When Noor Kabir saw the film Rocky, he knew his life would never be the same.
He and his friend had left their homes in the refugee camp in southern Bangladesh where they lived, hoping to find a house with a TV they could surreptitiously watch. They found a hole in a wall and peering through it, they saw Sylvester Stallone as Rocky with his muscular physique and iron chin. Noor could not believe it was humanly possible to have muscles like that.
The film tells the story of a down-on-his-luck club fighter who, despite the odds, strives to become the world heavyweight boxing champion.
Eleven-year-old Noor instantly identified with him.
“I saw something different, something I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to look like him, I wanted to be him.”
He too imagined a better life for himself.
“As a Rohingya, you have no nationality, you feel like nobody…. In the camp there was no future. Rocky gave me motivation.”
Noor was born and raised in one of the camps in Cox’s Bazar District, which now host some 1 million Rohingya, a stateless minority that started fleeing Myanmar in the 1970s. Some of Noor’s family members had lived there for 25 years.
He shared a small shelter with his mother, grandmother and two siblings.
“We didn’t have beds, so we slept on the floor. We didn’t have much room in there, so that was pretty tough.”
In winter, they did not have enough blankets and jackets to stay warm; in summer, the heat was inescapable. They survived on water and food provided by UN aid agencies. With little or no access to education as he grew older, or phones or the internet, Noor spent much of the day playing ball games with friends to pass the time. This was the only life he knew, until he watched Rocky.
A dangerous journey by sea
A few years later, Noor learned of a boat departing Bangladesh and left without hesitation and with no time even to say goodbye to his mother. After several dangerous boat journeys, at age 16, Noor reached Australia, where he spent the next two years in various immigration and community detention facilities across the country.
Nearly 4,500 Rohingya refugees have embarked on similarly dangerous sea journeys in the past year, the majority of them women and children. Figures released this month by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, found that one Rohingya died or went missing for every eight who attempted such journeys in 2023.
In 2016, Noor was granted temporary protection and moved to Brisbane to be close to his aunt. Starting his new Australian life was not easy. By then, he was 18 years old and could not read or write or speak English.
“I couldn’t even say ‘hi’. I mostly learned by watching and rewatching action movies, like Rocky and other Sylvester Stallone movies.”
Noor supported himself by working odd jobs and joined a local gym where he developed a passion for fitness and eventually became a qualified personal trainer.
Fulfilling a dream
His dream, though, was to be a bodybuilder. He wanted to be the best, just like Rocky, and so he sought the help of a professional coach – Simon Stockton – to push him.
“I taught him how to pose and how to present his physique,” says Simon, who was deeply moved by Noor’s story, so much so that he offered to coach him for free.
“Noor managed to come to Australia, get a driver’s license and a job, learn English, and join the gym. I thought if he’s learned all of that on his own, imagine what he could do with some help.”
In 2021, at his first-ever state bodybuilding competition, Noor won fifth place. This made him more determined than ever.
He continued to train hard, even while fasting for Ramadan. Two weeks later, Noor stood on the stage for a second time, surrounded by bigger and taller men, hoping he would reach second or third place this time. As those titles were taken, he crossed his fingers behind his back, his heart pounding. His name was announced as the winner.
“That was one of the best feelings I’ve had in all my life.”
Noor proudly describes himself as the world’s first Rohingya bodybuilding champion.
His dream now is to compete on the international stage, but he cannot make this a reality until he secures the right to travel.
“I want to inspire my people, and others who are growing up with hardships, to not give up.”