By Benjamin Wideman/SLC Sports Information Director
MANITOWOC, Wis. -- Wisconsin is much different than the homeland of Naw Da Say and Mya Eh Paw.
Just how different, you ask?
"I'll never forget the first time I got off the plane (four years ago) and left the airport in Milwaukee," Naw Da said. "I saw the city and I thought to myself, 'Am I in heaven? Is this real?' I couldn't believe it. It was the most beautiful place. I thought, 'My hopes and dreams are coming true in Wisconsin.' "
Mya Eh was equally overwhelmed upon her arrival, saying: "I thought Milwaukee was the biggest place in America."
To most Wisconsin residents, Milwaukee is merely a big city in the southeast part of the state where the Brewers play baseball.
But to Naw Da, 19, and Mya Eh, 21 — both of whom are Silver Lake College freshmen majoring in nursing and playing on the Lakers' inaugural women's soccer team — the mere sight of Milwaukee and Wisconsin overall was the realization of a lifelong dream to find better opportunities after both were born and raised in a refugee camp in the rugged hills of western Thailand in southeast Asia.
Neither of their respective parents ever attended school while living in the countryside in the neighboring country of Myanmar. Over the years, an escalating civil war and the increasing threat of death from a brutal military forced Naw Da and Mya Eh's parents to flee Myanmar.
With nothing more than the clothes on their backs and some rice, the parents navigated grueling terrain for what seemed like eternity, evading capture until they crossed the border into Thailand. It was there, in the Mae La Oon camp, that they survived by joining thousands of fellow Karen refugees who lived in small handcrafted bamboo huts on hillsides near the Yuam River. The Karen are an ethnic minority group in Myanmar.
Two months after her pregnant mother embarked on the treacherous cross-border journey, Mya Eh was born in 1996. Naw Da was born in 1998. Both had younger siblings also born and raised in the refugee camp.
Naw Da recalls meeting Mya Eh when they were younger, but the refugee camp was so large that they never talked despite growing up in the same general area. Although refugees were permitted to leave the camp, they couldn't go beyond the surrounding region unless they had special passes (which were difficult to acquire).
Naw Da and Mya Eh each attended school in the refugee camp, but they said the education was nothing like that in the United States. English wasn't part of the curriculum.
As for athletics, Naw Da never played organized sports in Thailand. On the other hand, Mya Eh joined a girls' soccer team in the refugee camp at the age of 15 and played forward and defense.
"I like playing it, because it brings people together and is actually fun," Mya Eh said.
But a desire to seek greater opportunities in life and break free from the confines of the refugee camp led Mya Eh and Naw Da, as well as their respective families, to pursue their dreams on the other side of the world.
"We always heard there is freedom in America," Mya Eh said. "We heard they have a high education level here, and that is what we all wanted — a good education and a good future. We wanted more opportunities to go to school and work."
Added Naw Da: "We are really thankful, more than we can say, for living in the United States. … America was the perfect place and a country where I can reach my goals and my dreams."
Naw Da and her family left the refugee camp and arrived in Milwaukee in 2013. She enrolled at Milwaukee Pulaski High School and joined the girls' JV soccer team as a freshman. She moved up to the varsity squad for the next three years. All the while, she diligently studied English to get herself up to speed.
"I always try my best and never give up on it. I'm really good at asking questions for help," she said. "I never thought that I would plan to go to college, because my English speech was really bad when I first came to the United States. I try my best to learn, and I'm getting encouragement from my family and my teachers. At least I am getting better at speaking English than when I started, and I have future goals that seem more in reach now."
Mya Eh arrived in Milwaukee two years later, in 2015. Although she was excited about the future, she was nervous to leave the refugee camp.
"At first I did not want to move … because it was hard for me to leave my home and some of my relatives behind," she said. "My parents decided to move to the United States because they wanted us to have a great opportunity and freedom."
Mya Eh also attended Milwaukee Pulaski High School, and that's where she struck up a friendship with Naw Da. At the encouragement of Naw Da, Mya Eh joined the varsity soccer team and they were teammates for two years before graduating together this past spring.
Now, they're best friends and roommates at Silver Lake College. And they've been adapting well to life in America — Naw Da developed a taste for vanilla shakes, while Mya Eh likes the movie "Minions." And they're enjoying meeting new friends here in Manitowoc and working with a helpful group of faculty and staff members.
"We like that it is a small college and we can focus on learning and preparing for our futures," Mya Eh said.
As part of their SLC Works responsibilities, Mya Eh has a job in housekeeping while Naw Da has a position at the Fitness Center. Outside the classroom, they are key contributors on the SLC women's soccer team, which is celebrating its inaugural season.
Mya Eh played goalie for the first time last year at Pulaski High School, and she has stepped up to fill that role for the Lakers this season.
"Both of the girls are really hard working and willing to try any position I throw at them," head coach Lexie Gauger said. "They both have a good defensive presence — Mya's being in goal and Naw's coming from the outside midfield. These girls are looking to have fun on the field but also are making sure they are playing at the highest level they can."
The respect is mutual, the student-athletes said.
Mya Eh said she "definitely loves" playing goalie. "I really love my team. I've learned so many great things from my teammates and coach. (Coach Gauger) is always inspiring me and teaching me the confidence of being a goalie. I am eternally grateful for her."
Added Naw Da: "It is very special to me to be on this team. I love it too."
Naw Da and Mya Eh were the first ones in their families to graduate from high school (or even attend any level of schooling), and they're determined to be the first to graduate from college as well. They're thrilled that Silver Lake College now offers a bachelor's degree in nursing, because they want to help as many people as possible.
"I would love to travel around the world and help others," Mya Eh said.
Neither of them has returned to the refugee camp since arriving in the United States. But Naw Da said she can't wait to go back as a nurse and help those still suffering.
"I want to help in any way I can," she said. "I know they have hard lives, because I was living there too. My college education will prepare me to be a nurse and help me stop so many people from dying. It is my dream. It is my goal."
TOP PHOTO: Mya Eh Paw (left) and Naw Da Say/Photo by Benjamin Wideman