Former refugee and the UK’s first female Muslim football referee Jawahir Roble says many people believe the UK is a rich country of plenty but she knows many families are struggling to afford the basics
Eating in war-ravaged Somalia as a youngster, Jawahir Roble remembers saving food and not eating a mouthful more than she needed, in case someone else in her family needed it.
“You become conscious of food waste when there isn’t a lot of food around and living in a war zone in Somalia, there were a lot of families who were left with nothing,” she says.
“When the civil war broke out, everyone was so confused and a lot of people didn’t have the basic essentials. They were just surviving. It wasn’t safe to do shopping and it was like the pandemic and everything was closed.
“If anyone saw you on the street, you could literally die – that’s how bad it was. Our parents were risking their lives every time they went out quickly to get some essentials. It was a run for your life situation.”
Jawahir, known as Jawahir Jewels or JJ, came to the UK with her family from Somalia when she was 10-years-old and they forged a new life in London despite not being able to speak a word of English when they arrived.
Now 28, JJ made history by becoming the first Muslim woman to referee a football match in the UK and she dreams of becoming a “top referee” and officiating games in the Premier League.
She began playing football in Somalia around the age of four and has worked hard to become a referee despite being brought up in a culture where women and girls are not normally seen in sports such as football.
“I began playing football in Somalia when I was young and loved it,” she says. “I knew deep in my heart I wanted to be involved in sports, especially football. Then when I came to this country, I thought: ‘Girls actually play sports here. People are free and no one cares or is judging them.’
“If I had stayed in Somalia, I think it would have been difficult for me to pursue my passion.”
However, JJ had to fight a lot of stereotypes and opposition before she achieved her goal.
“My parents would ask: ‘Do you see a single girl wearing a hijab playing football or representing England?’ They said I couldn’t be part of it because of the amount of abuse I would get.
“At the end of the day, they were just looking out for me. But I had to educate them and tell them how sports helps with your fitness, your mental health and has so many benefits and that you meet so many people through it.”
JJ began refereeing and was thrilled to be back on the football pitch and running around. “As a referee, you get to see everything close up and feel the emotions of the players. I’m just living my dream,” she says.
“I don’t care what pitch it is or how big it is, as long as we’re playing football, I’m good.”
JJ became the first hijab wearing referee in the country and says her parents are now immensely proud of her, particularly when they hear she is an inspiration to other girls.
“Who cares what you look like?” asks JJ. “Who cares if you’re Black or whatever religion you are? As long as you are a positive person who is encouraging girls to be involved in sports, that’s what matters.
“My dreams for the future are to become a world recognised referee and to encourage as many girls as possible into sports. I want girls to say: ‘I started playing football because of JJ.’ That would make me so happy.’
Despite all her achievements, JJ says she will never forget having to escape war and her experience of living in poverty after her family arrived in the UK “with nothing”.
She told i that although the UK is seen as a place of plenty, there are many people who are struggling to afford necessities, particularly during the cost of living crisis with food and energy prices pushing many families over the edge.
It’s for this reason she has become an ambassador for In Kind Direct, a UK charity which distributes consumer goods donated by companies to UK charitable organisations working in the UK and overseas.
JJ, who has eight siblings, says she is particularly saddened by the thought of young people being unable to afford hygiene products such as period supplies, deodorant and shower gel and fears it could stop them making the most of life-changing opportunities or taking part in sport.
“My family were lucky enough to get a visa to come to the UK,” she says. “I was frightened at how fast the war happened and how things got worse without any warning.
“One moment, life was good in Somalia – we were enjoying it and having the best time and it was sunny all year round. Then suddenly, we were not even allowed to enjoy our own country.
“When we came to the UK, it was like; ‘Gosh, there’s people walking around. There’s no one running. You can’t hear bullets. This is such a nice place.’ We felt so happy as a family when we came to the UK,” says JJ.
“We weren’t worried about getting killed and weren’t thinking about getting the basic stuff as the shops were just there. It felt like a safe haven and an amazing place.”
When JJ’s family arrived in the UK, they had to borrow money from family members who came before them. “We were so grateful to be given a home, but had to figure out everything from food, to essential stuff such as schools.
“We lived very carefully at first as my dad said: ‘We have to save so can only get important things.’ But when we started getting comfortable, we were able to have treats like sweets and stuff.”
JJ says she was lucky not to have started her period when she was living in Somalia and that it only came later after she moved to the UK. She said girls in Somalia often struggled to get hold of sanitary products during their periods and had to use cloths which were uncomfortable.
She says: “You would never think there are people in the UK who need the basics too as it is a developed country. But there are a lot of people who are struggling.
“It shouldn’t be like that and basic things like deodorant, shower gel and period products are not things struggling families should be having to go without.”
When In Kind Direct asked JJ to become their ambassador for their 25th anniversary as they appeal for more product donations from companies, retailers and brands, JJ was keen to represent the charity as she believes in the work they are doing.
Founded in 1996 by the Prince of Wales, In Kind Direct believes that everyone deserves access to life’s essentials and that no usable product should go to waste.