This feature on former UAB soccer player Flavio Monteiro appeared in The Birmingham News on Nov. 11, 1999.

UAB’s Monteiro took the road less traveled

By Ed Odeven

Flavio Monteiro treasures every moment of play on the UAB men’s soccer team. He appreciates it because of what he went through to get here.

He departed his native Angola in 1993 at age 15, endured six months in a Namibian refugee camp, lived on the streets of South Africa, sneaked onto a vessel headed for the United States, was deported to Mexico, then returned to the U.S.

“The way I got here is something very special for me,” he said. “It will probably stay with me forever. It was kind of something I just tried — some kind of adventure. You know, it’s hard to get it right — so much luck to end up in the right place and be able to do a lot of things that you have in mind, like going to school, playing soccer.”

“He’s learned to take care of himself at a much younger age than most American kids,” UAB soccer coach Mike Getman said of the freshman forward, who has 10 goals in 10 games and leads his team into the Conference USA soccer tournament in Birmingham beginning today.

Rebel without cause

Before arriving in Birmingham this fall, Monteiro lived in a country ravaged by civil war.

Since 1975, Angola has been divided by a violent struggle between the ruling MPLA party — funded primarily by Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime and the former Soviet Union — and the UNITA rebels, supported by U.S. and South African military aid.

In 1993, Monteiro wasn’t legally old enough to join the MPLA army, but there was a desperate need for more soldiers, he said.

“Sometimes when the war gets bad, they make some (bad) decisions. I was tall and skinny and they thought I was physically good enough to go to the military,” he said. “The reason I left my country was because I was being forced to go to the military at the age of 15.”

After a conversation with his parents, Monteiro decided to flee.

He left Angola legally in 1993 as a student tourist. He flew from his hometown of Luanda, the nation’s capital, to a city near Namibia. He boarded a truck and crossed into Namibia.

“The Namibian guards saw my tourist passport and gave me six months to stay there,” he said. “For my first two weeks, I was really just living on the streets, sleeping in the parks. It was a very difficult experience for me, because (in Angola) I was living with my parents in the house. I went to school every day and was playing soccer with my friends.”

Living like a refugee

He ran out of money after a few days and went to stay in a refugee camp.

“It was probably the worst situation I’ve faced in my life,” Monteiro said. “From where I lived those six months, it was very degrading. You don’t get food. … There’s just no chance of going anywhere. It’s a hundred miles away from everything.”

He decided he had to get out.

One day while wandering about, he saw a tractor trailer and asked the driver if he could take him to South Africa. The driver agreed and hid Monteiro inside the trunk.

For a few weeks, Monteiro lived off the streets in Johannesburg, South Africa, then hiked to the port city of Durban. He couldn’t speak the language at either place.

While in Durban he contemplated sneaking onto a cargo ship bound for sea.

“One day I was by myself on a boat, and I had heard stories about people trying that,” he recalled. “(In Durban), they had a lot of different boats from different countries,so I decided to get in one of them. They had dirty uniforms on the boat, so I put on one of those and hid myself on the top of the engine room.”

The ship never departed.

“I was assuming the boat was going to leave in two days, but the boat never left,” Monteiro said. “After the fourth day I was so skinny. I was amazed how skinny I got in four days without eating anything.”

He got off the boat and a week later met two fellow Angolans with similar aspirations.

The trio spotted a ship filled with luxury automobiles headed for the United States.

Come in Houston

Disguised as ship workers in dirty uniforms, the three Angolans boarded the ship with only a one-liter bottle of water and 15 candies to share. After six days of hiding, they came out. They couldn’t stand the miserable heat, Monteiro said.

Three weeks later, the ship arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Mexican immigration officials brought the Angolans to a Mexico City airport. They wanted to deport the Angolans, but didn’t. Instead, the trio got back on the boat in Vera Cruz and headed for Houston, Texas.

After the ship arrived in Houston, U.S. immigration officials boarded the boat. Monteiro, being a minor, was granted permission to seek political asylum. He remained in the custody of the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services for two weeks before a Houston judge OK’d his request to remain in the United States.

Initially, Monteiro lived for a year in a Houston immigration house. Then he stayed at the home of one of his teachers at Houston’s Robert E. Lee High School for two more years.

He graduated in 1997 after attending high school for just three years.

As a standout high school player, Monteiro attracted scholarship offers from several Division I schools. He said he chose UAB because of Getman’s persistent attention to him.