April 20, 2017 10:00 am JST

Cricket gives asylum seekers in Australia a sense of belonging

On the field and off, new arrivals are looking for ways to help their community

DAVID HOPKINS, Contributing writer

Players from the All Nations Social Cricket program pose after practice in Dandenong, a suburb about 30km southeast of downtown Melbourne. (Photo by David Hopkins)

MELBOURNE Muzammil Raza has been passionate about cricket for as long as he can remember. "I'm a crazy fan," he said after a recent practice session. "I think I was born with a bat in my hand."

When Raza came to Australia from Pakistan in 2014, he was determined to play, but the fees associated with joining a local cricket club made it difficult. Then he saw a flyer advertising a free cricket program in Dandenong, a suburb around 30km southeast of Melbourne's city center.

The program, All Nations Social Cricket, offers a welcoming space for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to take part in a weekly cricket training session. The emphasis is on fun and friendship, and players of all skill levels are welcome.

Raza, in his final year of high school, plays there each week, alongside people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere that he now counts as friends. "It was a good place to start my life in Australia," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Cricket is played across Australia throughout the summer months and is popular in most of South Asia, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Australia's national team recently played a four-test series against India which made headlines in both countries.

Facilitated by a Refugee Health and Wellbeing service run by Monash Health, a state-run health care provider, the All Nations program has helped new arrivals to Australia connect with others in their community and beyond. Participants took part in the Victoria Seeker Cup in 2015 and 2016, a match between two teams of asylum seekers in the state of Victoria, and they played against a state police team in late March.

ONE LOVE "It's good, it's friendly and you get to make some new mates," said 18-year-old Kumail Jaffry, another player, who is studying biomedical science at Monash University, in Melbourne. "The other thing about this cricket is it's multicultural. Nobody cares about [your] religion, culture, whatever, that's the good thing about it."

The program is based in Dandenong, one of the most culturally diverse areas in Melbourne. More than 3,000 asylum seekers were living in the Greater Dandenong area in 2014-2015, according to the local city council, and approximately 60% of residents were born overseas.

Some of the players have gone on to play for Dandenong West Cricket Club, including a team in the E Grade division that finished top of the standings. The team's captain, Abdul Razzaq, is also the main organizing force behind All Nations Social Cricket.

A tireless volunteer, Razzaq's passion for cricket and dedication to community work has set a powerful example for younger players such as Raza and Jaffry to follow.

In recognition of his work for the cricket program, Razzaq was made a community ambassador by Cricket Australia, the sport's national governing body. In March, he traveled to Canberra as a finalist in the Sports Leadership category of the Australian Migration and Settlement Awards held at Parliament House.

Razzaq also volunteers as a concierge with Monash Health in Dandenong three days a week as part of a team that includes a number of other asylum seekers, and with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a nonprofit organization that supports asylum seekers. The volunteer work energizes him, he said, and has built his confidence.

STAYING POSITIVE Yet, like many other asylum seekers, Razzaq's situation is uncertain. His claim for asylum in Australia has twice been rejected, and he now awaits a date with a federal court, which will examine the handling of his case. He cannot do paid work and has no access to health support under Medicare, Australia's publicly funded health care system.

Despite this, Razzaq said he is determined to stay positive, and encourages others in a similar situation to speak up, engage and contribute to their communities. "As asylum seekers, we experience a lot of issues, anxiety, stress, so we have to be engaged with any activity to stay away from all these things. Since I'm engaged with [volunteering], the issues are still there, the issues are the same ... but the mental health is stronger," Razzaq said.

"I feel like as a team leader, as captain, if you want to be a role model for other asylum seekers, you have to be strong. If we lose hope, if we give up, maybe it affects others as well. ... We want to give a good message to asylum seekers that whatever your circumstances, [you] can still do something. We don't have citizenship, but we are still a part of the community."

Monash Health's refugee service also runs a soccer program in Dandenong with a similar approach to the cricket initiative. Players of Iranian background, ethnic Hazaras -- a minority group from Afghanistan -- and Rohingya from Myanmar have featured in the games, which organizers say are helping young people to build community bonds.

"Trying to get the different asylum-seeker groups together is maybe the first step for some because they share that common experience. Even though their circumstances might be quite different, and their cultures quite different, they're facing the same issues," said Rob Koch, the Refugee Health and Wellbeing service's community development coordinator.

"We've made a very clear message that they are welcome, that there are opportunities and we value them ... and it's prevented social isolation and all that goes with it. It's a great example of how governments and agencies and the community in general -- everyone wins if they have an open-heart policy."

Koch said volunteers such as Razzaq are driving community programs forward through their own dedication and initiative. "It's no exaggeration to say that the two major awards that the volunteer program has won is largely due to Abdul and the profile he's given, and the standard he has set," he said.

Australia currently accepts 13,750 refugees each year, the majority of whom are referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement. But refugee advocates argue that Australia should be doing more, particularly given record levels of displacement around the world.

The political discussion of refugees in Australia is often seen through the frame of security and border protection. And in practical terms, this approach is reflected in the country's contentious policy of offshore detention for asylum seekers reaching the country by boat.

Amid the heated political rhetoric, the human stories of migration and the crucial contributions that new arrivals are making to their communities, including through volunteer programs such as those run by Monash Health, are often lost.

For the players involved in the social cricket program, the strength and encouragement they draw from each other goes beyond the sporting field. Asked about his hopes for the future, Raza gestured toward his cricketing teammate Jaffry, the medical student, as an inspiration.

"I want to be a doctor," Raza said. "I'm hoping I can get there."

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