember we, we did our team meeting in a library. And when the jersey came, we booked a library room with, like, a big meeting room, and we gathered all the players there. And everyone was in the jersey with the Rohingya label on them. It was a really proud and great moment.
DANIEL: Samson agrees.
SAMSON: You know, it was a dream coming true. Like, all the boys were refugees, and they were—back in the camps, you know, soccer was a thing that, when we came here, it was a dream coming true to play together, like, to be able to create a team. You know, it’s not easy when you settle in a country like Australia. It’s not easy. So it was, it was—it felt like it was a great achievement.
DANIEL: After some time, though, as their families started settling in Australia, the Young Stars got a little older. They finished school, they got jobs, and they began to move away to different parts of the city. The Rohingya community, once so tight in the north side of Brisbane, was splintering. Another Rohingya team formed in the south side of the city. Eventually, around 2017, both teams were struggling with numbers.
ROBI: So we were like, “Why not try to have something in the middle, so that it makes it easier for both of us to play together?” So we basically formed both of the team and made it—changed the team name to Rohingya United, as well.
DANIEL: The new team, Rohingya United, had Robi as their captain. And they also had a new uniform, this time green and yellow. Green representing Myanmar and yellow representing Australia, with a big “ROHINGYA” in capital letters in the middle.
But while the players’ focus was on football in their adopted country, news from their home country got worse and worse. In 2016 and 2017, a brutal military campaign, which has been deemed a genocide and a textbook example of ethnic cleansing by the UN, displaced even more Rohingya people from Myanmar.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have now fled across the border into Bangladesh. And over the past three days, some 15,000 refugees have been stranded with limited supplies of food and water.
NEWSCLIP WITH SECOND BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
In the distance in Myanmar, where Rohingya villages have burned in recent weeks and the people have been driven out, there’s another fire. It’s ethnic cleansing, says the UN.
DANIEL: There is no official count for the total number of Rohingya people in Australia. We know that some of them came through resettlement at the same time as Robi, in 2009 and 2010. But those were only a small number, fewer than 250 in all. A larger number arrived later, seeking asylum by other means. Since the time Robi and Samson left Bangladesh, the refugee population there, and the number of camps where they are housed, has exploded.
ASHRAFUL: There are currently 34 camps and—which host about one million people.
DANIEL: That’s Ashraful Azad, again.
ASHRAFUL: Two of the camps are there from 1990s, and the rest have been built recently from after 2017.
DANIEL: Some of those refugees have made their way to Australia, but their journeys were often harrowing. They might have escaped the refugee camp, paid people smugglers, snuck into Thailand and Malaysia and then taken a boat down to Australia. Many were then intercepted and placed in offshore detention centers where they were held alongside refugees from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Conditions were so dire in those centers that a large number of detainees were ordered to be evacuated to the Australian mainland for medical reasons. They were then held in detention hotels in cities like Brisbane. In 2020, even during a time of COVID restrictions, there were protest rallies to free them.
Seven years too long! Free the refugees! Seven years too long! Free the refugees!
NEWSCLIP OF BRITISH WOMAN SPEAKING:
The country’s treatment of refugees has been widely condemned around the world. Human rights groups have blasted the policy as inhuman and illegal. But Canberra says the measures are crucial to securing the country’s borders and stopping…
DANIEL: Even though most of the detainees were not Rohingya, Robi Alam and many of the Rohingya United players joined the protest to free them.
ROBI: We have boys that lived in the detention centers in Christmas Island and stuff, so they know what it’s like to be detained.
DANIEL: The players would hand out food to their fellow protesters and provide support for those stuck in the hotels. And in the end, the protests were effective, as a large number of detainees were released.
ROBI: And so when you see that stuff happening, it’s, like, something to be proud of, you know, because we were part of this protest. Like, if there was people not protesting on that street for months, the government would not care. So when you see things like that, you do feel proud, and even more proud because in those—part of those 120 people, there was four or five Rohingyas as well.
DANIEL: When I asked Robi about his proudest moment as part of Rohingya United, I expected him to talk about a tournament they had won or a hat trick he’d scored. But instead he pointed to this protest, and the support he and the team provided.
ROBI: So we used to call those guys, and we always told them, “We’re here for you,” and stuff. And after they got released, we even had one or two of them coming to us, playing with us a few times, and we’re still in touch with them, as well. So, yeah, we’re proud of that.
DANIEL: The refugees released from the hotel were only a handful of many Rohingya that have come to Australia through the years. Robi’s brother Samson says that speaks to Robi’s importance as team captain.
SAMSON: Robi faced most of the difficult challenges, because when he was the captain, he had a lot of new boys coming into the team, and they just got released into the community from detention. And Robi was there to welcome them into the team and make them feel like home, you know? Off the field, he was also giving support to them as well, because their situation was, like, really difficult.
ROBI: For the ones that came about—because they had no family here, whereas we were privileged to have family here. So they had way more struggles settling in here than we have. And so for them, being able to, like, come to the team and play was more of a bigger thing for them than us.
DANIEL: Robi says the team gives the refugees a chance to get together and socialize, and it helps build a sense of community. But it does more than that.
ROBI: So let’s say on a weekend we play against an Australian team in the league, and they see our team name, Rohingya United. They will automatically wonder, “What’s this team like?” or “What is a name like this?” or they will at least ask us, “What does Rohingya mean?” If they don’t know what Rohingya is, like, they would still say, “What is Rohingya?” They might—they might think it’s a funny word or something, but the point is, they’ll still ask.
DANIEL: And by instilling that first hint of curiosity, the team can then share their story and raise awareness of the Rohingya crisis. After all, most Australians still don’t know who the Rohingya people are and what they’ve been through.
ROBI: You might come across a article about the Rohingya every now and then, but it’s quite rare. And sport is a great way to, to tell people about the plight of Rohingya.
DANIEL: Today, Rohingya United has a mixture of players who came as kids from the refugee camp and those who sought asylum by boat. And they’re no longer the only team bringing awareness to the Rohingya issue. There are now Rohingya football teams in countries like the US, Canada and Malaysia. Robi has been in touch with some of them, and he often hears from other Rohingya people who discover the team’s Facebook page.
ROBI: I know, like, a lot of people from the Bangladesh refugee camp, and even people living in Malaysia, they reach out to us on our page and be, like, “We’re proud of what you’re doing,” and stuff like that. When you see those kind of thing, you do feel good, because for them…if you live in Australia already, living in one of the best places in the world, where you have the power to, to do something, to, like, change something. And for us, when we see these kind of messages, it’s very encouraging.
DANIEL: There are now Rohingya teams scattered all over Australia. Many of them are meeting today at the beginning of October. It’s another sunny weekend, this time in the city of Melbourne.
[SOUND OF SMALL CROWD TALKING AND LAUGHING; SOUNDS OF FOOTBALL GAME]
The teams are meeting in a sports complex in the city’s south to play a five-a-side tournament made up of all Rohingya teams: two from Brisbane, two from Melbourne and two from Sydney. It’s the first time they’ve all played together, and they’re using it as an opportunity to catch up and to engage with Rohingya kids and adults throughout the city. I am sitting on the grass bank on the edge of the field, watching them play. In front of me, I could see three young men walking by with freshly washed bare feet. They smile at me and say hello. They’re not watching the game, but instead are staring at the compass app on their smartphones, trying to find a cardinal direction. I soon realize that they’re looking for the direction to Mecca in order to begin their prayers. They do so as the game continues in the background.
[SOUND OF MAN CHANTING PRAYERS OVER SOUNDS OF FOOTBALL GAME AND CROWD INTERACTING]
For the Rohingya, the ability to do these things that seem so simple—to practice their religion and to play the game that they love, wearing uniforms with the name of the people blazoned proudly across them—these are freedoms that have been denied them for decades. And by being here today, enjoying those freedoms, they hope that their message will continue to spread and that their community will grow even stronger.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Our executive producer is Karen Given.
KAREN: Today’s story was reported by Daniel Semo. We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.
IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…
KAREN: Lina Khalifeh had a problem. She wanted to play football with the boys in the streets. But in Jordan, where she grew up, that wasn’t allowed. So one day she dressed up like a superhero and tried to change her world.
I called the biggest bully. I was like, “Hey, idiot!” [CHUCKLES] And he, he turned. He looked at me. He’s like, “Who’s calling me idiot?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m, I’m, I’m calling you here. You want to, you want to fight?”
KAREN: Lina did not win that fight. But years later, she founded SheFighter, a self-defense studio that’s helped women in Jordan and around the world stand up to the bullies.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next time on The Long Game.