Monday, January 2, 2012

Wrestling helps Burmese refugee transition to life in Syracuse

The left toe of Tial Thang’s wrestling shoe is held together by several sweeps of white athletic tape. The soles are so worn down, they are bald and discolored. Socks peek through the black shoe material around his toes.
Thang said he’d get new wrestling shoes except for one thing — he doesn’t deserve them.
When Thang wins a wrestling tournament, he said, then he’ll be shoe worthy.
It’s a small window into the uber-competitiveness and drive of Thang, a refugee from Burma and a junior at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central. He is also a member of the combined wrestling team for the Syracuse city schools. Thang is The Post-Standard’s honor athlete of the week.
Thang, whose name is pronounced tee-EL tung, wrestles at 152 pounds and is 11-4 this season. He hopes to win a Section III championship and wrestle in the state tournament. Two of Thang’s losses came in overtime. He avenged an early season loss by winning a rematch. In a victory last week against Fayetteville-Manlius, Thang wrestled up and defeated an opponent weighing 170 pounds.
Thang’s homeland of Burma, also called Myanmar, is a military-ruled country of 56 million people. It has been consistently criticized for human rights violations by the United Nations and other rights organizations. The Washington Post called it “one of the most isolated and repressive regimes in the world — a government responsible for killing thousands in a quest to silence dissent.”
Thang and his family fled their Burmese home of Chin Hakha and spent two years in Malaysia before coming to Syracuse in June 2007. Gone was a life of growing corn and rice and raising livestock. Thang’s duties had been tending the family’s five cows.
With the army cracking down on personal and religious freedoms, the family made the most difficult of choices.
Thang’s father (Tawk Cem) escaped first to Malaysia. It took five more years before Thang, his mother (Mang Si) and sister (Holy Sung) could follow. The family reunited in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and lived there for two years.
“I don’t want to remember,” Thang said of his time in Burma. “It makes me sad.”
After applying through the United Nations for refugee status, the family was resettled in Syracuse, a city that has taken in about 1,500 Burmese refugees, according to Stone Saw, a case worker and interpreter at InterFaith Works of Central New York. Thang said he regularly sees the casualties of the Burmese civil war in Syracuse, the ones without arms, legs, eyes or ears.
“It’s sad. I don’t want to be refugee,” he said.
While learning to deal with Central New York snow and the English language, Thang found comfort in a new athletic endeavor — wrestling. He was a seventh-grader at H.W. Smith School when he was encouraged to give the sport a try. From the first day, he said, he was hooked.
Syracuse city wrestling coach Matt Cosgrove said Thang was pulled up to the junior varsity team and started as a ninth-grader. As a freshman, Thang wrestled with the varsity and finished fifth in the Section III tournament.
A back injury suffered during the Empire State Games in 2010 sidelined him for all of last season. It was a devastating setback. Thang is back, though not particularly happy because he’s got four losses. He is a team captain and continues to work through back pain and occasional confidence issues.
“Every time when I hurt my back, I cried,” he said. “But my father told me, you have to heal it by your heart, not by the doctor or anybody. There’s nobody going to heal up for you. You have to do it by yourself. And I did it.”
Rick Spicer is the athletic director at ITC and calls Thang “a solid student” and one of the school’s nicest kids. Spicer sometimes wishes Thang would be a little less nice in some of his wrestling matches
Thang, who dabbles in muay thai and mixed martial arts, used to bow before matches as a show of respect to his opponent. But he said he’s out there on the mat to take his opponent’s head off because he loathes losing.
That doesn’t happen often. He sends text messages about the outcomes of his matches to relatives around the world, from Norway to Malaysia, Texas and Indianapolis.
Cosgrove said Thang has a unique style. He uses more throws, which comes from the Burmese style of wrestling Thang called “paih.” And at times, Cosgrove said, Thang incorporates movements that “aren’t just pure wrestling movements. When kids wrestle him, it’s a little difficult for them.”
Thang said life has changed since his arrival in Syracuse. He has friends. He has a car. He likes his school. And he has “found something he likes to do,” which is wrestling.
But when his wrestling career ends and he graduates from school, Thang hopes to return to Burma. He doesn’t know when, but he feels the pull of his country and wants to be part of change.
“They need help,” he said. “Maybe I can help somebody down there.”
That’s all down the road. For now, Thang is eyeing the team’s next big meet — the Richard New Memorial Tournament in Canastota on Jan. 7. Who knows, Thang might treat himself to new wrestling shoes if things work out.
“I don’t see myself losing again until the states,” Thang said. “I don’t see myself losing again. That’s my goal, from the first day of wrestling, I want to be the champ.”
Donnie Webb can be reached at 470-2149 or 
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