Refugees find hope in football field, classroom

Story Highlights

Luma Mufleh created the Fugees Family helping refugee children

Football helps bridge the gap for children struggling to fit in

Mufleh opened a school for refugee students in grades 6-12

Clarkston, Georgia

One wrong turn changed Luma Mufleh’s life.

“I was driving to Clarkston, Georgia to visit a Middle Eastern grocery store,” she said. “On my way home I missed my turn and had to walk into this apartment complex. I saw these kids outside playing football. They were playing in the streets with blocks set up as goals and barefoot with a ragged soccer ball. It reminded me of how I grew up playing soccer on the streets of Jordan.

Mufleh came to the United States when she was 18 to attend college. “I always felt like an outsider and could relate to them,” she said.

A few days later, she returned to the apartment complex, this time with a soccer ball. This experience led her to form her first football team for refugee boys.

“We had 30 kids show up on the first day. And that’s how it all started. It was very popular,” she said. They didn’t have any uniforms for their first game, so Mufleh haggled over some discounted white T-shirts.

“With a Sharpie, everyone would write their number and name and write Fugees on it. It was our first uniform,” she said.

But Mufleh soon realized that what these children needed went beyond the football field. She found herself helping the children with their homework.

“I was going apartment to apartment helping kids with homework and eventually started an after school tutoring program. What I realized when I was mentoring them was that it was just a band-aid solution,” she said. “Something bigger than after school had to happen.”

Mufleh created the Fugees Familya non-profit organization, then opened a private school for refugees called Fugees Academy in 2007.

“When it started, I was a bit overwhelmed. I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I’m not a principal. I’m not an educator, but I’m 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 we all want to achieve.”

She achieved her goal and turned the school into a reality.

“Usually our students have been in this country for less than three or four months when they first arrive. Most of them fled war and unimaginable horrors. They have never been to a school before. They have been in refugee camps,” she said.

The academy has small class sizes so students can get more individualized attention and learn the basics of reading, writing, and math.

“We have children who come here who cannot read when they enter school. And in four years, they turn 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 fail. They have every excuse to fail. They come from a foreign country, they have had no formal education, they live in poverty and their parents are illiterate,” she said. “That’s a statistic for a kid who will never graduate from high school. And those kids are going to graduate from high school.

The academy has nearly 80 students, who are enrolled in grades 6 through 12. In addition to after-school tutoring, the Fugees family also includes soccer programs for boys and girls ages 10-18 and a college summer camp.

“I love seeing the kids come to life,” she said. “Teachers always talk about the light in a child’s eyes. And the most heartbreaking part is when that light is no longer there. And I don’t see that. I see this light every day and I love it.

Fartun Hassan, an alumnus of the academy, said she liked the school because the classes were small. For her, Mufleh was more than a coach and a teacher. “She’s like a mother to us,” she said.

Despite the success achieved by her students, Mufleh said she could not always protect them from the prejudices that exist in the world. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, she has witnessed a certain anti-refugee sentiment towards her students.

In a recent appeal letter to supporters of the Fugees family, Mufleh expressed concern. “I try to protect my children when I can; I don’t want them to see more hate and ignorance than they have already experienced,” she wrote.

Mufleh’s goal is to continue to provide a safe environment for its students to learn and grow.

“We are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. We are Arab, African and Asian,” she wrote. “We are refugees. In short: we are Americans.