“Sport has been something that has given me this new life. If I didn’t play sports, I don’t think I would be sitting right here with this opportunity. I would be depressed.”
Jasmin Akter is a Rohingya refugee who resettled in the UK when she was just eight years old.
The 21-year-old, who lives in Bradford, captained England in the final of the Street Child World Cup in May 2019 and was named one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women in the same year.
Sport has changed her entire world, and it is through that she has been able to use her voice to highlight the importance of allowing women from her community to play.
‘We had to starve or beg because there was no-one else to help us’
Before Akter was born, her parents were forced to flee from Myanmar (formerly Burma) because of the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya people, as described by the United Nations.
They relocated to the Nayapara refugee camp in Bangladesh, which borders Myanmar.
A decade later, Akter’s father died suddenly just months before she was born, and for the first eight years of her life, she lived in a refugee camp.
“In terms of our day-to-day life within the camp, I’d say there’s no word to describe it. When I compare my life now to then, I feel like that wasn’t even a life,” Akter says.
“We were living off rations and obviously if we ran out, we had to starve or beg because there was no-one else to help us.”
Akter lived in the refugee camp with six family members, including her mum, in one room.
“Conditions-wise, the facilities there were pretty bad,” she says.
“I did not have any privacy because obviously I’ve got six family members and we were all stuck in a small room. I did not have my own room, even to use the toilet.”
Life in the camp was a stark contrast to life in the UK, where Akter has since passed her GCSEs and is now at university.
“It was a completely different life because when I was at the camp I did not have access to education, access to basic human rights,” Akter said.
“I couldn’t go to schools in the camp because the environment of school was pretty bad. If you were late you’d get beaten up and, because of that brutality, I did not want to go school.
“When I was there I didn’t even know there was a world outside the camp. I’ll be honest, I did not know that there was another country because I couldn’t go to school.
“The first thing I did when I came to the UK was to be enrolled to a school. Here you can do whatever you want to do, there’s no-one to stop you. You have all the rights.”
In 2014, Akter and her mother went back to the refugee camp in Bangladesh to visit her grandmother, who had fallen ill. It was there that her mum had an accident which left her paralysed.
Akter became her carer, balancing her studies and sporting activities.
“It changed everything,” she says. “I was only 13 then. I didn’t have a father. My siblings were all under 18. There was no-one to raise us in the family. There was no-one to support us.
“I went into deep depression. I used to lock myself in the room and had suicidal thoughts, although luckily I didn’t do anything stupid because if I did I would have regretted it.”
Helping the next generation to break down barriers
After leading England to the Street Child Cricket World Cup final in 2019, Akter gave a speech at the Houses of Parliament, highlighting the problems young women from her community face in sport.
“Because I am a girl, I have been discriminated against a lot. I have been questioned a lot for who I am because I come from a society where girls playing sport is classed as wrong,” Akter said.
“There’s that stereotype where if you’re a girl, you’re meant to stay at home – don’t even think about working, your job as a female is to stay in the kitchen and cook.
“When I started playing sport, I had people coming to my family members and saying: ‘Tell your daughter to stop playing sport, she’s ruining the reputation, our reputation.'”
Because Akter experienced a backlash from her own community for playing sport, she now helps the next generation to break down barriers and stereotypes.
“I have coached a few females who want to play cricket just for fun. They want to go out there and break those cultural barriers,” she said.
“Regardless whether you’re female or male, it’s really important that you do what your heart asks you to do. If you want to play sport, you play sport. That is why I feel like it’s really important to break stereotypes.”
As well as being named in the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women, Akter was also named sportswoman of the year at the Bradford Sports Awards in 2020. She also won in the sport category at the Yorkshire Asian Young Achiever Awards in 2021.
Her coach and mentor Ijaz Khan, who met her when she was 13, is proud of how far she has come.
“Jasmin has not had many privileges in life,” he said.
“Look at her backstory. She’s become very resilient in terms of some of the issues that she’s faced. I can’t even begin to imagine what those difficulties must have been like.”
As Akter reflects on her journey, she feels pride too.
She says: “If there was an eight-year-old Jasmin in the camp right now, they’d want to become this person.
“I’d say if someone sees me right now, they would feel proud.”