TWIN FALLS — Corey Farnsworth is used to his players showing up late to practice, or missing it entirely. On Oct. 6, one-third of the Canyon Ridge High School boys soccer team was absent.
Senior Abdelgadir Mohamed and junior Mohamed Eidway missed the entire practice that day because of school projects. Junior Pau Khai had to drive his siblings and mother around on errands.
Sophomore Mohammed Mohamed, Abdelgadir’s younger brother, showed up about 15 minutes late, wearing a Lionel Messi Barcelona jersey. His teammates ran sprints as he laced up his cleats.
The Riverhawks were five days away from the Great Basin Conference title game.
“I told you I was gonna run you guys,” Farnsworth, the Riverhawks’ head coach, said to his panting players. “Imagine how we’re gonna finish.”
Mohammed’s late arrival didn’t save him. He ran the last handful of sprints with his teammates, and Farnsworth made him run a few on his own.
Mohammed showed up late because he accompanied his father, Khogali, to the Islamic Center of Twin Falls that afternoon for prayer. Mohammed is normally unable to attend, but Canyon Ridge had no school that day because of state in-services, so off to the mosque he went.
The Mohamed brothers stand out just about everywhere they go in the Magic Valley. The Canyon Ridge soccer field is not one of those places.
The Riverhawks’ varsity roster is made up of players from five countries and three continents. Eight of the 19 players are refugees. None of the players are white.
“The refugee students are still adjusting to life in rural America and trying to build futures after childhoods without one. For a couple of hours each day in the fall, they throw on some cleats and set aside the weight of the real world.
“There are a lot of people from different places here, and we all get along and play the beautiful game,” senior Sagar Bhattarai said.
The beautiful game
Bhattarai didn’t know anyone in his home country of Nepal who drove a car. Now, in Twin Falls, he and many of his classmates have drivers’ licenses.
“There were cars (in Nepal), but only the rich could afford that, so we just ran everywhere pretty much,” he said. “I remember running from my house to my aunt’s house.”
Last spring, Bhattarai helped the Canyon Ridge boys track team win three gold medals in the 4x400 relay. On Oct. 6, he consistently finished first in Farnsworth’s demanding sprints.
Bhattarai, like many of his refugee teammates, picked up soccer when he was little. Abdelgadir Mohamed took more time to develop his love of the game.
When he was 10 years old, Abdelgadir had no interest in soccer. But one day, he was watching the Brazilian national team play a game on TV. He took a liking to Ronaldinho, the midfielder/forward who starred for Barcelona in the 2000s.
During that game, Abdelgadir vividly recalls Brazilian defender David Luiz hustling to save a shot that was headed toward an unprotected net.
“I was inspired by those people. They never gave up,” Abdelgadir said. “I wanted to be one of them.”
Anyone who wanted to play on grass fields in Egypt was forced to pay a fee, Abdelgadir said, so he started playing soccer in the roads, often at night under street lights. By the time he reached Twin Falls in 2015, his skill had blossomed.
Abdelgadir was named a second-team all-Great Basin Conference selection last season as a junior. Bhattarai was the co-offensive player of the year.
Canyon Ridge finished second in the conference this fall. The Riverhawks boasted top-tier talent, but had several other challenges to overcome before they could put together a contender.
Every Canyon Ridge player uses English sparingly, but it’s not the only language deployed on the pitch. The Nepalis communicate in their native tongue. The Mohameds and Eidway, who is also from Egypt, use certain words and phrases from their home country. The 11 American-born players are all Hispanic or Latino, and many communicate in Spanish.
“Sometimes it hurts us because when we talk in a different language on the field, there can be mixed communication,” junior Leo Triana said.
Senior goalkeeper Jair Garibay said the mishmash of languages can be used to Canyon Ridge’s advantage against all-American teams such as Community School. But overall, language doesn’t come into play all that much.
Garibay doesn’t have intricate plans he needs to convey to his defense. He gives simple commands, like how deep to play or which opposing players to keep eyes on. Simple actions, such as launching a deep pass to a sprinting striker, can be done with a couple words, or even none at all.
“Communication is a huge part of the game,” Garibay said. “But we also play with our feet.”
Farnsworth was born and raised in Filer. He’s coached at Canyon Ridge for the past four years after a stint with Robert Stewart Middle School, where he first coached Bhattarai.
Growing up, Farnsworth never imagined he’d be coaching a team full of refugees, especially not in the Magic Valley.
“The cultures we have are a blessing because they bring a unique perspective to how the game is played,” he said. “I love what I get to do.”
To bridge language gaps, Farnsworth has tried to simplify the game. He uses words from his players’ first languages, and he’s taught them words and phrases in English. By now, he and his twin brother Carey, an assistant coach, have ingrained their soccer values into the players’ heads. During games, the Riverhawks understand the style of play Farnsworth hopes to achieve.
“It’s a style of play of possession to attack that we teach,” Farnsworth said. “They realize it’s a team game, and they realize to do that we have to move the ball and move off the ball.”
Riverhawk practices are filled with jokes and laughs, even as the players grind through intense drills. If a player naps on the team bus with his mouth open, teammates will jar him awake by pouring water in his mouth, junior Rigo Garcia said.
Canyon Ridge bus rides are also known for “American Idol-type singing,” Farnsworth said. Junior Victor Gurung often starts the singing with a Nepali love song. Nobody but Bhattarai and Pokhrel recognizes the songs or understands the words, but they join in anyway, trailing a word or two behind the lead vocalists.
When Gurung arrived in Twin Falls six years ago, he was afraid to talk. As his English improved, he became more comfortable around Americans, but a divide was still there.
Then he found a group of people just like him, with the same passion for soccer. Two of his teammates were raised in the same place he was. And so he sings.
“They give me joy,” Gurung said. “Instead of staying home and being boring and doing nothing, when I come here, it’s full of life. It’s really fun. They’re like brothers to me.”
Abdelgadir Mohamed’s body is dotted with scars, most of which are related to soccer. But one, under his right eye, happened when he was a kid in Nasr City, Egypt.
Abdelgadir’s home in Egypt did not have air conditioning, so his family relied on fans to cool down. One night, he tried to turn the fan around, and it cracked. A sharp piece flew toward his face and hit his eye pouch, which began to bleed.
Bhattarai also has a facial scar, on the outside of his right cheek. It happened when he was 8 years old back home in Nepal. At school he got in a fight with another boy who threw a stick at Bhattarai’s face. It hit his right cheek and caused bleeding.
“This is nothing that big. Back in Nepal, everyone’s got cuts,” Bhattarai said. “In my country we fight a lot.”
Bhattarai was born and raised in a refugee camp in the Jhapa district. His parents were two of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Bhutan for Nepal, and the Bhattarai family resettled in America when he was 9.
“We just wanted to start a better life,” Bhattarai said. “We chose the United States because it’s famous everywhere. It’s, like, the best nation in the world.”
He is one of three players on the team who come from Jhapa. Gurung and Loveson Pokhrel are the other two, and none of those three knew each other before coming to Twin Falls. That’s only a slight coincidence.
A mass refugee resettlement process from Nepal to English-speaking countries such as the U.S. began in the late 2000s. The College of Southern Idaho hosts a refugee resettlement center, so Twin Falls has become home to refugees from all over the globe.
Since CSI became involved in refugee resettlement in 1980, more than 2,500 refugees have resettled in Twin Falls, according to the refugee center’s website.
As of May 2016, Twin Falls School District had 193 refugee and immigrant students among the student population of 9,509, the district said. At the high school level, the majority of refugee students attend Canyon Ridge.
The district’s refugee center is at Canyon Ridge High School, so even refugee students who live in the Twin Falls High School boundaries typically end up at Canyon Ridge. The majority of high school-age refugees live in the Canyon Ridge boundaries anyway, according to Zeze Rwasama, the director of the CSI refugee resettlement center.
For many of these refugees, the difference between life back home and life in America is stark.
Bhattarai, Gurung and Loveson lived in bamboo houses with mud floors and outdoor bathrooms. They played soccer with balls made of paper and plastic. The future in those refugee camps is, at best, uncertain.
“They just sit there,” said Rwasama, who was born in the Congo and moved to Salt Lake City as a Rwandan refugee. “There’s no education for the adults in the refugee camps. When they get here, they’re trying to catch up on all of those years that they lost sitting.”
Bhattarai has lived in America for more than eight years, making him an exception at Canyon Ridge. Most of the Riverhawk refugees arrived in the past five years.
Everyone on the team understands English, but their aptitude varies. Khai has been here longer than the Mohameds, but his English is not as advanced. The Mohameds, unlike Khai, learned some British English before moving to America.
Khai said his family has asked him to quit playing soccer because he often has to drive his mother and three siblings around town. As a result, he’s missed several practices this fall. But he’s never considered quitting. He loves soccer too much.
On Sept. 20, the Canyon Ridge volleyball team hosted rival Twin Falls, and the student section was in full throat. The section was situated in the bottom-left area of the south stands. In the top-right section, a handful of Riverhawk boys soccer players were sitting together by themselves.
At the previous week’s Service Bowl, the refugees sat with the rest of the student section, and they were among the loudest fans. Several of the refugee players said they have American friends, and they get along with many of the Twin Falls natives who attend Canyon Ridge.
But borders are unavoidable.
“I have other friends that don’t play soccer, but I don’t talk to them until track season,” Abdelgadir said. “We don’t really get closer like we used to in track season. Maybe at lunch we go eat, but they don’t come to watch my soccer games. They don’t come and talk to me. We don’t have classes together, so it makes it hard.”
Abdelgadir and Bhattarai are especially close friends. They see each other every day except Sunday, when Abdelgadir works a shift at McDonald’s. They also hang out with Eidway, and Abdelgadir’s younger brother often tags along. That group rarely includes Americans.
In the cafeteria at lunch, the refugees tend to sit together.
“Obviously you’re gonna sit by your friends,” Pokhrel said. “It’s natural.”
The soccer players don’t take any of these divisions personally. People are drawn to others like them, and only refugees can truly understand the life of a fellow refugee. Plus, it’s high school. Cliques come with the territory.
These separations aren’t always because of cultural differences. Multiple refugee players described instances of racism, from school buses to the school halls. Students from other schools have asked Garcia, “Why do you play with foreigners? They stink.” They mean that in a literal sense.
Degrading comments aren’t limited to high school, either.
“A lot of refugees get made fun of because of their ability to not speak English,” Bhattarai said. “Every refugee, every foreign person, that’s come here gets some type of comment. That’s just how people are.”
Recent news has fanned the flames of anti-refugee sentiment.
In Twin Falls, the controversial Fawnbrook case — where three refugee boys pleaded guilty and were sentenced for felonies related to the June 2, 2016, sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl in the Fawnbrook Apartments — drew national attention, particularly by white nationalist blogs.
Nationally, a debate surrounding refugees has stirred since Donald Trump campaigned for president. He has proposed various forms of a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries since he took office. None of the Canyon Ridge boys soccer players are from the countries on the ban’s most recent list.
“He would straight up hate this team,” Garcia said of Trump.
Bhattarai and other refugee players said they’ve received fewer racist comments in recent years. As classmates have gotten to know them better, the refugee stigma has worn off.
“I’m just a guy that plays soccer,” he said.
The CSI refugee center has two goals, Rwasama said. The first is to help the refugees become economically self-sufficient, and the second is to fully integrate them into the community.
Rwasama has seen examples of assimilation, such as refugees obtaining driver’s licenses. This is progress, but nowhere close to mission accomplished in Rwasama’s eyes. Full integration takes time.
Even for the refugees who speak English with ease, they are still growing accustomed to their new surroundings — to supermarkets, to running water, to air conditioning, things Americans take for granted.
The Canyon Ridge boys soccer team is a shining example of refugees and Americans coming together and forming relationships. They share chemistry on the field and sing along to songs they don’t understand on road trips.
But the field and the team bus are confined spaces with regimented activities. The players chose soccer, but they didn’t choose their teammates. Canyon Ridge, like every team in existence, has its fair share of cliques.
“On the bus, everybody’s together, messing around, doing their chants,” Triana said. “When we get off the bus, we start to segregate.”
The 2017 Idaho high soccer season will be over in one week. Canyon Ridge has six seniors, many of whom will never play organized soccer again.
Most of the Riverhawks prefer not to confront that reality just yet. They envision college scholarships for soccer. They see themselves as their country’s version of Messi, of Ronaldinho.
Few of the players have long-term career goals at this stage. Some of the refugee players have struggled with grades, but most have gotten by just fine. At the very least, they’ve done enough to remain eligible for soccer.
“It’s not about being smart,” Mohammed Mohamed said. “You just have to pay attention. You just have to do your work.”
Mohammed is just a sophomore, so college feels far away right now. That’s also true, to some extent, with the seniors. Some are waiting on college scholarship offers, and others are still stuck in high school mode. They’ve developed a rhythm in their new lives. They go to school, they hang out with friends, they pray. Some have jobs, but most of their parents are able to support them on their own.
Soccer is the main focus for most of the Canyon Ridge boys soccer players. Before they tried out, few of them knew each other, and so most had few friends. Soccer changed all of that. Suddenly, they were surrounded by the only people who could relate to them.
For a couple hours each day this the fall, a group of refugees got together and played the beautiful game.
“It’s really important because it’s the only thing I can do,” Gurung said. “It’s the only thing I like.”