AS fans gather in the stands for a friendly between the Rohingya Football Club and another Rohingya group, the Mayu Team, iron-clad clouds coalesce over the parched playing field.
Yet, fraught by storms of an altogether different kind, Rohingya asylum-seekers residing mostly in the Ampang inner-city area continue to lead difficult and dangerous lives on a daily basis. Unable to obtain work legally due to official restrictions, they remain chronically at risk of abuse, mistreatment and exploitation.
But for the next 90 minutes or so, rain, shine or both, as is so often the case here, players ranging from 18 to 30 years old can forget about their struggles and live for the moment. Bursting with pride and unbridled talent, these fledgling footballers feel very much at home on this unkempt field of dreams, doing what they love most.
“Football is very important to me; I consider it my life”, confides Farouk Yusouf, the club’s forward and Cristiano Ronaldo’s doppelganger in a recent interview with the BBC News Day.
Even if a heavy rain were to fall over the municipal soccer pitch this afternoon, play is unlikely to be suspended. More than likely, the rapturous roar of thunder overhead will further add to the atmosphere of this anticipated event, where Rohingya FC will receive new uniforms ahead of a predictably rain-soaked, mud-splattered battle between compatriots.
“My dream is that our club becomes internationally recognised as the national Rohingya team,” 23-year-old striker Mohammed Faruk confides, as preparations get underway for the team to receive new kits sponsored by the Australian government.
Officially formed in 2015, the Rohingya Football Club has a longer history with inaugural coach, 51-year-old Dilder Ahmad, who has dedicated many a sultry Sunday afternoon over the past eight years training young footballers on playing fields that have seen better days.
“They all have jobs, mostly labouring, and work long, irregular hours,” says the charismatic coach as he unpacks the boxes of uniforms. “Finding the time to train is difficult, so we try to meet once a week, and usually only for one hour.”
The 2015 Andaman Sea refugee crisis, along with the Malaysian government’s recent calls for Myanmar to address emerging credible sources of ethnic cleansing in the northern Rakhine State, have thrust the stateless local Rohingya community into the spotlight.
While these events have courted controversy, the country’s general leniency toward Muslim refugees has brought some of its population closer together in their protest. Added to this is the growing awareness of their plight as among the world’s most persecuted, allowing local and international non-government organisations to go about their work with unprecedented ease and support.
Hitting the sweet spot here is The Kick Project, founded by Australian journalist, novelist and former political analyst, James Rose. It was while reporting on a World Food programme in Kigali, Rwanda in 2005, that Rose had something of an epiphany which was to change the course of his life forever.
Caught up in the excitement of a spontaneous football match, Rose lost his trusty notebook in a tornado of fine red dust. Once the dust had settled on the impromptu game, he located it only to discover that an indelible impression had been left on an otherwise blank page.
“At the time I was a little grumpy with this kid. I guess I was probably a bit stuffy and pompous,” says Rose. “The moment changed my whole outlook. For me, it symbolised what is really important in these situations, which is how we can better connect as humans.”
He goes on to add: “While food aid is valuable, its value can be magnified if it opens up ways for people to connect. It also got me thinking about how aid can be so much about keeping people alive, but less about providing access to the things that really help us to feel alive. Sport is one of those things and this is the basis of The Kick Project.”
It is this very image of a young footballer’s feverish footprint that has formed part of the logo for this global organisation, responsible for kick-starting football clubs in the troubled terrains of Sierra Leone, Gaza and Pakistan, where children, and also women, continue to suffer the perils of constant conflict.
“For me, sport crosses so many barriers that may exist between people. It surmounts language, culture, religious and political differences,” says Rose. “If you drop a soccer ball among a group of kids ANYWHERE, they all know just what to do with it. Fun is an international language.”
A COMMON COMMUNITY
The Kick Project, in partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Australian High Commission in KL, has raised funds to be utilised in three main phases, which includes kitting out the team, and securing a playing field as well as a bus to transport players safely to regular fixtures.
Other planned phases in the mix include the designation of a “sports community hub” where equipment can be lent out and training is provided by qualified coaches. Close to the heart of the project is to also provide support to the Rohingya Women Development Network by generating better access to sports for girls and women. It’s also hoped that there will be more opportunities for the local Rohingya population to interact with non-Rohingya communities.
“Breaking social isolation issues between refugees and their host communities is critical for leading safer lives,” says Lilianne Fan, International Director of the Geutanyoe Foundation that works on increasing access to education and health for refugees in Malaysia.
“With opportunities to engage with others, be that through sport or other social activities, refugees and Malaysians can get to know each other and experience being part of a common community,” continues Fan, adding: “For the Rohingyas who have been so discriminated against and dehumanised, these engagements can also restore dignity and humanity.”
AND WHAT OF TODAY’S GAME?
As rain predictably fell, Mayu Team had a dream start, leading 1-0 with the newly-shirted Rohingya FC left with no choice but to overturn the deficit in the second half. Fatigued yet still fighting fit, the Rohingya FC arose Lazarus-like from the dead to string together four goals in quick succession to ultimately seize the match with a romping 4-1 victory.
But within moments of the trophy being lifted, the stands which had earlier erupted with excited cheers and chants for both teams, quickly emptied of their devoted fans. Where had they rushed off to, I wondered, as I weaved past the early evening joggers determined to reclaim this rare urban space.
Somewhere safe perhaps, where they too can dream and reach for the stars.
Visit www.thekickproject.org.au for more.