Luma Mufleh: Building a Better Life for Young Refugees
Credit: Peter Hoey
The Daring Dozen Q&A
Who are your role models?
I am inspired by the work and lives of Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi, but I think the most inspiration that I have had is from the people I know. My grandmother taught me to think of others. The passion of Rhonda Brown, my volleyball coach in Jordan, pushed and shaped me as an athlete and eventually as a coach. The mothers of the kids I coach have opened my eyes to the world; their strength, resilience, and determination are what motivate me to do better every day.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
Role models should be people that you know so that you can see how they deal with day-to-day situations. And being a role model is a huge responsibility. As a role model you should always remember who you are accountable to. Every decision I make, I have to be able to go back and tell my teams what I did and why I did it; being accountable to them has shaped me more than anything else.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
What goes around comes around.
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Whether coaching kids' soccer or running a cleaning service, Luma Mufleh's mission is the same: to bring marginalized refugees and new immigrants into the mainstream through education and hard work. She understands the obstacles implicitly. An immigrant from Jordan, Mufleh moved to Atlanta a year and a half after graduating from Massachusetts's Smith College in 1997. She got a job coaching girls' soccer at a suburban YMCA, then began noticing random groups of boys -- often dark skinned, with foreign accents and without uniforms -- kicking balls on a nearby town's fields.
In August 2004, she rounded them up as the Fugees, a group of YMCA-sponsored teams of young refugees from various war-ravaged countries. With education still her highest priority, Mufleh required the boys, ages 9-17, to sign contracts committing to homework, tutoring, and a host of other conditions to stay in the game.
"Theirs is a story about children with miserable pasts trying to make good with strangers in a very different and sometimes hostile place," the Sunday New York Times reported in a front-page story about the Fugees that explored difficulties facing the more than 900,000 refugees admitted to this country since 1993. The article cast Coach Luma as a tough leader with a big heart and probed tensions between long-time residents and foreign "soccer people" -- and triggered an onslaught of well-wishers and donations, as well as a Hollywood bidding war for movie rights. Universal Studios won with a reported offer of $3 million, split between the Fugee Families Foundation, a nonprofit organization Mufleh started, and the New York Times.
Mufleh recalls "trying to stay grounded" despite the attention. She turned down a team trip to a theme park, a perk Disney dangled in its offer, because "that's not what we're about. A trip to Disney is not going to improve their lives the way a teacher would."
With the support of the foundation, she's hired a teacher to open the Fugee Academy in June to provide intensive tutoring to six students in a yearlong trial to accelerate their learning. Mufleh last year had persuaded her friend, Tracy Ediger, to manage the bulk of the teaching, but "we're struggling because the kids struggle with homework way beyond their level," she explains.
Education also is a component of Fresh Start, the cleaning service she started nearly three years ago, she says, after discovering a player had "no food in his apartment, and his mom worked fifty to sixty hours a week cleaning" for exploitative wages. Mufleh guarantees her eight employees -- all immigrants or refugees -- forty hours of work a week, starting at $10 an hour. Each workday includes at least an hour of professional development: English-language training and finance, computer, and cleaning skills.
Not surprisingly, Mufleh plans to expand soccer opportunities for young refugees and immigrants. "We've already added a girls' team, and we're practicing once a week," she says.
Lavinia Limón, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, applauds Mufleh's work. "Being a refugee robs children of childhood," Limón says, forcing them to cope with the loss of a home and often of loved ones. Programs like Coach Luma's "mean the children get to be children again, and they get to have some control over their fate."
Asked about her own future, Mufleh says she plans to stick with the Fugees. "I'm hoping to see some of these kids go to college, so that's another eight years before my youngest are ready."
Win or lose, they'll get an education.
Next article in "The Daring Dozen 2007" > John W. Rogers Jr.