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When British divers earlier this month located the group of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand, only one boy, 14-year-old Adul Sam-on, could communicate with the divers in English.
“What day is it?” Adul asked the divers before telling them the group’s greatest need: food. By that point on July 2, the Wild Boars soccer team had been stuck in the Tham Luang Cave system for 10 days, eating birthday snacks, drinking water dripping from the cave walls, and digging deeper into the cave to keep warm.
The dramatic and successful rescue of the soccer team gripped the world, a rare story of courage and perseverance amid a news cycle teeming with outrage and despair. International media rightly praised Saman Gunan, a former Thai navy diver who died while delivering oxygen tanks to the boys. They praised Ekkapol Chantawong, the 25-year-old soccer coach who reportedly refused his share of the food so the boys could have more to eat. They also praised Adul, who acted as a translator between the divers and the team, a valuable ability in a country where less than a third of residents speak English.
Adul is from Wa state in Myanmar (also known as Burma). Wa is a legally unrecognized area bordering China that is known for its opium production and, up until a few decades ago, headhunting. Three of the other rescued soccer players and Ekkapol are also stateless ethnic minorities.
Facing a lack of educational opportunities in Wa state, Adul’s parents crossed the border to Thailand. There, they dropped their son off at Mae Sai Grace Church, asking the church’s pastor and his wife to care for the boy, then 6 years old, according to The New York Times. Adul worked hard to become a top student at Ban Wiang Phan School, excelling in athletics and academics. He had a gift for languages: He could speak English, Mandarin, Thai, Burmese, and Wa.
Wa state shares more similarities with China than with Burma, as its residents speak Mandarin, use Chinese yuan as their currency, and live in cities built with Chinese infrastructure. Wa state gained autonomous status in a 1989 peace deal between the United Wa State Army, the most powerful ethnic army in Myanmar, and the Burmese government.
While traditional Wa religion is animistic, American Baptist missionary William Young arrived in the area in the early 20th century and baptized the first Wa Christian in 1908. Missionary Vincent Young completed a translation of the New Testament into the Wa language in 1938, and today the number of Wa Christians ranges from 20,000 to 30,000, according to mission groups.
While rescuers strategized over how to reach the trapped boys, students at Ban Wiang Phan School set up a tribute for Adul and the Wild Boars, with handwritten notes on heart-shaped paper urging them to “be strong.” They strung up pictures of Adul competing in a race, receiving an award, and posing with his classmates. Shelves on either side hold trophies and framed certificates.
Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship ministry, said on its website that one of the trapped boys was a beneficiary of the organization. It later identified the boy to me as Adul. The ministry said the boy is active in his church and school, but that the family had requested privacy at this time. (Another Compassion beneficiary, 18-year-old Surayut Puengpadung of the Chiang Rai Rescue Academy Team, was one of the first rescuers to search for the boys.)
After divers found the boys alive, and recorded a video of them huddled together nearly 3 miles from the flooded cave’s entrance, anxious family members jumped for joy. Adul’s mother expressed her gratitude to God and to everyone who had been praying.
“I’m really thankful that they found my son and all 13 are alive,” she told Compassion. “I’m so happy and so thankful to see my son again. Thank you so much to everyone that has been praying for us and the boys and helping us.”
Adul’s parents were among those who wrote letters that rescue divers carried to the trapped children. “Once you’ve come out of the cave, we want you to say ‘thank you’ to every officer,” they wrote to Adul. “We want you to trust God and not to worry. Daddy and mummy will be waiting for you until you come out.”
Assisted by a dive team, the last of the boys emerged from the cave on Tuesday, after more than two weeks underground.
This story has been updated to reflect a response from Compassion International.