In Kentucky's "international city", soccer offers a universal language for refugee students.

Twin brothers and teammates Bukuru and Toyi Lubunga visit with churchgoers after a service at New Beginnings Christian Ministries on April 28, 2024. The two began attending the church, a one-room building nestled into a nearby neighborhood, on recommendation from a friend soon after arriving in Bowling Green. The houses down the block serve as a meeting point for discussions about choir planning after the services.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in March,Fabrice Fablo exchanges banter with his teammates as they cruise down the interstate. He puts on Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA", with a grin and a point toward classmate Bukuru Lubunga.

"Hey, man, turn that off," Bukuru says. Fabrice turns up the volume.

The team is on their way to a soccermatch in Louisville, caravanning in Bukuru’s car to meet up with a bus oftwenty other refugee students. All are members of Bowling Green, KY’s Refugesoccer team, a community league made primarily of students at the city’s new GEOInternational High School. Despite coming to the United States over severaldifferent years from varying parts of Africa, they all coalesce over one thing:the sport’s role as a universal source of relaxation and unity.

Team members of the Refuge soccer team hype each other up before taking the field for a game. Members often lead their teammates in planning and motivation before matches.

Since 2017, over 1,200 Tanzanianimmigrants have arrived in Bowling Green, fleeing geopolitical instability inthe Congo. Despite their high numbers and the city's reputation as a small-towncultural haven for immigrants, though, Tanzanians rarely make noise on BowlingGreen's most prominent refugee stages. Most of the city's native-bornresidents, asked about the notion of an international city, point to Bosnianneighbors that arrived in the 90s with tales of fleeing in the beds of trucksor the Burmese citizens that have hosted frequent cultural events for decades.The  neighborhoods that host Tanzanian populations are as unrecorded asthey are unassuming; their most attended churches and schools are, broadly,linguistic oases.

Still, African refugees carry ahyperlocal sports culture within the city. What started with backyard soccergames hosted by one Burkina Faso immigrant, Daniel Tarnagda, has turned into asprawling group of refugee soccer clubs around the city in recent years:car-sticker banners for Leopards, Elites, and Golden Lionstouted by Burmese, Tanzanians, and Ugandans. The city's west-end Lampkin Parkcan be found hosting a practice on any sun-gilded evening. In any of the city'sTanzanian-majority neighborhoods, a careful drive through will have you skirtaround mass groups of children and teenagers driving soccer balls in thestreet.

Bukuru works on a group project with classmates, including fellow teammates, in an English class at GEO High School. The school was established three years before Bukuru arrived in Bowling Green as a school specifically aimed at helping refugee students, many of whom live in neighborhoods directly surrounding the school, succeed.

Bukuru and Toyi keep watch for their friend to pick them up for prom while their mother combs their sister's hair on April 27, 2024. The apartment is shared between eleven people in the family altogether.

Bukuru and his brother Toyi have beena part of Refuge since soon after their arrival in Kentucky. The twins wereborn in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where they lived up until age 12. Theirfamily--mother, father, and seven, now eight, siblings--moved to the UnitedStates in April of 2019. The family shares a small, quiet space in an apartmentcomplex on the city’s west end.

The two lead lives that, compared totheir peers at the neighboring Warren Central High School, are altogethernormal. Bukuru arrives late at prom, squabbles with his teammates on drives tomatches, matches his brother’s uniform-black attire for New BeginningsChristian Ministries every other Sunday, and keeps top-of-class grades in dualcredit chemistry. It's the sort of life that any high school suburbanite couldbe expected to carry, with perfect adaptation to the notch of America carvedout for them.

Still, language barriers in the city withfew Swahili translators employed in government means that the soccer field is aperfect refuge for Tanzanian-Americans like Bukuru to commune in. It’s areminder of back home, where their father, who now departs in the evenings for agraveyard shift at a local factory to support the family, racked up medals in soccerleagues. The two describe him as their hero.

Bukuru runs his hand over his collection of medals from previous soccer league championships. He keeps the medals in his room alongside his soccer jerseys and cleats as a reminder of their past victories. "Soccer is something we feel like we're passionate about--we just feel it.

A member of the team shoots a basketball goal as teammates in an adjacent room attend a mentorship session from local public health officials at Forest Park Church. The session focused on practices for maintaining health in America, with explanations on food, doctor's visits, and drug abuse prevention.

As seniors in high school, Bukuru andToyi are now facing down the prospect of moving forward in life. Asked abouttheir aspirations for the future, both twins beam and list “soccer player”first. Sparing that goal, Bukuru says, he wants to be a nurse—to “help people”.Toyi gives the same response about becoming a lawyer.

Members of the Refuge soccer team crowd to watch a basketball game on their way to a soccer tournament in Louisville.

Bukuru and Toyi pray over a meal at Arby's with the team's former coach after a match. The coach still involves himself in the lives of players on his team.

____ encourages his teammates before they take to the field for a match.

Balack Musa splashes water on his face during a matchup against LouCity Oldham as coach James Carr demands more communication between players. Carr continuously stresses communication during games, a factor that lets the team carry a solid record of wins.

When the end of the night comes andthe final goal is scored, the team erupts in cheers, rushing each other on theside of the field. They hoist their winning players into the air and recordvideos of themselves dancing under field lights. The jubilation lasts forminutes.

"You all are celebrating toomuch," coach James Carr warns. "We only won a game, not achampionship. We still have several teams to beat.”

The spirit thataccompanies this victory, though, will carry them through a near-undefeatedseason. And at its heart, it will join them together in a common cause—a refuge within refuge.

Members of the Refugee team celebrate after winning an away game against LouCity Oldham.

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