By Mary-Katherine Ream
Luma Mufleh was driving to the grocery store when fate intervened. After missing her turn, she found herself in an apartment complex parking lot in Clarkston, Georgia.
“I saw these kids playing soccer and it reminded me of home, it reminded me of the way I grew up playing soccer in the streets of Jordan,” Mufleh said.
When she stopped to watch the game, she learned that the kids were refugees — children displaced from their home countries by war.
She returned the following week, soccer ball in hand, and started the Fugees Family, a nonprofit organization that harnesses the power of soccer to help child refugees adjust to life in the United States.
“I expected to be involved in their lives as a coach; never did I think that these kids would become my extended family,” Mufleh writes on the organization’s website.
From Burma and Bosnia to Sudan and Somalia, 28 countries are represented when the Fugees Family takes the field. All have experienced war in the last 30 years.
“I have kids from Afghanistan that are Sunni and Shiite. I have kids from North Sudan and South Sudan. And when I first started the team, the kids wouldn’t talk with each other,” Mufleh explains.
It did not take long for soccer to dissolve those differences. To win, teammates had to work together and get along.
“We all had a love for this international sport that transcended boundaries and language and everything,” Mufleh said.
Through soccer, the Fugees Family does more than break down cultural barriers: It gives the players a sense of belonging.
“They come to this country brand new. They feel very isolated, like they don’t fit in and they don’t belong,” Mufleh explains. With different names and foreign accents, the refugee children stand out from their American classmates.
On the soccer field, however, surrounded by other kids with similar names and accents, they fit in.
“We don’t really have a John or a Paul or a Mary on our team, so we try to celebrate our differences so the kids feel they’re not alone,” Mufleh said.
To play for the Fugees Family, players must agree to attend tutoring and practice sessions, to demonstrate good behavior on and off the field, and to speak only English.
Mufleh established the English-only rule after watching her players struggle with language barriers in school. For some, practicing English on the field helped them succeed in the classroom.
For those who needed additional help, Mufleh created the Fugees Academy, the first school in the United States dedicated exclusively to educating child refugees.
The Fugees Academy combines sport and instruction to create well-rounded, high-achieving individuals. Mufleh hopes the school will serve as a model for addressing the unique needs of refugee communities.
Whether using soccer or school, Mufleh’s goal remains steady. “We want to make sure everyone has access to the American dream,” she said.
Mufleh has just recently realized that dream herself. She became a U.S. citizen during an October 2011 ceremony — nearly 18 years after she first arrived. Her Fugees Family was in attendance.
Mary-Katherine Ream is a staff writer with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.