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In the prison-like surroundings of a Thai refugee camp on the Burmese border, 10-year-old Kler Heh would play football in bare feet with family and friends dreaming of a new life elsewhere. Anywhere.
The long list of possible locations never included the northern English city of Sheffield, but the once-mighty industrial town that has struggled since the decline of its steel mills in the 1980s has become a welcome home, largely because of soccer.
After four years living in England, Kler Heh’s perseverance and hard work showed English third-tier side Sheffield United the skills learnt on the enclosed Thai streets were worthy of a chance with their academy.
Now 18 and possessing a first professional contract with the four-time FA Cup winners and 1898 English champions, Kler Heh allows himself to dream again.
“I would love to play in the Premier League one day but at present my goal is to impress [manager] Nigel Adkins and [under-21 coach] Chris Morgan, and repay Sheffield United for the faith that they have shown to me,” he told Reuters.
“I want to grow as a player and I believe that I will be able to do that under Chris Morgan’s guidance.
“But I am an ambitious player and I would love to and one day be the captain of either Myanmar [Burma] or Thailand at an international level and as I grow play at the highest level possible – the Premier League and Champions League.”
Kler Heh is a skilful winger who will play in United’s under-21 side this year and push for first-team opportunities with the Blades, who made the semi-finals of the League Cup last season but narrowly missed out on promotion back to the second tier.
He watched Thailand beat Burma in the final of the Southeast Asian Games tournament in June, but said his international chances with either are complicated by his ethnicity and lack of passport for either country.
Born in the refugee camp, he and his family of ethnic Karens, a minority group who have faced oppression in Burma, had already failed with their attempts to move to Australia and seemed destined never to escape the depressing camp environment.
“You can’t really get out. Nobody has a passport to go into Thailand and go out like a normal human would,” Kler Heh explained.
But in 2006, a small group from the camp, including Kler Heh and five family members, were resettled in Sheffield as part of the United Nations Gateway Protection Programme.
Unable to speak the language, Kler Heh took to the sanctuary of football once again, playing for school teams and in Sunday leagues.
Friends told him of the Football Unites, Racism Divides group, which helped Kyle Walker on his way to becoming an England international, and he went along and impressed.
Two nerve-filled trials at Sheffield United, where Walker also started, came and went before Kler Heh was finally taken on by the club’s academy at the third attempt and has impressed coaches.
“Trying to progress through the academy ranks is a tough challenge on its own,” United academy manager Nick Cox told Reuters.
“Kler has done this at the same time as having to learn a new language and adapt to an unfamiliar culture. It has been an incredible achievement to be awarded with a professional contract at the club.”
Kler Heh, now holding a British passport, went back to Thailand in 2012 to visit family and friends at the Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp, which is home to almost 13,000 people.
He said he is was happy to carry the weight of expectation for all back home in a region obsessed with the Premier League and desperate to see one of their own play in the lucrative league for the first time.
“I know that I am representing myself, my family, friends and everyone in Myanmar and Thailand,” Kler Heh said.
“I want to be a positive role model and a symbol of hope that there is life outside the refugee camps.”