Chapel Hill News

Soccer standout champions fellow Karen refugees through sport

Thar Thwai, center, runs downfield with members of the Kwe Ka Baung soccer team during practice Monday, July 18, 2016, at the Lincoln Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Thar Thwai, center, runs downfield with members of the Kwe Ka Baung soccer team during practice Monday, July 18, 2016, at the Lincoln Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Soccer runs in Thar Thwai’s ethnic Karen immigrant roots, but in it, he’s also found the seed of hope for his fellow refugees.

The Catawba College senior spends his weekends and breaks coaching the Kwe Ka Baung soccer team, made up of about two dozen other Karen who live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

The team is named for a mountain in Burma, also known as Myanmar, that lies at the heart of the Karen people’s history.

“Having teams like this brings us together and keeps our culture together,” Thwai, 20, said. “I think it’s very important, too, for the kids that have talent to be able to play the bigger club teams.”

Sports were a way to pass the time in Thailand’s refugee camps, said Thwai, whose family emigrated to America in 2007. The Karen and other ethnic groups have fled Burma’s civil war and ethnic cleansing for more than three decades.

Thwai’s father, Kyaw Thwai, was attending medical school when the Burmese soldiers forced him and his wife, Chaw Thwai, to leave.

The camps were small until Thailand merged them in 1995 – the year Thwai was born – in response to Burmese government-aligned rebel attacks. Thai soldiers began patrolling the camp’s borders to keep refugees inside. Thwai’s sister Tamula was born three years later.

The family lived in Mae La, the largest of seven refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. The narrow dirt streets wind up the mountainside between houses built with bamboo and thatched roofs, because the Thai government only allows “temporary shelters.” Water is collected in buckets and bottles from communal spigots, and some refugees work in open-air markets, selling fruits and vegetables, packaged goods and services, or hunt small game.

“A lot of people sneak out to go to the bigger cities to find work,” Thwai said. “But it’s very dangerous because (the soldiers) can send people back to Burma.”

While outside agencies provide basic health care, malaria was a real problem, said Kyaw Thwai. He assisted visiting researchers who were working on the problem then, and continues the work now as a research technician for UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Paper and plastic bags

Kyaw Thwai shares a love of soccer with his son.

They and nearly 50,000 others shared a field in Mae La with “neighborhoods” competing for fun and sometimes a small prize, he said. In the rainy season, the teams slogged through the mud, he said.

“We didn’t have a good field like this,” he said, pointing to the dry grass outside Lincoln Center on Merritt Mill Road.

They didn’t always have balls either, Thar Thwai said.

“Sometimes (we’d) just get paper and stuff to make a soccer ball,” he said. “A lot of paper and plastic bags to waterproof.”

The family left on a United Nations flight to St. Louis in August 2007 and settled in California. Thwai, who had attended school in the camp but knew a little English, had to adapt quickly, because no other Karen students attended his new school.

They moved to North Carolina, because his mother knew people from the camp who lived here, he said, and made a home at Carolina Apartments. An estimated 1,000 Karen live in Orange County.

Sometimes (we’d) just get paper and stuff to make a soccer ball. A lot of paper and plastic bags to waterproof.

Thar Thwai

Daily practice

Thwai graduated in 2013 from Carrboro High School, where he was a star soccer player and men’s team captain for two years. He’s now a senior at Catawba, where he studies sports management and plays midfield for the Indians men’s soccer team. He’d like to start a Karen club one day, he said.

College introduced him to many players and ideas, Thwai said. Kwe Ka Baung starts daily practice – sometimes twice a day – with laps around the field and stretching. They practice passing and kicking goals. Then they hit the field to scrimmage.

They’ve perfected two-touch soccer – one tap to control the ball; the second to pass it – said Matt Seidel, who has adopted the team since seeing them play, helping them get exposure and equipment donations from

“They’ll try to set up scrimmages with (other teams), and they do what they do, and people don’t want to play them again,” Seidel said. “The field at Lincoln Center is pretty much dirt and grass and real bumpy. So when they go to the turf, a flat surface, it’s impossible to get the ball from them.”

The team’s years together are starting to show, said Kyaw Thwai, who often joins them at practice.

“Their fitness and their bond (have improved). Their togetherness is amazing,” he said.

Kwe Ka Baung took third in men’s open play at this year’s Powerade State Games of North Carolina and first place in the N.C. Youth Fellowship Soccer Tournament. They’ve also played tournaments against other Karen teams from New Bern, Greensboro, High Point, Charlotte and Raleigh.

Thwai and nine other members traveled to South Dakota this summer for the fourth annual Huron Karen 4th of July Soccer Tournament, which brings together 39 teams and 790 Karen players from around the country. He hopes to take the team next to victory in the Triangle Adult Soccer League.

Many Karen players can’t afford club soccer or don’t have reliable transportation, Thwai said, limiting their access to colleges and scholarships. Kwe Ka Baung’s success has encouraged some to try out for high school teams this year. Two others recently made the Wake Tech men’s soccer team.

Thwai was named all-conference, all-region and All-State while at Carrboro High, and also played for the East boys soccer team at the N.C. Coaches Association East-West All-Star Games and in the Clash of the Carolinas All-Star Game in 2013.

He won a scholarship in part after former head coach Mark Kadlecik sent a video to his friend at Catawba. He’s not surprised to hear about Kwe Ka Baung, Kadlecik said, because Thwai’s a talented, hard-working player who loves the game and encouraged others to play.

It really ruffled some feathers when Thwai, then a junior, became Carrboro’s captain, he said.

“I just saw his work ethic and the way the kids responded – when he worked hard, they did – so that’s why I made the decision to make him a captain,” Kadlecik said. “He was the heart and soul of our team.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb