Meet the club founded by Malaysian-based Rohingya refugees

 “Small club, big dream” might be one of the most commonly used football expressions, but for this team of Rohingya refugees, it is certainly the case…

The time is 7pm. As the sun sets behind a row of flats in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, the referee of a football match nearby the buildings blows the final whistle. The game, far from being an English Premier League match watched by millions of spectators or a titanic Malaysian Super League clash between local football giants, finishes 3-0 courtesy of two penalties and one fine strike.

The victors of the day, Soljabiru FC who will be turning semi-pro and joining Selangor’s state league for the upcoming 2017 season, celebrate jubilantly for emerging victorious, while the losing team walks off the pitch in a solemn and dejected mood.

As nobody is ever happy with a defeat, passers-by will think it is normal for the lack of enthusiasm from the latter team, whose players are dressed in slightly faded pink shirts and uncoordinated colours of shorts and socks.

However, the tired and worn faces of the losing side are actually telling another story. To the uninitiated, the final whistle means the end of their brief escape from their troubled lives, daily struggles, and the plight of their people in their homeland.

They are the players of Rohingya FC, which, as the name suggests, are founded by – and for – the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted ethnicities in the world according to the United Nations.

You forget about being a refugee, you forget about the troubles your people face here and in Myanmar, everything

- Farouk Yousuf

“[For 90 minutes] you are just a footballer. You forget about being a refugee, you forget about the troubles your people face here and in Myanmar, everything,” says Farouk Yousuf, the club’s leading goalscorer.

He is by no means exaggerating, as the perils faced by the Rohingyas are well-documented. Marginalised, discriminated and denied basics rights in Myanmar, many have fled the country by hook or by crook in hope for a better tomorrow.

Some of the Rohingya asylum seekers have made their way to Malaysia, but it has not exactly been a bed of flowers for them. Some are not registered under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and with no legal right to work or education, they need to work illegally and have struggled to make ends meet. The same problems are faced by Malaysian-born Rohingyas such as Farouk too.

“I have a birth certificate, but I don’t have a Malaysian citizenship,” he says. “I have tried to apply for it numerous times, but the immigration department has always rejected me, saying that one of my parents must be a citizen of Malaysia. So, I’m unwanted in both my country of ancestry and my country of birth. I’m still surviving and still living my life, but it has been tough and challenging.”

With many of their compatriots finding themselves stuck in a precarious limbo, a group of Rohingyas has banded together to form Rohingya FC as a means to change all that.

I’m unwanted in both my country of ancestry and my country of birth. I’m still surviving and still living my life, but it has been tough and challenging

- Farouk Yousuf

“The Rohingyas have been in Malaysia for quite some time and we all love football, so there have been a lot of small teams formed by our people around the country,” says Muhammad Noor, one of the club’s co-founders. “One day, we came up with the idea of forming a football club and unite all these teams [under one banner], making it like a national team to represent the Rohingya people.

“The main objective of the club is not only to play football but also to take advantage of the positive impacts of sports. We want to keep our people in line and prevent them from doing crime and drugs. We also want to change the perception on us – we sadly have a rather unwanted reputation of being beggars – and enhance our image. We want to highlight that the Rohingya community has talented people who are dancers, singers, writers and, in this case, footballers.

“Furthermore, our people get resettled all the time due to our refugee status, which is why we want to train and expose them so that they can play for other football teams if they do move to other countries.”
 

Thanks to the Malaysian government’s lenient stance towards the Rohingyas, the club came into existence in January 2015. Now, almost two years since the club were founded, Rohingya FC have a good mix of players between the ages of 22 and 31.

As you would expect, the players are not professional footballers and most of them work as labourers, but that has not deterred everyone associated to the club including Dilder Ahmad, the head coach of Rohingya FC, who is immensely proud of his players.

All of us try our best to make it to every training session or match because we are very passionate about football and want to show that the Rohingyas are good at it

- Dilder Ahmad

“We are mostly workers and not well trained,” the 51-year-old coach says. “We go to work in the morning and train or play in the evening. It is not easy [with our work commitments], but all of us try our best to make it to every training session or match because we are very passionate about football and want to show that the Rohingyas are good at it.”