Mohammed Ismail, a second-generation Rohingya refugee, during a soccer game in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh this month. His parents fled violence in their native Myanmar. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times
Mohammed Ismail prickled with adrenaline.
With one defender between him and the goal, he surged from the left wing, dodging pockmarks in the yellow-dirt soccer field. He stroked the ball with the outer edge of the shoes his father had bought him and, quick as a whip, unleashed a shot that left the goalkeeper gaping.
Mr. Ismail, 24, is a second-generation Rohingya refugee, born in this ramshackle camp in Cox’s Bazar on the southern tip of Bangladesh after his parents fled violence in their native Myanmar. And this was his moment, a joyful escape from painful realities.
“When I play football the sadness and anger is far away,” he said, smiling. “But after I finish, it always comes back.”
The soccer field lies on an elevated plain with a sweeping view of the Kutupalong refugee camp: mud-walled hovels and split bamboo structures laced with open sewers. Cockerels and car horns sound from the nearby road.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, are not recognized as citizens in their native Myanmar even though they have lived there for hundreds of years. They have endured periodic persecution at the hands of the Myanmar armed forces and the majority Buddhist population, who mostly see them as illegal immigrants who should go home to Bangladesh.
Showering after playing a game. Soccer is a prized diversion, helping players and spectators forget about their exile. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times
Mr. Ismail’s family arrived in 1992 with the first wave of Rohingya refugees, when about 250,000 Rohingya fled abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military. About 33,000 of them remain, living in official United Nations refugee camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara, south of Cox’s Bazar along the Myanmar border.
Bangladesh, a vastly overpopulated country, stopped registering new refugees after 1992, hoping that taking a hard line would deter Rohingya from coming, but it was wrong.
Since 2012, 200,000 more refugees have come, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, creating an unofficial camp alongside the official one. The latest wave began in October, when the Myanmar military began a deadly counterinsurgency campaign after Rohingya militants attacked three border posts, killing nine police officers.
Refugees fleeing the military sweep, which was accompanied by arson, murder and rape, more than doubled the size of the unofficial camp, to 75,000 from an estimated 34,000 in 2013, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The Bangladeshi government has denied the refugees education and work permits “because we want them to return” to Myanmar, said Najnin Sarwar Kaberi, a local official for the governing party, the Bangladesh Awami League. “If they settle here the size of our population will become unbearable.”
Soccer is a prized diversion, helping players and spectators forget about their exile, at least for a few hours.
Ziabur Rohaman, who plays for the unregistered camp in Kutupalong, fled Myanmar with his wife and three children. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times
Mohammed Farouque, a refugee who runs a Rohingya soccer club in Malaysia, another destination for the refugees, said that soccer was virtually prohibited to the Rohingya in Myanmar. Most cannot afford the bribe of about $4 required to leave their village, making competitions impossible.
In Malaysia and Bangladesh, most Rohingya are stateless, but at least they can hold soccer competitions. “This is one of the few freedoms we have,” Mr. Farouque said.
In Bangladesh, 16 teams — eight from the unofficial camp and eight from the official camp — play in an annual World Cup-style competition.
Mr. Ismail said that the unofficial camp teams would be stronger this year now that they had more players to choose from but there was a pervasive feeling that the registered refugees were better equipped.
The registered teams have been around long enough to collect periodic handouts of athletic equipment from the United Nations or have been able to earn enough money to buy their own. Unregistered players often wear flip-flops or play in bare feet.
“Ismail’s team beat us last time because they had boots and we didn’t,” said Ziabur Rohaman, 32, who fled Myanmar with his wife and three children in October and plays for the unregistered camp in Kutupalong. “They got them from the U.N.H.C.R. but because we arrived recently most of our players didn’t have boots.”
The Kutupalong camp, where mud-walled hovels and split bamboo structures are laced with open sewers.CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times
The U.N.H.C.R. says that it provides “limited support regardless of whether the refugees are registered or not.” Vivian Tan, the agency’s regional press officer, said the agency had provided balls, trophies, track pants and refreshments.
However, the agency is authorized by the Bangladeshi government to provide formal assistance only to registered refugees. That assistance, which includes shelter, cash for food, relief supplies, water, sanitation facilities, basic health care and education up to seventh grade, is prohibited for the unregistered refugees.
The winner of the Kutupalong competition plays a team from the Nayapara camp, 50 miles away, to claim the title of best Rohingya team in Bangladesh.
Last year, Kutupalong beat Nayapara, 3-0, a proud moment for Mr. Ismail.
“I scored one of the goals, and my teammates voted me man of the match,” he said, sitting in a rough wooden tea shop surrounded by admiring teenagers.
Like most people at the camp, he has had his share of tragedy and hardship. Last fall, his uncle was killed by the Myanmar Army, he said, forcing his aunt and several cousins to join his family in Bangladesh.
Last December, he tried to smuggle himself to Malaysia, where, through family connections, he might have been able to attend a university.
The Kutupalong camp. The Bangladeshi government has denied the Rohingya refugees education and work permits. CreditAllison Joyce for The New York Times
But the smuggler who promised to help him escape stole his money, about $3,700, and disappeared. The payment “was all my savings plus money I borrowed and money my mother gave me after selling her jewelry,” Mr. Ismail said.
At the tea shop that afternoon, you wouldn’t think he had any cares. He is one of those people whose face defaults to a smile. But his smile is not always joyful: Half the time it’s a working smile, doing the job of holding it all together.
The assembled guys all said their favorite player was Lionel Messi, the Argentine forward, considered by some to be the best player in the world. “I love how he cuts through the defense,” said Mr. Ismail, who is also a forward. “He’s lethal.”
Mr. Ismail will most likely never see a pro game in person, but a big excursion for him is playing with the Cox’s Bazar team in the official Bangladesh league. Rohingya teams are not allowed to play in the official league, but their best players, including Mr. Ismail, are sometimes recruited.
“We don’t tell their opponents that I’m Rohingya because they might not agree that I’m eligible to play,” he said.
When he kicked the goal later that day, the ball shot through the rusting posts and bounced off the roofs below. Ismail looped back to his team. They clapped his back and laughed.
Already several youngsters were in pursuit of the ball, stumbling in the twilight, eager to be the one to return it. The official refugees beat the team from the unofficial camp, 2-0.
After the match, he asked me to put my Facebook details into his phone so he could stay in touch. The screen still had the last search term he had entered: “Football hero Messi.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________(c) 2017 The New York Times