Rising above the struggle for survival, the community has sportingly formed the Rohingya Football Club India, embracing their love for football as a uniting force
As Real Madrid secured a 2-2 draw over Bayern Munich in the Champion’s League semifinal, Mohd Sadek, an upcoming footballer, sat in his house in the Salalah village of Jalandhar, hoping that one day he too will share the field with his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sadek is not just any regular football fan. He is one of the many Rohingyas who were forced to leave their homeland of Myanmar after the violence on them by the Buddhist extremists. He is also one of the 15 players from around the country that play for the Rohingya Football Club India, otherwise known as RFCI. An attacking midfielder who likes to play as a striker, Sadek had this passion for football ever since he was a kid. “Back home in Myanmar, I was one of the star players from my village and even represented my village school in other tournaments across the Rakhine region”, he says. But one day tragedy struck.
“I saw my parents getting killed in front of my own eyes. I, with my six siblings then somehow managed to leave our village in Myanmar and come to Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh. From there, we came to India in 2013”, he says. But his passion for football never left him, and even in this time of crisis, he used to watch Real Madrid’s matches on TV to forget the sufferings that plagued his life. “When I first came to Delhi, I settled in the Kalindi Kunj camp and there I used to play in the neighbouring fields with my fellow campmates and also with the locals”, says Sadek, who now works as a helper to a local carpenter in Salalah. It was there that I was spotted and then asked to play for the RFCI. “Now that my parents are no more, nothing means to me in life more than football. It is like my oxygen. The Buddhists beat me so hard that I had a fracture on my hips, and even then I didn’t stop playing”, he says.
The RFCI is an initiative started by the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (ROHRI), an organisation run by the community that looks after the well-being of the Rohingyas in India. “Football is the most followed sport in Myanmar and somewhat of a lifeline for all our brothers in the Rohingya community,” says Mohd Shabeer, the founder of ROHRI. “Those 90 minutes on the field makes them forget their sorrows and engages them in something they love,” he adds. So, the ROHRI in association with the Leh Leh sports club in South Extension-II, organised a nationwide hunt for the best players among all the Rohingya camps and form the RFCI.
“We also participate in both inter-city and intra-city tournaments. Last year in one such tournament, the Super 6 Soccer league, that featured teams from across the nation that represented the different refugee communities in India, we were the runner’s up,” says 26-year-old Mohd Salim, the goalkeeper and captain of the RFCI.
“I also won the goalkeeper of the tournament award,” he adds showing off his shiny piece of silverware as he sits in his house in Uttam Nagar East. Salim first started watching football when he and his father sat in front of the TV for the 2002 World Cup. “I fell in love with Brazil and their attacking style of football,” he says. “I always wanted to be a striker, but I was not that good in that position as some of my other friends, and so I ended up being the goalkeeper, and gradually fell in love with the role,” he says. “In fact, I became so passionate with goalkeeping that I broke my right arm three times, and my mother had to reprimand me to stop me play,” he says. “Back home, I was slowly getting recognised because of my talent, but because of ethnicity and religion, I was denied permission to play for any local club,” adds Salim.“But in 2012, during the violence against our community, my father somehow managed to send me on a fishing boat with some other friends of mine as we came to Bangladesh. I came to India in 2014,” recounts Salim. “I am all alone here in Delhi, as my family is still living in Myanmar. I have not seen them in the past six years. Even my father died of diabetes last year, and I could not attend the funeral,” says Salim, who now works at a departmental store in Uttam Nagar.
An ardent Cristiano Ronaldo fan, Mohd Salim says that in all these tough times, it is football that keeps him going. But someday, he wants to return to his home in Myanmar. “I have even asked my family to stay there, and not migrate. It is our homeland, and it is better to die in your homeland than live like an outsider for the rest of your life.”
However, when asked who the most talented player in the team is, everyone unanimously points to one man, their premier striker: Abdullah Ahmed. Now settled in Hyderabad, Abdullah says that his passion for football was instilled in him by his father. “My father was a karate teacher in a local school, and had a keen interest in sports. So, he made me play football ever since I was young.” He too, like Salim, was inspired by the 2002 World Cup winning Brazil squad who enthralled the world with their brand of attacking football.
“I was a very popular player in my school, and slowly gained popularity in my village, and in other neighbouring areas. People said that I had a magical left foot and was invited by teams from other villages to play,” says Abdullah.
But the attacks on the Rohingyas forced Abdullah and his family to leave his motherland and he settled in Delhi in 2013. But even in this time of despair, his passion for the game didn’t die. “I used to play in my camp and in other places, with the locals. I was spotted and selected to play for the RFCI.” In the super 6 tournament Abdullah ended up being the highest goal scorer.
“Even after I moved to Hyderabad with my family, I used to come to Delhi every now and then just to practice with the team,” adds Abdullah, who considers Lionel Messi as his idol.
But the RFCI now stands in a period of crisis. “Our membership with the Leh Leh sports club has ended and now we have no money to renew it. We have practice sessions in local grounds here and there around the city, but we need a proper home ground to practice”, says Mohd Shabeer. “We are in the process of collecting funds to pay the membership, but till then our players can’t play any matches or participate in tournaments”, he adds.
“Football is our lifeline, and we want to play no matter how difficult our personal lives are. It creates a sense of unity among us, and is the only ray of positivity among all the negatives that we, the Rohingyas, face on a daily basis,” concludes Mohd Salim.