It Started With Soccer

Aug 10, 2021 | Spotlight

By Skyler Ballard

The boys of the Bowling Green Projects United soccer team huddle in a corner of the field before their game. Their coach, Daniel Tarnagda, opens a box of brand new uniforms and passes them out. The boys hold them up, excited about the small Democratic Republic of Congo flag embroidered onto the chest of the jerseys.

One of the players laughs, realizing that the uniforms, with their red and white striped shirts and blue shorts, look just like the American flag. Tarnagda’s face lights up in realization and his rectangular glasses are pushed up his face by a wide smile. He nods his head and says “that’s perfect.”

It’s the team’s first game of the season, and only the third season of its existence. Tarnagda does his best to give a pep talk to the boys but is the first to admit he still has no idea what he’s doing. To him, the team is about more than just winning and losing games.

The BGPU soccer team was started by Tarnagda for African refugees in Bowling Green and is intended to help the community of young refugees adjust to the area. As a refugee himself from Burkina Faso in West Africa, he saw the need for an environment to help the young refugees grow accustomed to the U.S.

“I know that adjusting here can be hard,” said Tarnagda. “I want to make it as easy as I can for these guys to make friends so they like it here.”

A New Start

Tarnagda moved to the U.S only five years ago. His eyes are brighter than most and have seen more sorrow, though he has few words to offer about his childhood home in Africa.

“I am happy to be here now with these boys and the refugee community of Bowling Green,” he said. Because he does not often speak of life before Bowling Green, some friends have offered up theories about what it was like, some even involving royalty, which Tarnagda neither confirms nor denies.

When Tarnagda first came to Bowling Green, he moved into a home in the Housing Authority, just a short walk from Parker-Bennett-Curry Elementary School, where he got a job in the cafeteria. The staff at the school, which is known for having a large population of refugee students, immediately accepted him, he said.

There, he met Jonathan Stovall, a fourth grade math and science teacher who convinced Tarnagda to help out in the classroom and become more involved with the students.

“Daniel helped in the classroom and with the club so much, and I’m grateful for that,” said Stovall. “He knew how to get the kids engaged.”

By watching Stovall teach, Tarnagda became inspired and soon began mentoring several students from Africa. One day, Stovall brought in an African drum similar to the drums that Tarnagda had learned to play as a child. He began teaching some of the students how to play during an after-school club.

“The drums have been fun, and they can teach the boys about their culture,” said Tarnagda. “I can see them always happy to play them.”

Building a Team

Wanting to more directly impact and help the students who were refugees from Africa like himself, Tarnagda began the soccer team. Since its beginning three years ago, the team has expanded to incorporate players that range in age from elementary to high school. Though the players vary in home country, each was born in Africa. Some have been in Bowling Green as many as three years, and some as little as three months.

“I’m happy that Daniel started the team because it makes it feel more like home,” said Barraca Djuma, 16, who has been in the U.S for two and a half years.

Djuma is originally from Tanzania, but like a majority of boys on the team, considers the Democratic Republic of Congo his home.

As the team’s goalie, Djuma has taken it upon himself to hang the Democratic Republic of Congo flag on the goal post at each game. After games and practices when Tarnagda calls the boys out to do a lap around the field, it is Djuma who offers to carry the flag across the field.

“Daniel helped me in school last year and he has taught me a lot about soccer,” said Bernard Djuma, Barraca’s  younger brother.

“I want these boys to be proud of where they came from and that is why the Congo flag is on the uniform and why we have a flag at the games,” said Tarnagda.

Off the Field

Soon after moving to Bowling Green, Tarnagda began attending Christ Fellowship Church. Because the church is situated in the middle of the Housing Authority, where there is a large refugee population, the church offers English as a Second Language classes each Sunday. Tarnagda, who is fluent in three languages, began helping with the classes.

Soon, the small, dim church basement where the ESL classes are held began to fill with members of the soccer team and their families. Because of his active role with the church and the Housing Authority, both organizations agreed to sponsor the soccer team.

When Tarnagda isn’t coaching, teaching, or mentoring, he is taking classes at South Central Kentucky Community and Technical College. He is majoring in renewable energy, with hopes to travel back to Africa after receiving his degree.

“I want to take what I have learned there and go to Africa,” said Tarnagda. “I know the things that Africa needs there and I want to take that knowledge back and help.”

On and off the field, Tarnagda is a continuing inspiration to some of his players who struggle with adjustment.

“Me being a help and a mentor to these boys started with the soccer team and now it is so much more, and I am very grateful for that,” he said.

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