Rain pounded on the roof of a brick house. Outside, the air was chilly, but inside, it was warm, cozy, and dry while everyone scrambled around the kitchen to prepare meals for the family’s celebration.
Barely visible through the pouring rain was 14-year-old Saleh Ekuchi with his big brother and a few friends, running and playing with a makeshift soccer ball. With each step, their shoes sunk into the mushy ground.
Their mom called for them to come inside, but the boys continued laughing and treading through the oozing mud.
It was New Year’s Eve in Tanzania, and the boys did not want to miss out on the chance to celebrate with a game of soccer — even in the pouring rain.
“I can never forget that; it was so fun,” Saleh, now 17, reflected as we sat next to him on a bench outside of Iroquois High School.
We chatted with him about some of his favorite memories from home. Just as it was raining in Tanzania that New Year’s Eve, there was a light drizzle. It was enough to be noticeable, but not enough for an umbrella or a raincoat. On the field in front of us, a few members of his soccer team scrimmaged with a pair of portable goals; a little bit of rain wasn’t going to keep them from practicing.
Saleh’s parents are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His parents were no longer safe in the Congo, so in 1996 they moved to Tanzania, where Saleh and all of his siblings were eventually born. His family first lived in a refugee camp — Tanzania was never meant to be a permanent home for them. In 2017, Saleh was 14 years old when he, his five sisters, four brothers, and parents left Tanzania as refugees.
“When I left my country I was crying,” Saleh said. “I was happy and at the same time I was sad because I left my friends and my family.”
The Ekuchis made multiple stops before settling in Louisville, stopping in Kenya, Dubai, and Washington D.C., bringing only their clothes and a few sentimental items they could not leave behind.
“I had this chain right here for my religion, so I had to bring it,” Saleh said as he pointed to his red and white beaded necklace. “I brought my Bible with me and a book with my family pictures in it.”
When Saleh and his family got here, they found comfort in the services provided by Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM).
“They showed us how to get a Social Security card and how to get an ID. To go to the store, they give us food stamps and showed us how to use it. Sometimes they gave us clothes and shoes,” Saleh said. “Anything like what school you’re gonna go to, what bus you’re gonna take. We didn’t know anything when we just got here.”
KRM is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resettlement services to refugees, assisting them with their integration into our community. KRM provides families like the Ekuchis, access to resources and opportunities so their clients are no longer seen as outsiders, but an integral and unique part of our country and community.
“They love everybody — they don’t care if you are from here or there. They don’t care about skin color or anything,” Saleh said. “They don’t care if you are old or small, they are going to help you in any way.”
Many organizations similar to KRM believe refugees can benefit the community by becoming contributing members of society through employment and self-sufficiency. A study from the Fiscal Policy Institute found that “19 of the 26 employers surveyed — 73% — reported a higher retention rate for refugees than for other employees,” meaning refugees tend to stay with an employer longer than other hires. However, not all Americans feel that this validates their adoption into our communities. The Trump administration plans to place an 18,000 person cap on the number of refugees allowed into the country in 2020, the lowest since 1980 when Congress first created The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. 2018 was the first year since the establishment of this program that the U.S. did not lead the world in refugee arrivals.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a press statement in which he supported Trump’s signing of the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2020. According to him, the U.S. should prioritize the people already in the country who need assistance.
“Indeed, the security and humanitarian crisis along our southern border has contributed to a burden on our immigration system that must be alleviated before we can again resettle large numbers of refugees,” Pompeo said.
The seemingly never-ending national debate revolving around refugee and immigration policy is enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed. Here’s the good news: KRM is just one of the many nonprofit organizations committed to helping refugees build a better and safer life wherever they are resettled by catering to their basic needs to promote self-sufficiency and integration. Saleh has been in Louisville for two years now, and he says his family still receives help from KRM when they need it.
When Saleh met Mary Daly, his caseworker from KRM, she asked his name, where he was from, and the languages he spoke — but he had something more important on his mind.
“I asked how I can join a soccer team. They have a partnership with HYR and you can join a team. And two months later we joined the team at HYR,” Saleh said.
HYR stands for Highland Youth Recreation, the soccer league that Saleh and his brother joined. For Saleh, being part of a soccer team was key in finding a sense of community in Louisville – and a cure for his cabin fever.
“I didn’t have anything to do at home and it was summer. We didn’t have a car and we didn’t have anywhere to go. We were just sitting in the house and watching TV all the time,” Saleh said. “So as soon as we started playing soccer, I was very happy.” Saleh is one of many refugees who calls Kentucky home. Our state is a hotspot for incoming refugees from all over the world.
In the 2019 fiscal year, 1,323 refugees arrived in Kentucky, making it number five in the nation for total refugee arrivals. For Louisiana, a state with almost 200,000 more people than Kentucky, that number was 21. Louisville is an epicenter for a lot of these refugees, welcoming nearly half of those that have come to Kentucky since 2002.
Since he lives in a state and city with so many other people from similar backgrounds, Saleh believes it is important to clarify for native Kentuckians and Louisvillians what being a refugee means to him.
“There’s a difference between immigrants and refugees. We came as refugees. We didn’t have any choice. We didn’t make any choice,” Saleh said.
When Saleh and his family made it to Louisville, they didn’t know anyone. After just one week, different families were coming to meet his family. Coincidentally, one of them used to be their neighbors in Tanzania; the Ekuchis began to find a sense of community in a new country, away from home. However, it took Saleh a while to get used to how people act differently here than in Tanzania.
“You know in my country, you gotta talk to your neighbor. You got to say, ‘Hi, how are you? How did you wake up?’ But here it was a little bit different,” Saleh said. “When you wake up you don’t even talk to each other. You just look at your neighbor; you don’t even say ‘hi’ to them.”
According to Saleh, sports are also a lot different in Tanzania. Americans often grow up playing many different sports, but in Tanzania, soccer is the thread that binds people together.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or boy, we just play all of us together. You just make something up and start playing – you don’t worry,” Saleh said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s night or day, you can play soccer anywhere. So soccer is the best part of my country.”
HYR is a program where kids and teens ages four through 16 can play in divisions based on age. Patrick Fitzgerald, who grew up playing in the league, is the current director.
“I played in HYR in 1976, the very first season they had soccer and I’d never even kicked a soccer ball before. So that’s how I learned about soccer was playing with HYR. I played it for five years as a kid then I coached it for 15 years as an adult,” Fitzgerald said.
When Fitzgerald took over as director in 2017, one of his priorities was to diversify the league. He started by reaching out to KRM and, in January of 2017, HYR worked with KRM to get 20 international players involved in the program.
Fitzgerald explained to us why HYR is intentional in calling the KRM clients “international players” instead of “refugees.” Referring to them as refugees reinforces the stigma that they are outsiders, rather than vibrant additions to our community.
“There comes a point where you are a refugee and you are resettled, but then you are just a person who lives here. You may or may not still get some kind of services, but you’re not a refugee anymore,” Fitzgerald clarified.
There were still logistics in the program that needed to be smoothed out in order to assist the players and the needs of their family, such as transportation.
Since HYR is part of Highlands Community Ministries, they were able to use a church van to pick up kids whose families were KRM clients for practices and games.
“It’s not just that they can play in the league for free. We help them get some cleats, socks, and shin guards and get them transportation to practices and games,” Fitzgerald said.
Saleh was one of the players who received this assistance; he was overjoyed to be able to play on a soccer team because his family could not afford the high expenses of club soccer in the U.S. He rode in the van to games, learning more about American cultural norms and how to better communicate with his new teammates.
When Saleh joined the soccer program, he already knew French, Swahili, and Kibembe (a language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), but his English was limited to his name and age. On the way to practice in the church van, his teammates would force him to speak English, using it as an opportunity to get him comfortable with the language, even if he made mistakes.
“Just talk. Nobody cares,” Saleh shrugged. “If you don’t practice, you’ll never know how to speak English. So I just started talking to them.”
When he started playing soccer for HYR, Saleh met a lot of friends, some of whom helped get him into a soccer club. Currently, Saleh plays for Iroquois High School, Falls City, and a team called Wakanda FC, where he plays outdoor soccer and futsal — a type of soccer played on a hard court with a smaller, weighted ball. Last summer, his Wakanda FC team travelled across the region, winning tournaments in Indiana, Tennessee, and Missouri.
“If I didn’t play soccer, I’d be so lonely staying at home all the time. I don’t like to watch TV, so I’d probably be sleeping all the time or using my phone. And I don’t think I would have any fun if I didn’t play soccer,” Saleh said.
Currently, Saleh is a referee for the younger leagues of HYR. Working with these young kids, he and the other referees spend almost as much time being a teacher as a ref.
“When they don’t know how to throw the ball, we gotta show them. We gotta teach them the rules. You cannot touch the ball with your hands!” Saleh laughed. “Sometimes when they play, they just take the ball and throw it! You gotta say, ‘You gotta use your feet!’”
Too often, people with differing opinions about immigration toss around the word “refugee” as a buzzword without thinking about what it means, or the people behind it who have faces to become familiar with, names to learn, and stories to tell.
Saleh’s story is to keep his focus on playing soccer, reffing for HYR, and adjusting to life in his new community.
“I just try to fit in with America. I just want to be like normal people,” Saleh said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a refugee. I just gotta feel comfortable and try to fit in with other people.”
Luckily, the soccer pitch is a place where Saleh doesn’t have to try as hard to fit in.
Half-time for the HYR soccer game had ended, and Saleh headed out onto the field behind Atherton High School. We watched as a swarm of children surrounded him, reaching for the soccer ball at his feet. He pulled the ball back and kicked it up and over the head of one of the kids, who watched in amazement, as Saleh brought it back down behind him. The sound of laughter from Saleh and the children echoed through the air. People across the field watched Saleh as he showed off his impressive soccer tricks.
The sun was at its peak in the sky, shining on Saleh as he blew his whistle to resume the game. He was right where he wanted to be: teaching a new generation of kids to love soccer the way he does.
Becoming a referee for HYR has given Saleh the opportunity to earn a little money while giving back to the organization that helped him grow his passion in a new city. But it isn’t about the money.
“Even if it was for volunteering, I would do it ‘cause they helped me a lot,” Saleh said. “I would do anything for them.”