Refugee children in America have a friend in Luma Mufleh


A wrong turn led Luma Mufleh to his professional calling – advocating for refugee students. It was 2004, and as she pulled into the parking lot of a rundown apartment complex in Clarkston, Georgia, to turn around, she saw a ragtag group of boys playing soccer.

Clarkston is home to a large refugee community and the boys, some barefoot, reminded him of the street games of his childhood in Amman, Jordan.

Why we wrote this

It takes compassion and courage to see a need and meet it. For one woman, that meant opening schools specifically for refugee children in the United States.

Mufleh, then in her late twenties, was an experienced football coach. She asked skeptical children if she could join their game. In her engaging memoir, “Learning America: One Woman’s Fight for Educational Justice for Refugee Children,” she describes how she coached a growing list of refugee boys, enrolling them finally in a league (team name: the Fugees).

But his relationship with many children extended beyond the football field and into their lives.

Much of what she learned about her players’ situation shook her. Only a tiny fraction of the world‘s refugees are resettled in the United States, making them, says Mufleh, “a lucky lottery winner.” Her book goes on to describe the “radical yet simple” idea for tackling some of these problems: schools specifically for refugee children.

There are more refugees today than at any other time in history, but Luma Mufleh, who founded Fugees Academy schools to serve refugee children, knows that “the statistics are mind-boggling. … For people to care, they need stories. Her gripping debut film, “Learning America: One Woman’s Fight for Educational Justice for Refugee Children,” is full of them – touching the stories of the experiences of her young students, who came to the United States from Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia and other countries after being forced by war or religious, ethnic or political persecution to leave their homes.

Mufleh’s own story is equally compelling. Born into a privileged family in Jordan, she came to the United States to study at Smith College. In her senior year, she sought asylum, fearing for her safety as a gay woman if she returned to her homeland, where homosexuality is stigmatized and women can be victims of so-called “crimes of honour”. She was disowned after coming out to her family.

Eventually, Mufleh settled in Georgia, opening a cafe in Decatur. In 2004, after making a wrong turn, she pulled into the parking lot of a rundown apartment complex in Clarkston, outside Atlanta, to turn around. There, a motley group of boys playing soccer caught his eye. Clarkston is home to a large refugee community and the boys, some barefoot, reminded her of the street games of her childhood in Amman.

Why we wrote this

It takes compassion and courage to see a need and meet it. For one woman, that meant opening schools specifically for refugee children in the United States.

Mufleh, then in her late twenties, was an experienced football coach, leading a girls’ team for the YMCA. She asked the skeptical children if she could join in their game, luring them in with a new balloon to replace their deflated balloon. The first half of the book, in clear and engaging prose, describes how, after this encounter, Mufleh continued to coach a growing list of refugee boys; within a few years they had 60 players in three teams. She signed them up in a league (team name: the Fugees) and raised money for uniforms and equipment. But her relationships with many of them extended beyond the football field, as she was increasingly drawn into their lives, from helping with groceries and on appointments. to the doctor or to intervene when they had problems at school.

Much of what she learned about her players’ situation shook her. Only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees are resettled in the United States, making them, Mufleh acknowledges, “a lucky lottery winner.” (The refugee acceptance process, she laments, is arbitrary and lacks transparency.) But she began to feel the system was against them. Many families arriving in America are transported to stripped-down apartments and left with a bag of groceries and no other support. They are required to reimburse the International Organization for Migration for their plane tickets; since most refugees arrive with nothing, they begin life in America with thousands of dollars in debt. “What could be more American than that? asks Mufleh ironically.

Children begin their education at newcomer centers, where they are ostensibly caught up academically by their peers before being placed in public school classrooms. However, these centers are poorly funded and disorganized. Mufleh was dismayed to find that many of her players could not read or write, but were promoted in school year after year.

Clyde Click/Courtesy of the Fugees Family

Mufleh organizes a football training session. She came to the United States from Jordan to attend college, became a soccer coach, and recognized that her players from refugee families needed more help and educational support than they were getting.

The second half of “Learning America” ​​describes the author’s “radical yet simple” idea to address some of these issues: a school specifically for refugee children. Mufleh founded the first Fugees Academy in Atlanta in 2006; later she opened two more, both in Ohio. Fully accredited public charter schools have rigorous academic programs — and, in a nod to their roots, a requirement that all students play football.

Some critics, reports Mufleh, are baffled that schools separate refugee children from the rest of the population. But the author, comparing the schools to women’s colleges like the one she attended and to historically black colleges and universities, argues that they allow “more time to learn and less time to defend the basic assumption of your worth”.

“Learning America: One Woman’s Fight for Educational Justice for Refugee Children,” by Luma Mufleh, Mariner Books, 237 pp.

Indeed, by making the refugee experience the primary experience, Mufleh and her team shine a light on what their students’ families have achieved. For example, she often saw public schools treat the mothers of her players with contempt, who often spoke no English and worked in low-paying jobs. “At Fugees Academy,” writes Mufleh, “we recognize the accomplishments of our parents: protecting their children in war zones, starting afresh in a foreign land, working double shifts without complaining.”

Significantly, they also help students, many of whom had been teased and bullied in public schools, to see themselves differently. “If you survived hunger, war, and deep loss, the challenge of finishing high school was surmountable,” she writes. “We needed to change the way we view our students, to see their lived experiences as assets, not deficits.”

“Learning America” ​​also describes how Mufleh herself “learned about America”. She writes vividly of her childhood in Jordan, noting the influence of “artifacts of the West” like Motown records and Archie comics. Most influential of all, however, was the film “9 to 5”, whose portrayal of decidedly strong women inspired her. Decades later, Mufleh herself is an inspiration.

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