NEW DELHI: As Mohammed Shirajullah and his friends take to the field in their fast-fading yellow jerseys, the grammar Nazis amongst the crowd frown in disapproval. The letters R-O-H-A-N-G-Y-A are emblazoned on their backs.
"We know it's spelt 'Rohingya'," says Shirajullah or Riyaz as his friends call him. "But we had to find the cheapest option to print. They weren't very good with spellings and got this wrong. Still took Rs 8000 for the whole set."
Riyaz and his friends in yellow are the Rohingya Shine Star FC, a team formed by those among the eponymous band of refugees escaping religious persecution in Myanmar. Originally from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, the United Nations have called Rohingyas the most persecuted minority in the world. They are scattered around the world in a bid to escape army brutality. Riyaz and his friends are rebuilding life in Delhi. And while at it, playing a lot of football as well.
"We play 11s, 7s, 6s, whatever we get to play," Riyaz says. "We've played tournaments in and around Delhi."
"We win as well," Riyas adds as if to dispel doubts about their competency. He takes out his mobile and swipes furiously, before displaying a rather blurry picture. It shows him receiving a small trophy with a banner proclaiming 'Champions' in the background.
The Rohingya Shine Star FC are a motley bunch of 18 players, most of them labourers working at various construction sites. Syedullah Amin, Yunus and Arafat Hussain are defenders. Mohammed Salim is the man up front. Ata-ullah plays in midfield alongside Riyaz, the leader of the team on the pitch and off it, as well. He managed to complete his schooling after reaching India five years ago, and works in a computer centre.
"This was not originally a football club," says Riyaz. "We formed this as the Rohingya Shine Star Youth Club of New Delhi, an organisation to help our fellow refugees. Then last year, we started the football club as part of it."
The club is surprisingly self-sufficient for one formed by people who came to India with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They know their financial limits and have figured how to overcome that. "We knew we couldn't depend on others to play football," Riyaz says. "So we came up with a plan, to make all members contribute Rs 5 a day. They can afford that. And with that, we have bought jerseys and boots."
And while the team's name may have 'Rohingya' in it, Riyaz is quick to reject the very discrimination that forced him to quit his homeland. "Anyone can play with us, not just Rohingyas. People here, they sometimes join us in the matches," he says.
"The only conditions we have are that don't drink, smoke or chew paan. Those are things that will destroy you."
In the twelve months since they've started playing, the Rohingya Shine Stars have faced a variety of opposition. They've gone to Haryana and played a tournament there, played teams from as far away as Jammu. And every time they play, they are ambassadors for their people, attracting attention to their plight. Just last week, they took on a local club in a charity match. They lost 5-2, but Riyaz scored twice.
"Football makes us forget," he says. "No one has suffered as much as us. But when we play, we temporarily forget all that.
"It builds bridges as well. It has helped us with our new lives here, bringing us closer together with so many communities."
September 18, 2012
Riyaz remembers the exact date he left his home, never to return. The ensuing journey took him through Bangladesh to New Delhi via Tripura and Kolkata. Many of his teammates here are people he knew back in his village in Myanmar. Their paths out of there are similar to what Riyaz undertook, as are their stories of loss.
Ata-ullah, Riyaz's partner in midfield, received news that his sister and brothers had gone missing while trying to cross over. He still doesn't know where they are. For the defender Arafat, his uncle is the one who his family presumed dead.
Riyaz himself knows where his family is, but that's hardly any consolation. His parents, brother and sister managed to make it to a refugee camp in Balukhali, Bangladesh. But they had to pay a prize for that.
"They had to swim across a river to get there," he says. "The army fired shots into the water and one of the bullets grazed my mother's legs. Now it has got worse and she is in a hospital in Balukhali. But the conditions are not very good there. I don't know what will happen to her.
"What is happening to our people there, it should not happen to anyone ever again."
Life at the Shyam Vihar refugee settlement, that Riyaz and his friends stay in, is as desolate as it gets. Their makeshift tents have tarpaulin covers for roofs, their walls are cement sacks held together with ropes and sticks, the space between them, so narrow that a couple of kids running back and forth can obstruct all traffic.
"The water here is very bad, people get sick all the time drinking it," Riyaz says. "If it rains, these sheets won't help. The insides of the houses flood up very quickly. And then, there are the snakes. That is something we have to live in constant fear of."
It may be something straight out of a nightmare, but Riyaz would gladly stay here for an eternity if the alternative was to go back to where he came from. Deportation was not high on the list of fears for the Rohingya community in Delhi. Then in August, the government began to make all sorts of noises about sending them back.
"They can't do that," Riyaz says, the conviction in his voice more of an attempt to reassure himself than to win an argument. "We are living here under the protection of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). So they can't just make us leave one day."
Then the steadfastness in his voice drains. "It is not right," he says, shaking his head. "Everyone has a right to live. If they send us back in this condition, there is no guarantee that we will survive. They will be sending us to our deaths."
Riyaz is just 24, an age at which most people begin their lives. Yet he seems to have foregone his, a penance to atone for the sins of his tormentors. "For us, there is a limit to the things we can hope for in life," he says. "But there is still hope for the kids, for the next generation. They can study here and get somewhere in life. Send them back and they will end up like us."
As for him and his friends, their lives are, one day at a time, a painful crawl towards the legitimacy and acceptance that the rest of the world takes for granted. At least, to brighten up their path, there is the occasional game of football.