Passport wait puts Rohingya bodybuilding dreams on hold

By Farid Farid
Updated February 4 2024 - 8:06am, first published 8:00am
Noor Kabir needs a passport to flex his muscles in the prestigious Mr Olympia competition overseas. (HANDOUT/UNHCR)
Noor Kabir needs a passport to flex his muscles in the prestigious Mr Olympia competition overseas. (HANDOUT/UNHCR)

Noor Kabir is the world's first stateless Rohingya bodybuilding champion after winning in Queensland, but he needs a passport to flex his muscles in the prestigious Mr Olympia competition.

The document is a crucial missing piece of identification he has been waiting for since being granted temporary protection in 2016.

Kabir is among 19,000 temporary protection visa holders the Australian government in 2023 announced would be granted permanent residency status, but he is still waiting.

At 16 years of age he took the perilous journey of escaping one of the world's largest refugee camps, Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, by boat via Malaysia to Australia in 2012.

"It was scary to come by yourself because you don't know anybody in the boat," Kabir told AAP.

"I was unhappy because of the camp life where you're not allowed to go out, like a kind of a prison."

Almost 4500 Rohingya refugees have embarked on similarly dangerous sea journeys in 2023, most of them women and children.

One Rohingya died or went missing for every eight who attempted such journeys last year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of the stateless Rohingya minority have for decades been leaving Myanmar, where they are generally regarded as foreign interlopers from South Asia, denied citizenship and subjected to abuse.

Nearly 750,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to the camps in Bangladesh since August 2017 after a brutal counterinsurgency campaign tore through their communities.

Myanmar security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of Rohingya homes.

Kabir left five years before the widespread massacres and landed in Darwin where he was processed and detained in various immigration and community detention facilities including Melbourne and Hobart.

"I'm grateful to this country (Australia) because when I was living in the camps I didn't have freedom to do whatever I wanted.

"But if I'm given citizenship I will be able to travel outside and compete as an Australian bodybuilder with Rohingya background."

His impulse to sculpt his body came while huddling with his friends to watch Sylvester Stallone movies in the camps.

"Rocky changed my life. It gave me a lot of inspiration to get out of that situation," he said.

In 2021, he broke through by winning the ICN Brisbane Classic as a rookie.

For now Kabir is preparing for the same competition in May by cutting and shedding weight from 70 to 62kg.

He is on a regimented diet of high-protein foods such as eggs, chicken and fish along with mushrooms, sweet potato and broccoli. A couple of pizza slices are an occasional indulgence.

Kabir is dogged in his focus, channelling his experiences as a young asylum seeker making a life for himself by flexing on stage alongside the other bronzed contestants.

"My goal is to get into the biggest competition so I can represent my people," he said.

Australian Associated Press