Luma Mufleh is founder and coach of a soccer program for young refugees near Atlanta
"You see kids that have been struggling ... and their faces light up when they're on the field," Mufleh says
Mufleh was honored as a 2016 Top 10 CNN Hero | Tribute Show video
When refugees receive what they call the “golden ticket” to the United States, they hope to put their hardships behind them and start a better life.
But as they acclimate to their new communities, they often encounter a host of obstacles: language barriers, discrimination and difficulty accessing services.
For refugee children, the transition can be especially tough.
“They’ve all seen horrible atrocities,” said Luma Mufleh, founder and coach of a soccer program for refugee youth near Atlanta. “They struggle because they’ve had little or no education. (They) struggle socially. … They’re struggling to fit in.”
For more than 12 years, Mufleh has dedicated her life to helping young survivors of war find their footing in Clarkston, Georgia, a small city that is home to thousands of refugees.
Mufleh, who’s from Jordan, started her program in 2004 to provide a sense of community and support for her players. But she soon realized that the children’s needs extended beyond the soccer field.
Today, her nonprofit, the Fugees Family, has grown to include a school with a curriculum tailored to refugees’ unique needs. This past spring, the Fugees Academy graduated its first class.
Mufleh and her group have helped more than 850 refugee children from 28 countries.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Mufleh about her efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: From the perspective of young refugees, what’s it like to come here?
Luma Mufleh: You’ve experienced conflict. You’ve seen war. You haven’t had food security. Then you get to come to the United States, and you’re super excited. And then you come here, and there’s a rude awakening.
Academically, they’re not ready. A lot of the kids have had little or no formal education, and they’re plunked in the age-appropriate class. So you have a kid who’s 14 or 15 and is put into ninth grade and expected to do algebra and read Shakespeare when they don’t know the letters of the alphabet, and they don’t know how to add. So they’re feeling like failures at school.
In some cases, they get bullied because of where they’re from. At home, they have parents that are adjusting to working and providing for their families.
When you come into a community that has had some issues being receptive, it’s hard. And that hit home. I didn’t want them to have that experience. It’s tough enough being a refugee. You shouldn’t have it be any harder.
CNN: Why is soccer such an important component of your work?
Mufleh: Soccer is that universal language. When you have a kid that has fled their country, has had a horrible experience, comes to this strange country, the one thing they understand is soccer. It’s always been an escape for them. In the refugee camps, some of them would bundle up plastic bags to make a soccer ball so they could play.
You see kids that don’t speak a word of English, who have been struggling for months. And when they come here, their faces light up when they’re on the field. For kids that were robbed of their childhood, this is one place they get to be kids again. They feel comfortable. They feel confident and happy.
You see the transformation begin when they’re around a group of kids that have shared similar experiences and they help each other adjust to their new lives.
CNN: Your own experiences have helped you relate to the kids.
Mufleh: I’ve experienced being an outsider because of having to leave my country and having to start with nothing. So there’s empathy that I have that allows me to relate. When you’ve left your home, your family and everything you know to start new, that is very difficult. You don’t have the education, the language, and you don’t have someone that can broker things for you.
The Fugees have helped me by giving me that sense of belonging. Ramadan used to be an isolating time. I would break fast by myself. But now I can break it with members of the Fugees. It has come full circle.
CNN: The recent influx of Syrian refugees has sparked a public debate. How has it affected your work?
Mufleh: We’re working with the most vulnerable children in the country. And I think this past year, we’ve kind of seen the best and worst of America. We’ve seen people come out and volunteer more, come out and cheer for the kids at games. But we’ve also seen some people distance themselves from us.
What’s unique about America is, everyone is from different parts of the world. Everyone comes here for a better life. I think what the Fugees are is very uniquely American. It’s getting people from all over the world, from all different faiths, to come together to do something great.
Want to get involved? Check out the Fugees Family website and see how to help.