Kler Heh: A remarkable journey from Thai refugee camp to Sheffield United

Kler Heh was born in a refugee camp in western Thailand and somehow battled his way to the lower leagues of British football. Now looking for a new home, the teenager is eligible to represent both the War Elephants and Myanmar. This is his story...

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In chilly conditions before almost 50,000 jubilant fans at Glasgow Rangers’ floodlit Ibrox Stadium in early April, Kler Heh sat in unfamiliar territory. The 19-year-old was on the bench, just metres from the stage he had dreamt of since growing up in a Thai refugee camp.

We would all kick a ball about but there was no grass, just a pitch full of stones … I got used to it and had no fear

It was a momentous night for Scottish football as Rangers – winners of an incredible 54 top-division championships over a glittering 144-year history – defeated Dumbarton 1-0 to secure their return to the Scottish Premier League for the first time since 2012, having been forced down to the fourth-tier following a period of financial turmoil.

Few, if any, in the packed stands would have known the significance of the occasion for Dumbarton’s Kler Heh, who was born in Umpiem Mai refugee camp in western Thailand after his family – of the ethnic Karen minority – had fled oppression and internal violence across the border in Myanmar decades earlier.

The right-sided midfielder was in the third of a four-month deal with the Scottish Championship side.

“It felt like a dream come true, even though I didn’t get on,” Kleh, who had been with England’s third-tier Sheffield United since he was 15, tells FourFourTwo.  “When I was a kid in the refugee camp I always wanted this to happen.

“Even though I didn’t get a lot of playing time, I was involved with the first team and got a few games,” he adds. “It was the best experience for me because a lot of fans came to watch and I got used to the first-team vibe.”

Playing for Dumbarton FC

Camp Life

Kler, the eldest of four siblings, spent his early years in Umpiem Mai, home to roughly 13,000 refugees and situated just across the border from Myanmar’s Karen State, a rugged, mountainous region where ethnic rebel armies waged a decades-long war with the oppressive military junta.

Without passports, Kler and his family were prohibited from travelling further into Thailand

With the ongoing conflict on the other side of the hilly frontier, Kler made the most of a character-building childhood in difficult surroundings. He would collect bottles and other kinds of discarded waste in the hope of earning a little extra pocket money, and play football on the camp’s dusty terrain, seeking to replicate the skills of his idol, Ronaldinho, who he had seen on TV and in advertisements.

“There were a lot of people there – Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, it was very mixed in the village,” Kler tells FourFourTwo. “We would all kick a ball about but there was no grass, just a pitch full of stones … I got used to it and had no fear, but I wouldn’t like it now.”

Without passports, Kler and his family, like most of the other refugees, were prohibited from travelling further into Thailand. Unwilling to risk returning home, they found themselves stuck in no man’s land waiting for an opportunity to relocate and restart their lives.

A New Beginning

Used to sleeping on the wooden floor of the family’s ramshackle hut, the boys and girls would fall off their beds in their new house

Their dream was eventually realised in 2006, when Kler’s parents, who had spent years moving between camps in Thailand, were told they were being resettled in the northern English city of Sheffield under the United Nations Gateway Protection Programme. This followed several unsuccessful attempts to move to Australia.

“I was so sad to leave the camp because all my friends were there,” explains Kler, a devout Christian who attends church every week in his adopted home. “But in the village you have nothing and my parents promised me we were going to a better place.”

Continued over the page with Kler's move to England and first taste of a proper house