Refugee kids find hope on the soccer field and in the classroom

Giving in Focus: Luma Mufleh
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Story highlights

  • Luma Mufleh created the Fugees Family to help refugee children
  • Soccer helps bridge the gap for kids struggling to fit in
  • Mufleh opened a school for refugee students in grades 6-12

Clarkston, GA (CNN)A wrong turn changed Luma Mufleh's life.

"I was taking a drive to Clarkston, Georgia, to visit a Middle Eastern grocery store," she said. "On my way home, I missed my turn, and I had to turn into this apartment complex. I saw these kids outside playing soccer. They were playing in the streets with blocks set up as goals and barefoot with a raggedy soccer ball. It reminded me of how I grew up playing soccer in the streets of Jordan."
Mufleh came to the United States when she was 18 years old to attend college. "I've always felt like an outsider, and I could identify with them," she said.
A few days later, she returned to the apartment complex—this time with a soccer ball. The experience led her to form her first soccer team for refugee boys.
"We had 30 kids show up on the first day. And that's how it all started. It was very grass-roots," she said. They didn't have uniforms for their first game so Mufleh haggled for some white T-shirts at a discounted price.
"With a Sharpie, everybody wrote their numbers and their names and wrote Fugees on it. That was our first uniform," she said.
But Mufleh soon realized that what these kids needed went beyond the soccer field. She found herself helping the kids with their homework.
"I would go from apartment to apartment helping the kids with homework and eventually started an after-school tutoring program. What I realized when I was tutoring them was that it was just a Band-Aid solution," she said. "Something bigger than after school needed to happen."
Mufleh created the Fugees Family, a nonprofit organization, and then opened a privately funded school for refugees called the Fugees Academy in 2007.
"When this started, I was a little overwhelmed. I was like, 'How am I going to do this?' I'm not a principal. I'm not an educator, but I am a coach," she said. "I'm good at building teams, and I'm good at getting groups of people to work together and find a goal that we all want to reach."
She reached her goal and turned the school into reality.
"Typically our students have been in this country less than three or four months when they first come in. Most of them have fled war and unimaginable horrors. They've never been in a school before. They've been in refugee camps," she said.
The academy has small class sizes so the students can get more individualized attention and learn the fundamentals of reading, writing and math.
"We have kids that come here who can't read when they enter school. And in four years, they are handing in five-page essays that are very well written," she said.
The students come from various countries including Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"On paper they should be failing. They have every excuse to fail. They come from a foreign country, they've had no formal education, they live in poverty and their parents are illiterate," she said. "That is a statistic for a kid who will never complete high school. And these kids are going to complete high school."
The academy has close to 80 students, who are enrolled in grades six through 12. In addition to after-school tutoring, the Fugees Family also includes soccer programs for boys and girls ages 10 to 18 and an academic summer camp.
"I love seeing the kids come alive," she said. "Teachers always talk about the light in a kid's eye. And the most heartbreaking part is when that light is no longer there. And I don't get to see that. I get to see that light on every single day, and I love it."
Fartun Hassan, a former student at the academy, said she liked the school because the classes were small. For her, Mufleh was more than a coach and a teacher. "She is like a mother to us," she said.
Despite the success her students have achieved, Mufleh said she can't always protect them from the prejudice that exists in the world. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, she has witnessed some anti-refugee sentiment toward her students.
In a recent appeal letter to Fugees Family supporters, Mufleh expressed her concern. "I try to protect my kids when I can; I don't want them to see any more hatred and ignorance than what they have already experienced," she wrote.
Mufleh's goal is to continue to provide a safe environment for her students to learn and grow.
"We are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu. We are Arab, African and Asian," she wrote. "We are refugees. In short: We are Americans."