Football and family help Burmese young people cope with hardships of refugee life

Burmese refugees play football in Umpiem Mai camp in Thailand.
Burmese refugees play football in Umpiem Mai camp in Thailand.

Burmese refugee Kler Heh made headlines in 2015 when he was awarded a professional contract with Sheffield United.

The 19-year-old had come to Sheffield with his family through the United Nations Gateway Protection Programme, and joined the Blades' academy aged 15, spending some time on loan at Stocksbridge Park Steels, although he is now looking for a new club.

Between 2005 and 2008, 216 Burmese refugees were resettled in Sheffield under the UN programme.

The well-groomed pitches at United's Steelphalt Academy are a world away - literally and metaphorically - from the mountainside clearing in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp in Thailand where Kler Heh, a member of the Karen ethnic community, learned to play the beautiful game.

The red, grass-free earth is scarred with ruts caused by rainy season monsoons, and there are rocks and broken bottles all over.

But that doesn't stop a group of young Burmese men and boys - most of whom were born in the camp - from practising their skills between two wonky, makeshift wooden goalposts.

Burmese refugee playing for the Sheffield United youth team.

Burmese refugee playing for the Sheffield United youth team.

Read more:

Burmese refugees flee oppression and violence for a life of hope in Sheffield

Dreams and despair of Burmese refugees forced to live behind fences in Thai camps

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The football pitch in Umpiem Mai camp.

The football pitch in Umpiem Mai camp.

They are among 11,500 refugees living in Umpiem Mai, one of nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border.

Many remember Kler Heh, who was born there in 1996 to parents who had fled persecution from the military government in their homeland. And although they have not heard of Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday, they wear the colours of the top European teams, from Arsenal and Chelsea to Barcelona and Real Madrid.

At 24, Ehkley Htoom is one of the older players. His teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, he plays in trainers stained a similar colour by the dirt pitch.

"I’ve heard about Kler Heh, but didn’t know him well," he said. "I’ve never met him.

Ehkley Htoom, 24.

Ehkley Htoom, 24.

"He’s a good role model for the Karen people. The people here follow how he’s doing.

"I’m inspired, and the young people are, to play more and play harder."

Football is one way for the refugees to escape the reality of their situation. Stuck behind a fence guarded by Thai patrols, many of the younger residents and more recent arrivals have no passport and are not even registered with the authorities - meaning they are essentially stateless.

Ehkley Htoom works for The Border Consortium, or TBC - an umbrella organisation made up of nine charities including Christian aid - and has been trained in construction.

He, and many other young refugees, are developing skills and knowledge in the hope that one day they can return to Burma and try to build a better society.

A couple of hours' drive north of Umpiem Mai is Mae La, the biggest camp with a population of 40,000. There, a bible school has been set up, to which young refugees from other camps travel to learn.

Marjoy Htoo, 19 and Loyal Moo, 20. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Marjoy Htoo, 19 and Loyal Moo, 20. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Lessons are led by Dr Wado, a 41-year-old theologian who arrived in Thailand from Burma in 1988. His mission is to prepare young refugees for the world outside the camp fences.

"There’s not a bachelor level education for them, not many qualified teachers for them, so they come here from the other camps, and also other places inside Burma, and all over Thailand," said Dr Wado.

"We teach Bible lessons, theology, sociology, psychology and political theology. Also speech and preaching - it’s a theological focus."

The school naturally has Christian influences, but much of the teaching focuses on social responsibility. Mae La has a detention centre and Dr Wado sends his students there to talk to the inmates.

"I send my students to the detention because Jesus cared for the poor and the needy, handicapped, prostitutes, women and children, sick and infirm, outcasts," he said.

"So I send the students to the prison, to the hospital, basically to show their love, and if they can’t encourage they just listen."

Among Dr Wado's older students are Marjoy Htoo, 19 and Loyal Moo, 20. They were both born in Mae La, but are planning for a future outside the camp.

"We hope that in the future we can help the Karen people by teaching them what we’ve learned," said Loyal Moo. "Not only teaching - anything we do to help the people.

"For example, now on the Burma side, especially in remote areas, people don’t have the opportunity to have an education, so maybe we could help. If we can help those people we will."

Daily life for the pair involves school, working with their parents and the occasional downtime. Both are talented musicians, and Marjoy Htoo is a skilled weaver.

The camp does have electricity and even the internet, and many young refugees - much like those in Sheffield - are on social media.

"I use it for the news, information from around the world," said Loyal Moo. "I like America’s Got Talent, so I can learn English!"

But the modern comforts do not hide the fact that everyone living in Mae La is a refugee fleeing persecution.

"At the moment, we can’t go outside easily," said Loyal Moo. "Because we live in camps, it’s difficult for us to leave. We’re not free."

All those in the Thai camps face the daily hardships of the refugee life. But for some young people, personal tragedy has created even more obstacles.

Kathai Mae is one of a small number of Burmese Muslims in Mae La. The 23-year-old is the eldest of eight siblings. She is married with an 11-month-old son, Lay Bei Noo, and is six months pregnant.

She only arrived in the camp in 2013, with her mother and three siblings. The other four siblings and her father, who had problems with alcohol, joined later.

Her parents were separated, but had decided to give their relationship another go when everything fell apart.

Kathai Mae remembers being woken by her mother's screams.

"They slept downstairs and we were upstairs. I saw they’d both been stabbed," she said.

"I called my neighbour and we took them to the hospital, but mother died on the way and my father died later in hospital."

The exact circumstances will never be known, but it is likely the father stabbed his wife before turning the knife on himself.

This left Kathai Mae as the head of a large family, trying to provide for siblings, partners and children. Many would crack under such pressure - and that without the added hardships of life as a refugee

"Only three of us receive food from TBC." she said. " And I’m the only one bringing in an income (from a fruit stall). Our neighbours help us with a little bit of food."

Kathai Mae and her husband hope one day to resettle in the US. But that dream has been shelved since the death of her parents.

"I could possibly go, but my siblings can’t, so who will look after them? So I can’t go. As long as the refugee camp is here, we can live here," she said.

"Everyone needs to stay together as a family. Because my mother has gone and I’m the oldest, I’m the head of the family and must keep us together."

Kathai Mae's story is heartbreaking, but watching her play with her son and youngest sister, aged only five, makes the importance of her family clear.

"I hope my son will be a smart guy with a good education - and obedient!" she said.

Christian Aid's Light The Way Christmas appeal will support some of the 65 million people fleeing from conflict and crises across the world, including those living in refugee camps in Thailand, including the Karen people. Visit www.christianaid.org.uk/christmas-appeal and tweet using the hashtag #Lighttheway.

A balloon seller in Mae La camp. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

A balloon seller in Mae La camp. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Bible school teacher Dr Wado. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Bible school teacher Dr Wado. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Students in a lesson at bible school in Mae La camp. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Students in a lesson at bible school in Mae La camp. Photo: Matt Gonzalez-Nada

Kathai Mae in her home in Mae La camp.

Kathai Mae in her home in Mae La camp.