SportFootball helps Rohingya refugees find their feet as champions for brighter future
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From kicking balls made of plastic bags in Bangladesh to playing on green fields in Brisbane, football is helping 20 young Rohingya refugees gain the confidence to become leaders.
Rohingya United is one of the teams taking part in Kicking Goals Together, a program run by the Australian Catholic University that supports refugees, migrants and international students.
Robi Alam, a second-generation Rohingya and one of the team captains, spent the first nine years of his life in the Nayapara refugee camp.
It is where more than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims are living having fled ethnic violence in neighbouring Myanmar.
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Mr Alam said conditions in the camp were grim.
"We had no rights in our refugee camps; we couldn't go out and the kids had nothing to do other than playing soccer or football," he said.
"We couldn't afford a soccer ball, so we made balls out of plastic bags.
"The kids — football gives them happiness and helps them forget about their past."
The team's colours were chosen to match the Socceroos' yellow and green, while a dark green matches the Rohingya flag.
"This name here is really important to us," Mr Alam said.
"We wanted to represent Rohingya because of what has happened."
Overcoming culture shock
Mr Alam left the camp almost 10 years ago when his family's resettlement to Brisbane was approved.
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He said the hardest thing about moving was the differences in culture.
"It took me about a year to get used to the language," he said.
"In my first day [of school], I went to the toilet and I went to a female toilet because I didn't know female or male.
"If my mum or dad went to school [in Myanmar], they'd basically get beaten by the Burmese military ... that's why they couldn't speak English."
Kicking goals in more ways than one
The Kicking Goals Together program was founded by Dr Matthew Pink after members of the Rohingya community approached the university.
He said it was difficult for Rohingya United to play regularly because of the costs associated with local competitions.
So the team was invited on campus for scratch matches, at a time when the university was struggling with its social sport competitions.
It led to the program's formation, hosting games for teams with players from refugee, migrant or international student backgrounds.
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"It was a fantastic opportunity for people from all backgrounds to get together and learn about their life histories and cultures, all through a shared love for the game of football," Dr Pink said.
The initiative was created in partnership with Multicultural Development Australia and includes an hour-long skill-up session before each game.
The sessions are aimed at developing the players' off-the-field skills — job seeking, job keeping and providing insights into Australian workplace culture.
When learning goes both ways
Dr Pink said he had learned a lot from the young men and was impressed by how the team championed for the Rohingya cause.
"They were passionate about their community and what the Rohingya people have experienced in Myanmar and how that message needed to get out on a larger scale," he said.
"Although they love football ... they wanted it to be more than that.
"They really came to us and said, 'Look, we're doing this, but we just need some people to do it with us and walk with us'.
"When I reflect upon Robi's journey, I've seen a young man develop with confidence, he's now studying at university.
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"He's now taking the lead as a young leader in his community."
He said the program would not have been created if it was not for Mr Alam and Rohingya United.
"There have been plenty of occasions when the deep respect everyone has shown for each other, with everything that's going on in the world around us right now, is something quite profound and something we all believe in."
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