Zaw Tin and Lily James with their volleyball team made up of former refugees. Photo: Jonty Dine

Life lessons passed down through volleyball


While growing up Zaw Tin was often left behind on trips to volleyball tournaments.

Unable to afford the extra cost of transport, Zaw missed out on a number of opportunities in the game he loves.

Since then he has vowed to eliminate financial barriers in volleyball and, along with his partner Lily James, has helped establish a team of refugee players in Nelson.

“I wanted to share my knowledge and love of volleyball.”

Zaw soon had ten Nelson Intermediate players, majority of Chin descent, eager to play the season.

“I didn’t select them, it was just by chance. I would’ve coached anyone, but I love them, I see them as my little brothers.”

Zaw understands the difficult backgrounds many of his players have come from.

He and his family moved to New Zealand in 2007 from a Thai refugee camp.

“My dad was Burmese, and we went under refuge because of the war. He wanted a better life for his family.”

He appreciates that not every child has the resources to play sport.

“I look back and remember some games I couldn’t go because I couldn’t get a ride, if you didn’t have money you couldn’t go to games.”

He mitigates any cost burden by picking up each player every Wednesday in his aunty’s van.

Despite the deafening recital of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ each week coming from the back seats, Zaw’s commitment has never waned.

“They are a loud bunch, they will talk you to death.”

Zaw instills lessons for his players both on and off the volleyball court.

“There is a lot of life stuff.”

Lily says the boys had previously been involved in a few incidents outside of school.

“They have stopped doing things they shouldn’t be doing which is a huge achievement for us.”

Lily says one of the players told her he was confronted by someone but thought about the team and walked away.

“Our culture is a fighting culture, so when I hear that, it is big,” says Zaw.

Zaw says he has also seen a significant transition in attitude.

“They were a cocky bunch, they didn’t lose much but once they lost their mindset changed, they used to boast all the time and now they are very humble.”

The team’s motto is ‘iron sharpens iron’.

“They lift each other up and it makes me so proud they have amazing hearts.”

Zaw says it is scary to see how talented some of these kids are.

“They train so hard, if they are willing to work, I am willing to teach.”

With the boys off to college next year, Zaw and Lily say they don’t know what the next step on their journey will be, but they hope to take the boys along with them.

“We want to stay in connection,” says Lily.

Lily and Zaw have worked tirelessly obtaining sponsorship to ensure their boys keep playing for free.

To help the team contact Lily at 0211393209 [email protected]