Born with kidney disease in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, it’s been a long journey to Rizwan Muhammad’s transplant games

Radwan Muhammad knew most of his life that he would need a new kidney.

Rizwan grew up in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, was born with pneumonia and spent most of his childhood ill.

He said, “There weren’t any proper doctors, all they gave you was Panadol and things like that for every ailment.”

When he was six, he and his family of seven were placed on an emergency list to enter Australia – not because of Radwan’s condition, but because of his younger brother, who was born with a hole in his heart.

“He needed an operation. The Bangladesh government told us we can come here so he can have an operation,” Rizwan said.

“A week before that he died.”

The family was still able to travel to Australia, where they underwent medical check-ups.

“They discovered that my kidney was completely dead,” Radwan said.

“Before they could remove it, it had already affected the other five percent.”

Radwan Mohamed can only consume minimal fluids during hemodialysis.(supplied)

Radwan’s older brother, Youssef, was 10 years old when the family came to Australia. He said there was no “appropriate medical treatment” in the camps.

He said, “I lost my brother there, and I lost two sisters there.”

“[Rezwan] He was born with pneumonia and was in very poor health when he was born.”

They had no idea that Radwan’s kidneys were failing.

“There was no medicine for Radwan… We didn’t know it was actually a disease. We thought it was like pneumonia. We used to take him to a local person who was just praying for him,” Youssef said.

Radwan was just a kid when he arrived in Australia “not really worried about getting a new kidney”, but at the age of 13, when his good kidney gave way, the reality of the situation began.

“I started dialysis in 2017 and have been on it for three years,” he said.

Radwan in a hospital bed.
Radwan with his older brother Othman. (supplied)

People on dialysis can’t get rid of waste and fluids from their blood. The diet that Ridwan recommended was very dry.

“I can only drink 750 milliliters of water – including the water in the food. The food in our family is mainly rice and things like that, and it’s very difficult to maintain,” said Radwan.

At one point, when Radwan was on dialysis, and then in the early years of high school, he weighed less than 30 kilos.

“[He was] very thin. We were so scared because we thought he wouldn’t survive.”

“We come from a refugee background and a diet…it’s not our thing. So we just eat what we grew up on – rice and curry. So he’s lost a lot of things, you know, being able to eat and make your own choices about food.”

After two years on dialysis, Radwan joined nearly 1,700 Australians awaiting an organ transplant.

“I thought I would never have it because my blood type is really rare,” he said.

Finding matching kidneys can be very difficult, said Michael Burke, MD, director of the Kidney Health Service at Mater Hospital, and Radwan’s physician.

“For some groups in society it may be more difficult than for others,” he said.

But after a year on the roster, in December 2019, Ridwan received the college he always knew he’d need.

“Since that time, he’s done really well,” said Dr. Burke.

Dr. Michael Burke stands in front of Mater Hospital.
Dr. Michael Burke has known Radwan for years.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

No contact sports

Radwan and his family are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. Nearly a million Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, where Rizwan was born.

“My parents fled Myanmar when they were very young,” Ridwan said.

The Rohingya genocide is happening right now.

For the Rohingya community in Australia, sport, especially football, is a binding force. In Brisbane, the Rohingya United football team is a source of pride and a reason to come together.

Team photo of the players in their jersey.
Rohingya United, where Yusuf (second from left) plays.(Supplied: Rohingya United)

Because of the dangers posed by contact sports, Radwan was told by his doctors that he could not play.

“Health comes first before anything else, you have to be healthy first and then you can play, I’ve always understood that.

“I felt left out because I don’t play for Rohingya United.”

Youssef said that Radwan “missed a lot” growing up, including education and playing sports, which he loves.

Instead, Radwan turned to non-contact sports.

When he was in eighth grade, one of his friends invited Ridwan to participate in badminton sessions after school at the gym.

“Since then I haven’t stopped going there, I fell in love with the sport,” he said.

Radwan reaches for a shot of peace.
Radwan Mohamed succeeded in playing badminton.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

Youssef said his brother was a “tough kid” who could not be kept away from sports.

“We didn’t know he was already playing badminton… I mean, we love the sport, but I didn’t think badminton would be his thing,” he said with a laugh.

Radwan holds the feather.
Radwan Mohamed started playing badminton before he underwent dialysis.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

Badminton is a game of speed and timing. On the field, Radwan is smart and daring. There is no sign of hesitation or fear. Diving, jumping and screaming.

Last year, Radwan and his school team won the Brisbane local competition. Radwan also won several club medals.

There is a strong badminton culture at the school, says Calum Biggs, a teacher at Corina State High School who monitors after-school sessions.

“It’s very crowded on a Friday afternoon—50, 60 kids. Most people can’t wait to get home after school on Friday, but they want to stay until 4:30,” he said.

After Radwan received the transplant, his doctors suggested that he participate in the Transplant Games, which is a sporting competition for people who have received new organs, as well as living donors and families of deceased donors.

Radwan reaches down for a low shot.
Radwan Mohamed started playing badminton at school.(ABC News: Julius Dennis)

The Games, which will be held in Perth next April, are expected to attract around 2,000 competitors from more than 50 countries.

While the message of the games is inclusivity, there are also elite competitors.

Radwan, who also competes in table tennis, said he was “looking forward to meeting people and winning.”

Biggs, who competed and won alongside Ridwan at the Sunnybank Hills Club, says Ridwan is no slouch.

“Regardless of a transplant or not, he’s still a very good player.”

Radwan and Callum standing in the stadium.
Rizwan Mohamed and Callum Biggs competed with their club. (ABC News: Julius Dennis)

Games carry multiple messages

The Transplant Games have been in operation since 1988 and have been played on every continent. The Perth Games will be the third time the Games have come to Australia.

Transplant Australia CEO Chris Thomas says the games have two messages: to increase the number of organ donors and to “help transplant recipients achieve their personal best”.

“It’s this unique sporting event that unites the world with this common message about the gift of life,” he said.

A group of people holding flags of different countries walking down the street
The 2019 World Transplantation Games were held in Newcastle, UK.(Supplied: Implant Australia / Rich Kenworthy)

Transplant Australia aims to double the number of Australians on the organ donor registry, taking the group from seven million to 14 million.

Mr Thomas said: “That’s 36 per cent of adult Australians who have signed up. We’ve seen examples in the US where they can achieve 70 per cent of the population. That’s an achievable target for us.”

He said that COVID has had a negative impact on organ donor registrations and that the games are an opportunity to “re-engage in the public conversation” about joining the organ donor registry, highlighting the importance of educating your family about your decision.

“Only about two out of every 100 people who die die in such a way that they are actually donors,” he said.

“We know that if you are registered, nine times out of ten your family will support that registration and become a donor.”