Refugee kids find a home with their team and their coach
Their school finds a home with a United Methodist Church
“There was this one time,” remembers Asad, a lanky 15-year old from Sudan, “we were winning and that made the other team mad. ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they yelled at us. One of my teammates was wearing a hijab and they called her a terrorist. That really affected me, you know, because I am a Muslim. And I am a refugee.”
“We could have reacted badly,” he adds, “but we knew we couldn’t let them get into our heads or we would lose the game. So we just walked away and let it go.”
Asad is as quick with his smile as he is with his feet. But he, like so many of his teammates, is a child survivor of war. He has lost much of his childhood to that war.
“I have had a hard life,” he acknowledges matter-of-factly. “But now I try to use my experiences as lessons to help me stay off the bad lane in life, and as a way to move on.”
He looks to his teammates, many of whom have witnessed horrors equal to his.
“I think,” he says thoughtfully, “that soccer has taught us peace.”
On one end is the Washington Monument. On the other is the alabaster-white dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the grassy mall that lies between them, on a day shimmering with heat, the kids are playing soccer.
Some of the players—there are both boys and girls—come from the Northern Virginia suburbs. They have uniforms and proper footwear. They love soccer, and it shows. They are very good.
And then there are the Fugees, invited guests of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, whose inspirational story is now part of the Many Voices, One Nation exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
The Fugees Family are a team made up of refugee kids, hailing from some of the most troubled spots in the world today: Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Syria. One girl plays in a hijab. The boys are playing barefoot. These teens also love soccer. And they are also very good.
Visitors to the festival stop to watch the game, and the kids among them are invited to join the Fugee team. One teenaged boy immediately takes off his sneakers so he can play barefoot, too.
“All right!” he shouts after his teammate—originally from Thailand—scores a goal. They grin and high five each other.
Their coach, Luma Mufleh, an asylee and immigrant from Jordan, watches from the sidelines. “Put them on a field and let them play,” she says. “At the end of this, they’ll be exchanging Facebook profiles.”
Ala kaffi el Qadar numshi wa la nudri ‘An el Maktoob
(On the palm of fate we walk and do not know what is written)
You may already know something of the Fugees Family and their remarkable coach. They have been the subject of numerous news stories, videos, TV shows, and a 2009 book, optioned for a film by Universal Studios in Hollywood. Coach Luma was one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2016. This year she has her own Ted Talk.
You may also have heard of their hometown, Clarkston, Georgia, the “Ellis Island of the South.” With its access to public transportation, close proximity to Atlanta, and affordable apartment complexes ready to be occupied, Clarkston was identified as an ideal refugee resettlement hub in the 1980s.
Refugees from 50 different countries have made Clarkston their first American home. Today, the town welcomes 1,500 refugees a year; half of its 13,000 residents are refugees. It truly is the “most diverse square mile in America.”
“The only place I’ve experienced this kind of diversity,” Luma says, “is in New York City.”
It was this diversity which led Luma to Clarkston one day in 2004 on a search for authentic pita—the kind she remembered from her childhood. She took a wrong turn and came upon some refugee boys playing soccer with rocks as goal posts and a sorry excuse for a ball. Luma had a better one in the trunk of her car. She used it to entice the boys to let her play with them.
And so it began. Luma formed a soccer team for refugee boys. She then started helping them with their homework, getting to know their families, and worrying about their struggles against poverty and gang violence. Are they going to have a meal when they get home? Are they going to be jumped for their soccer cleats walking back to their apartment complex? How far behind will they fall in their studies?
Luma decided to start a school—an academy—for child survivors of war.
Was that wrong turn written on her own palm of fate? Was it destiny? Could Luma have had any idea how much her life—and the lives of so many refugee kids and their families—would change from a simple and unexpected game of soccer?
No one is left behind
Coach Luma’s plan for a Fugee academy—small classes, remediation, social integration, and soccer at its core—found a home at Clarkston’s First United Methodist Church. The students occupy 90 percent of the church building space during the school year. They need all this room and more; there is a long waiting list of kids who want to come to the Fugee Academy.
The changes Clarkston has undergone in the last 30 years are reflected in this church; its once all-white congregation has shrunken dramatically, the remaining original parishioners now quite elderly.
Along with the church’s traditional English service, there is also one for their Eritrean brethren. An additional five congregations of other denominations hold services at the First UMC; one Burundian, one Nepalese, and three Burmese.
“On any given Sunday,” says Pastor Karen Lyon, “we have services in this church from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. And everyone is welcome here.”
Pastor Lyon recently completed her own Doctorate of Ministry, and she credits the Fugee students as a source of inspiration. “When you are in the presence of these kids, and you see their hunger for learning, their discipline—they are often in school from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night—yes,” she states emphatically, “they encouraged me to study harder.”
“They are one great family,” she adds. “No one is left behind. They know all too well what it feels like to be left behind.”
The game is over. Members of the Fugee team are gathered under a tent, water bottles in hand, speaking to an audience of festival visitors. They answer questions and share their opinions about the museums they’ve visited and their favorite subjects in school. They share memories of arriving in a new country, one with leafy trees and weird food. They admit to struggles to learn English and new customs.
Mostly, though, they talk about being part of the Fugee family, of belonging to each other, to the team, and to their coach.
Life is good.
* Coach Luma plans to open a Fugee academy in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and a few more in Midwestern towns where there are refugee resettlement hubs. All of them will follow the Fugees model so kids can have “this experience of being welcomed, wanted, and loved.”
To read more or to help them with this project, please visit the Fugees Family