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raceAhead: What's Next For The Rescued Thai Soccer Team?

Ellen McGirt
raceAhead: What's Next For The Rescued Thai Soccer Team?

The world is enjoying something rare today: A collective sigh of relief.

Jubilant follow-up stories are starting to emerge from Thailand, after twelve young soccer players and their intrepid coach were rescued from what appeared from the outside to be an impossibly terrifying labyrinth.

It was a tremendous victory for the hastily assembled global team of experts, who, despite the opposing forces of time, language barriers, and weather conditions, managed to hack together a solution that delivered. That only one life was lost is both a tragedy and a miracle.

But this particular story from Jim Pollard, a writer for Australia’s PerthNow, paints an even richer story of Moo Pa, the Wild Boars football team, their coach, and the communities surrounding Mae Sai, who supported the rescuers with meals, freshly laundered kits, and prayers.

Many are poor but determined, keenly aware of the unique difficulties that surround them, from poverty and violence to drug traffickers and local turf wars. But plenty, like Ekapol Jantawong, the extraordinary coach who went in search of the missing boys, are also immigrants, undocumented “stateless” persons, with no clear place in the world.

Jantawong, 25, seemed to know where to look when the kids turned up missing. They were always filled with a quest for adventure, so as teens tend to do, they ignored the seasonal warning sign and ventured into Tham Luang, the mysterious cave they knew so well.

Jantawong, once trapped himself, is credited for teaching the team to meditate to help them stay calm during their entombment. It was a practice he learned as a boy monk, living in a Thai temple after his Burmese parents died. The “stateless orphan,” as he is still called in Thai media, then moved closer to Mae Sai and befriended the boys, who seem to be just younger versions of his own football-crazed self.

They are, in many ways, his family.

One team member, Adul Samon, 14, is in a similar predicament. He’s become famous for the short video showing him speaking with the British rescuers who were the first to discover the group. Samon, a sweet-sounding kid who speaks Thai, Burmese, Chinese, and English, is from Wa state, an area in northern Myanmar known for its drug trade. He’d been sent to Thailand by his parents, hoping to turn his fortunes around.

It is a familiar story in the region, according to Pollard:

The desperation of poor parents to get their children a decent education in these parts is sometimes quite remarkable. I visited a centre for hill-tribe kids about an hour south of the Tham Luang cave nine years ago run by a former architect from the Gold Coast. David Stevenson said carloads of children were sometimes “dumped” at his centre in Mae Suay, Children of the Golden Triangle, even if he said they had no room. He had close to 300 Akha and other hill tribe kids at that time, with the older kids often cooking and caring for the younger ones.

Samon is excelling in school, plays guitar, and of course, is obsessed with soccer. But according to Pollard, he is one of 400,000 registered stateless people in Thailand, a situation that has gotten the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “With no birth certificate, ID card or passport, Adul cannot legally marry, get a job or bank account, travel outside the province, own property or vote,” he explains.

And he can’t legally travel to attend the World Cup, the lovely reward offered to the boys from FIFA officials if they just stuck it out. (They’re not well enough to go, but still.)

But a different form of rescue may be on the way. The Thailand government has vowed to end statelessness by 2024. In fact, several “service points” have been opened in schools in the Chiang Rai district where most of the team seems to live.

This story comes at a time when the U.S. is grappling with one of the most alarming migration crises in modern memory, with children forcibly separated from their asylum-seeking parents and vulnerable migrants trying to survive the sudden change in conditions at our own border.

While it has been encouraging to watch the global community root for those amazing kids trapped underground, it would be so much better if we could also find real ways to root for them in the light of day.

And I mean everyone who seeks salvation – the tired and poor, the endangered and stateless. If only they didn’t so often have to risk their lives to have a life, only to find themselves entombed in caves we made for them.

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