From Refugee to Refuge: Faith’s Solo Sein Finds Sanctuary in God and Soccer
By Andrew Gogerty
ANKENY, Iowa—Faith Baptist Bible College’s Soelaweh “Solo” Sein is one of the nation’s leading scorers in NCCAA Division II men’s soccer, but until he came to the United States at the age of 15, he had never played a single game of fútbol with shoes on. For much of the 12 years of his life as a refugee, he never had a real soccer ball to play with either.
Soelaweh was born in Burma (Myanmar) as the youngest of four children. His family moved to a refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand at the age of three to flee from civil war. For the next 12 years, he never left the camp due to the dangers around him, with land mines on the Burma side and armed guards on the Thailand side.
The refugee camp, Karenni Camp 2, which was called MaeSurin Camp, was a small village of approximately 3,000 people. Of the numerous camps around them, it was the smallest. You could walk from one side to another in about 30 minutes. Living in a home without electricity and in a world with narrow borders, soccer became a place of refuge at a young age, not only for Soelaweh, but all the children there. In a world that lacked the most basic amenities, they made the most of what they had.
“We didn’t have soccer balls. They were very rare,” said Soelaweh. “Sometimes we would have some really old ones that the camp no longer used as game balls, and we would use those until they broke. Other times, when people would kill pigs, we would drain the water out of the pig’s reproductive parts and use a bamboo straw to blow them up, then tie them, and use them.”
Fútbol (not football) in a refugee camp
Kids in Solo’s refugee camp played soccer from the time they could walk. It was a big reason his game has become so polished. It wasn’t just a sport in the refugee camp. It was the only sport.
“We would play every day, everywhere. We would finish school around 3:30 p.m. and would play until our parents called us to come back home, study, and eat. It was the only sport in the camp. I didn’t know about football or basketball. When I came to the United States, one of the coaches took me to the football field because I said I wanted to play fútbol, but it was the wrong field because I didn’t know it was called soccer here.”
Touch and feel: learning to play with shoes
If you spend five minutes watching Solo play soccer, one of the first things you notice is his incredible touch and feel of the ball. He is one of the rare players who makes every reception, every pass, and every shot seem effortless. It’s almost like the ball is a part of him. The way he learned to play, it’s no wonder.
“We played with our bare feet,” said Solo. “We didn’t have shoes. The first time I came to the United States, I tried to play soccer without shoes at school, and the coach had to explain to me that I couldn’t do that. It was against the rules. I wanted to play without shoes.”
Playing without shoes helped Solo develop his touch and feel of the ball. It also helped make his feet stronger by playing barefoot on the crushed rock, dirt, sand, and oftentimes mud in the camp. Although it was a difficult transition to learn how to play soccer with shoes on, Solo agrees now that it is definitely the best way.
“I liked playing without shoes because you can feel with your feet, touching the ball,” said Solo. “Now, after playing with shoes, I would much rather play with them than without them. It’s much more comfortable.”
Toughness and winning
In the refugee camp, Solo and his brothers called the shots. They made their own teams, and they won. A lot. They would play tournaments against other sections of refugee camps, usually with around eight teams in all. Playing in the conditions of the camp with the rock, the sand, and the rainy weather helped his game. Playing a “no holds barred” brand of soccer helped too.
“It helped me to become a stronger player,” said Solo. “We were able to play the whole year. Rainy season, winter, late at night—we had year-round conditioning. When you played in the camp, it was much different. We didn’t have good referees. They didn’t whistle unless someone was injured really badly. It was just, ‘keep going, keep going’ until someone is on the ground and physically can’t move. There were no fouls.”
Like many professional athletes who credit their skills to the level of competition they faced growing up on the streets or in their neighborhoods, Solo gives a lot of credit to the level of competition he faced as a youngster in the refugee camp. He has many friends he grew up with that Solo believes could have (or still could) play collegiate soccer at a competitive level. His brothers were two of those.
“I would say my brothers were better than me, but they never got to play at the high school or college level.”
Weekend life in the camp
Although soccer, or fútbol, was played religiously in the camp, the weekends were mostly off-limit. Saturdays were for hunting in the forest and doing house work. Sundays were for religion. The entire camp would shut down to go to church.
“The way we build our houses we would have to go into the forest to get big leaves to make the roof,” said Solo, who explained how they would arrange the leaves in an overlapping manner, similar to shingling. “The roof only lasted about a year. Then we would have to do it all over again.”
Surrounded by rainforests, Solo, his friends, and brothers spent countless hours in the jungle hunting for food—mostly bamboo shoots and meat. Meat was a delicacy in the camp, which received help from the United Nations with items like clothes, rice, and beans, but not meat.
“We only got to eat meat once or twice in a month,” said Solo. “It had to be hunted. It’s hard to say what my favorite kind was, because anything was good, but fish was always the easiest and most plentiful. We had a river that ran between the mountains where we would catch fish.”
The rain forests in Thailand are dangerous places, famous for its populations of pythons, cobras, pit vipers, monkeys, wild boars, and more. Solo doesn’t remember any near-death experiences on his journeys through the jungle with animals, but he does recall a time he nearly plunged to his death off the cliff of a mountain, saved only by a rock he was able to grab as he was falling over the edge.
By the time he reached his teenage years, Solo began clinging to a different kind of rock, and a much more important one. It all began on his journey to the United States of America, where he would meet an individual who would help change his life for eternity.
New life in America
After 12 years in the refugee camp, Solo’s life took a sharp turn when his family was approved by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate. According to the UNHCR website, the organization “was created in 1950 to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes during the Second World War.”
Solo’s family had several options of which country to move to once they were approved. Many of his friends’ families chose Australia or Canada. The decision to relocate to the United States was all about opportunity. They chose Portland, Oregon, where Solo finished high school and met a friend and a pastor who helped change his life.
“When I first came to the United States, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any friends. I met a friend in high school who was playing guitar. I wanted to learn, so he invited me to the youth group.”
Although he went to church every Sunday in the refugee camp, Solo had never officially heard the gospel. Through the invitation of his friend to youth group at New Life International Baptist Church in Portland, he met Pastor Prachan Rodruan. Prachan’s church has a rich history of reaching out to Burmese people looking for new opportunity in America.
“I never knew the gospel until I came to the United States and met Pastor Prachan,” said Solo. “Two years after hearing, I accepted Christ. After accepting Christ, Pastor talked about baptism, and I got baptized at age 17. Afterward, I worked with the pastor and his wife who trained me and discipled me to be a Sunday school teacher and work with the youth group. I kept serving the Lord there and playing soccer with other youth.”
Not only did Solo’s life and spiritual condition change when he came to America, so did his name. It was something that took some getting used to. In many ways, it was an insult to his heritage and culture.
“There is no first name/last name where I am from,” said Solo. “They just have a name. And when the parents give it to you, it has meaning. My name growing up was just ‘Soelaweh.’ When I first came to the United States, they divided my name to Solo (as my first name) and Eh as my last name. I didn’t like it because it was supposed to be a single name together that has meaning. After I got my citizenship, I changed my name to the original name of Soelaweh, but I realized that people have a hard time saying it. I like Solo. It’s easier and more convenient for everyone.”
You’d never know it from the box scores, but the man who has scored seven goals in six games for the Faith Eagles this season, including two game-winners, struggles with his confidence. Prior to his migration to the United States, Solo didn’t speak English.
“Because I don’t speak English, I have less confidence in everything—even in my skills in soccer,” said Solo. “All (the English) we learned in Thailand was the ABC’s. I would say I don’t speak English, but I tried and learned it.”
His native tongue is Karen. English is actually his fourth language. The truth is (even though he denies it), Solo speaks English well. Very well, in fact. His senior year of high school, he was given an award by his teacher as the quickest English learner. The more intimately you get to know Solo, the more you realize what a brilliant individual he is, which is something that has not been lost on his coaches and teammates, who Solo says have helped to build his confidence.
“I have more confidence now because of my coach and my team. What I love about the team is they made me feel comfortable because the team doesn’t try to play better than you. It’s all about team. They all support each other, and I’m very thankful how they want me to score and play good. It’s encouraging and gives me confidence.”
College and seminary
After high school, Solo didn’t know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Pastor Prachan and his wife offered advice and wisdom.
“Since I accepted Christ, I knew that serving God was going to be forever part of me, but full-time ministry…I didn’t understand that,” said Solo. “Pastor Prachan’s wife talked to me and asked me what I wanted to do, what was my passion, and how did I want to serve the Lord. So that’s how I got my passion in serving the Lord as a youth leader.”
Solo enrolled at Multnomah University in Portland to earn his degree in youth ministry. He played soccer for two years but stopped because he wanted to focus on his studies. The language barrier made class work difficult. Balancing school and soccer became a challenge, so he chose to focus on his studies, overcame the language barriers, and completed his degree at Multnomah.
While Solo was finishing his college degree, his family was relocating again—this time to Storm Lake, Iowa. The migration to the Midwest began with the marriage of his brother, who moved to Storm Lake to begin a new career. In Burmese culture, family is everything.
“Culturally, family is extremely important,” said Solo. “Americans, when they are 18, they usually separate from their parents, but for us we don’t do that. My parents want our family to stick together.”
His parents and other siblings soon followed his older brother’s move to the Midwest. So did Solo. Eventually, he settled near Austin, Minnesota, where he was introduced to Oakland Baptist Church—another ministry that has had a great impact on Burmese people. While there, the song leader encouraged him to consider Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (FBTS) in Ankeny, Iowa, to continue his ministry training.
Solo enrolled at FBTS this fall and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. He still drives two hours each way every weekend to attend his church near Austin, Minnesota.
“I want to serve at a place that needs more help,” said Solo. “I came to the church in Austin, and I feel like there is a calling. There’s no one there to help.”
After graduation from seminary, Solo plans to be a full-time pastor. His mission is to go to a church, help it grow and stabilize, and then go somewhere else that needs more help. He says it doesn’t matter if it’s a small town or a big town. The church he attends now is a congregation of 20 or 30 people.
A new role: scoring
Solo’s arrival to Faith has not only introduced him to new teammates and friends, it has also introduced him to a new role: scoring. Ironically, putting the ball into the net is a new phenomenon for one of the nation’s leading scorers. It’s a role he’s had to adjust to, having mostly played middle field positions between his two brothers growing up.
“Playing center-mid was my actual position growing up,” said Solo. “When I played with my two brothers, one was playing top, the other was playing defense, and I was in the middle, so I would run everywhere, and I would get a lot of touches and learned where to pass easy. I played that position in high school also. When I first went to college, I had to play forward, and it was different. It was hard playing forward my first time. I just started to learn how to score. I didn’t know how to score back then when I played with my brothers. I always depended on my brother to score. It was always ‘send the ball, send the ball, and send the ball,’ over and over. Playing forward is still hard for me. I have to change my mindset that I need to score. My brothers and friends who know me and play together came to watch my first game at Faith. They have helped me a lot to focus on finishing as a forward. It’s something I’m still working on.”
It doesn’t take long to notice Solo’s skill level on the soccer field. Like the greats in any sport, he makes everything look easy. Those skills are an asset that Coach Gary Backous is excited about as the season wears on.
“It’s clear that Solo had a lot of training and experience prior to coming to Faith that have led to him being so composed with the ball,” said Backous. “He has the confidence and finishing ability of a very high level soccer player. We are spending a lot of time as a team trying to get everyone on the same page so we can take the special skill set he has and mesh it with the style of play we have been building at Faith the last two seasons. Once we get to that point, we should be a difficult match up for most opponents.”
A new family
Solo’s parents are currently living in Storm Lake, Iowa. His dad and brother are language interpreters at Tyson Foods, while his mom helps take care of grandchildren. His family was able to visit during Solo’s game against Central Christian College of the Bible, and Solo returned his appreciation with a career-high four goals in the game. Now that he is living on his own away from his immediate family, his coaches and teammates have helped to fill that role.
“I love the coaching, and I like the way the coaches teach us to play hard, but to remember the school, the team, and playing for the glory of God,” said Solo. “It’s about the bigger picture. I like that. When I go onto the field, I’m more relaxed. It’s a very positive team. There were a few times I was supposed to score and I missed, but there was no blaming. It feels like family. We are very close.”
Some of the players he’s connected with early on include Moses Amani (who Solo noted is also culturally different from the rest of the team, creating a natural bond), and Noah Zollinger, because of their similar stature.
“Me and him, we are the shortest guys on the team. Usually I’m the shortest guy, but then I noticed him at the first practice and knew I had a friend,” laughed Solo, whose fun-loving personality has begun to shine through as he’s become more comfortable with his surroundings. It’s something his head coach has noticed as well.
“Solo is a very humble, quiet, and hard working person,” said Backous. “Though, over the last few weeks, as he has gotten to know the team better, we have had the chance to see his more playful side. At a road game earlier this season, one of the players saw their family walking to the field during warm ups to say hi and give them a hug. Without prompting or hesitation, Solo jogged over like he’d known them his whole life, ready for his own hug, getting a laugh from everyone who saw.”
As Solo gets more comfortable with his fellow Eagles teammates, his surroundings, and his new role as a scorer, the Faith men’s soccer team should only continue to prosper. The team began the season with four straight wins.
With his newfound family, a soccer season that is on pace to break individual records at Faith (22 goals is the single season record), and a commitment to serve God with the rest of his life, it appears that Faith’s Solo Sein has officially found refuge, covered under the feathers and wings of Christ (Psalm 91:4). Just like an Eagle.