Ukraine native Sasha Bruno arrived in Maine in March and has been playing this fall for the men’s soccer team at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

When Heather Turner watches Sasha Bruno play soccer, she sees a new person take the field.

She doesn’t see a young man orphaned as a child. She doesn’t see a pained native of Ukraine, who endures day after day of news and images of his homeland under attack.

In that moment, those hardships are gone. When Turner watches Bruno play, she sees someone at home.

“Soccer lets him not think about that for a little bit, and find his joy,” said Turner, a Minot resident who has taken Bruno into her home with her husband and three children. “It’s his life. It’s everything.”

Bruno, 21, is a forward for the Central Maine Community College men’s soccer team. He’s a freshman, but he’s become the Mustangs’ best offensive player, scoring a team-high six goals, including three game-winners, along with three assists in eight games through Friday.

“(He has) good soccer IQ and understanding of the game,” said CMCC Coach Kiaran McCormack. “He’s a very technical player, very good with the ball at his feet. His ability to dribble at players and make penetrating passes, either over a short distance to longer distance, is very good.”


Bruno’s life has been beset by challenges. He lived in an orphanage that doubled as a school during his formative years. Later, he had to find his way as an adult, without a family to lean on for guidance. Now in the U.S., he faces the struggle of trying to acclimate to a new culture while trying to learn to speak English.

But then there’s soccer, which is the escape. Which has always been the escape.

“It always distracted me from my difficulties,” Bruno said through a Russian interpreter. “When I enter the field, I forget about my problems.”

Ukrainian Sasha Bruno, left, watches the action on the field  Thursday from the sidelines while playing soccer for Central Maine Community College. Bruno has become the Mustangs’ best offensive player, scoring a team-high six goals, including three game-winners, along with three assists. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

Those difficulties started for Bruno when he was placed in an orphanage at age 9.

“I felt emptiness,” he said, “and I was thinking I’m going to be alone always.”

Bruno said he always dreamed of coming to the U.S., and when he was 16, he got his chance. A program called Host Ukraine allowed orphans to be hosted abroad for summers or holidays, and Turner saw a post on her Facebook feed about five teenagers still waiting to be selected. One was Bruno, and Turner said she immediately felt drawn to host him.


During his visit, the connection only grew.

“It took me three days to fall in love with him,” she said, “and feel like he was always supposed to be my kid.”

Bruno felt at home with Turner and her family as well.

“That summer was unforgettable for me,” he said. “I will remember it for the rest of my life.”

Turner looked into adopting Bruno, but ran into roadblocks. She said it costs about $40,000 to adopt a Ukrainian orphan, and when she pursued it, she said people on the Ukraine side kept asking for up to an additional $25,000 in order to provide the paperwork.

Bruno graduated from school and had to leave the orphanage at 17. A friend told him about an opportunity to work for Amazon in Poland. He obtained a work visa and moved into a hostel with 24 people, sharing one kitchen, and rotated between friends’ places whenever he returned to Ukraine.


“There was simply no help,” Bruno said. “I had to do everything myself.”

The job in Poland allowed Bruno to pursue his soccer dreams.

Bruno began earning the attention of coaches as a young teen, joining a youth soccer academy while at the orphanage. He played for district teams after graduating, and then in 2021 joined Dozamet Nowa Sol, a Polish team that provides promising players with a chance to be promoted up the ladder to the country’s professional leagues.

Earlier this year, Sasha Bruno had to decide whether to continue to pursue his pro soccer dreams in Poland or to come to the United States on humanitarian parole offered to Ukrainians in wake of the Russian invasion. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

Bruno kept in touch with Turner during this time, and when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he had a chance to return to the United States. The U.S. began offering humanitarian parole to Ukrainians, allowing them to cross by land over the Canadian or Mexican borders onto American soil.

Bruno had to make a decision between pursuing professional soccer in Poland or being part of a family abroad.

“I had a choice. I have to do what I love, or I can start a new life,” he said. “Emotionally, it was very difficult.”


Bruno left the team in Poland in March. He took a flight to Germany, stayed in a German airport for two days, and then flew to Tijuana to meet Turner.

“It was my desire,” he said. “If there was no desire … maybe I (wouldn’t) dare to take such a long way.”

The complications weren’t done. Upon his arrival, Mexican guards detained both Bruno and Turner, and didn’t release them until Turner paid $400, she said.

“He was very, very upset. I said, ‘It’s OK, it’s going to be OK,'” Turner said. “And the federales looked at me and said, ‘It’s not OK.'”

On March 21, Bruno arrived in Maine. Having brought him to her home, Turner knew she next needed a way to get him on the field.

“(Soccer) gives him purpose. It’s what drives him,” she said. “He has really big, grand dreams as it relates to soccer.”


Turner helped Bruno join a practice session in July with CMCC. It didn’t take long for McCormack, the team’s coach, to notice the newcomer.

“It was very clear to me that he had played at a much higher level,” McCormack said. “Quickly in that very first practice, I realized ‘Wow, this kid’s pretty special,’ with a huge, high level of technical ability.”

Bruno has proven himself to be an impact player for the Mustangs. His goal is to play professionally; McCormack, who grew up in Ireland and played college soccer at Vermont and UMaine, doesn’t consider that out of reach.

“For sure,” McCormack answered when asked if Bruno has the talent to play professionally. “Compared to some of the best players that I’ve been around, he’s at that level.”

Sasha Bruno gets a handshake from a teammate after the first half of a game at Southern Maine Community College. Bruno says of the war in his native Ukraine: “It is always hard to realize when you are sitting in safety and your family is not,” said Bruno, who has an aunt and a sister living in Ukraine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

Soccer provides Bruno with a respite from the challenges in life. School is hard, with the language barrier making every task difficult. News broadcasts bring constant, heartbreaking updates about the attacks on his home country.

“It is always hard to realize when you are sitting in safety and your family is not,” said Bruno, who has an aunt and a sister living in Ukraine. “And it constantly pulls home to Ukraine. Every morning when I wake up and see the news about the war, it is very sad that one person, or this creature that is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, has taken so many lives and continues to take them.”


Bruno feels that if he were still in Ukraine, he would have felt compelled to fight.

“The city in which I was living is a bomb threat now,” he said. “(The residents) all go to serve, and I think that I would go as well.”

The war, however, feels the thousands of miles away that it is when he’s on the soccer pitch.

“When you enter the field, you forget about it all and seem to fall into another world,” he said.

Those around him see it for themselves.

“He’s very proud of being from Ukraine, and he’s proud of his heritage,” McCormack said. “It’s just a safe space for him, something that’s very positive in his life.”


Bruno’s immediate future is unclear. Turner said she believes Bruno will stay in Maine through Christmas, but after that is cloudy. She doesn’t know if he’ll finish the year at CMCC. He has applied for temporary protected status, a step toward getting a green card, and is not at risk for deportation while that is pending.

With the language barrier, transferring to a NCAA Division II or III college would be difficult.

“He has really struggled. He does really well when he has time to process the questions, and he is really working hard on his vocabulary,” Turner said. “I’m just not sure it will be enough in time. … He’s doing the work. English is just a really hard language to learn.”

The dilemma, Turner said, could come down to being with the family in America he’s wanted, or pursuing the sport he’s loved. She said Bruno knows he can return to Europe and immediately join a Polish team.

“He wanted a family. He wanted people who love him to be around him,” she said. “His dream was always to be an American, and he wants to play soccer here.”

There are teams he could pursue in New England, such as Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Seacoast United Phantoms, who compete in the semiprofessional USL League Two. Turner said that’s the optimal direction.

“If a club said, ‘Would you come play for us,’ I think we would all jump up and down and say, ‘Yes, go!'” Turner said.

The path is soccer. That, and only that, is certain.

“It means a lot to me,” Bruno said. “I need to continue it because this is what I love.”

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