The ‘Beautiful Game,’ Pomegranate Molasses, and Why There’s Hope for America
A conversation with soccer coach and educator Luma Mufleh, the trailblazing founder of Fugees Academy schools for refugees and a Top 10 CNN Hero.
By Michael Judge
When I left mainstream journalism to launch The First Person, I knew the first person I wanted to have a conversation with was Luma Mufleh, the 42-year-old founder and CEO of Fugees Family, Inc., the nation’s only school network dedicated to educating and empowering child survivors of war. That might sound like a terribly small market. Sadly, it’s not. According to the National Education Association, by 2025, one out of four children in U.S. classrooms will be English language learners, many coming from refugee and immigrant backgrounds.
Like many Americans, I was first introduced to Mufleh after she was named a 2016 Top 10 CNN Hero and gave a refreshingly honest and moving Ted Talk in 2017 titled “Don’t feel sorry for refugees—believe in them.” In just 14 minutes, she explained how more than 65 million people around the world at that time had been forcibly displaced from their homes because of war or persecution. “The vast majority remain in refugee camps,” she said, “whose conditions cannot be defined as humane under anyone’s definition.” Yet “we take in so few refugees worldwide. We resettle less than 0.1 percent. That 0.1 percent benefits us more than them. It dumbfounds me how the word ‘refugee’ is considered something to be dirty, something to be ashamed of. … We are the ones who should be ashamed.”
But what was most powerful about Mufleh’s talk was not the alarming statistics or appeals to conscience. It was the way she, a Jordanian immigrant and Muslim of Syrian descent who grew up with a deep love and respect for the game of soccer, weaved her personal story into the larger story. How the Fugees Family, which uses the power of soccer, education and community to empower its students, got its start in 2004 when she was watching a group of refugee kids playing soccer outside an apartment complex in Clarkston, Georgia. How by 2006 she had opened her first school, Fugees Academy, in Clarkston, followed by a second in 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. How, through character building and a commitment to high expectations both in the classroom and on the soccer pitch, the Fugees model has improved the lives of hundreds of refugee families in North-Central Georgia and Central Ohio, boasting a 92% graduation rate and 100% college acceptance rate. How, before her Ted Talk, her students said, “Coach, why are you speaking? You hate public speaking.” “I do,” she told them. “But it’s important that I speak about us, that I speak about your journeys, about my journey. People need to know.”
“Refugee kids were being set up for failure by a system that didn’t know how to meet their needs. So I said, ‘If these were my kids, what would I do?’ I'd send them to a school that could meet their needs. There wasn't one out there. So I decided to start a school with one teacher and six students in a church basement.”
Mufleh’s journey began in 1964 long before she was born, when her grandmother, three months pregnant at the time, piled her five children into a car and fled Syria for Jordan during the first Assad regime. Her grandfather followed a month later, after his brothers were tortured and his factory was taken over by the government. As she explained in her Ted Talk, “They rebuilt their lives starting from scratch and eventually became independently wealthy Jordanian citizens.”
Mufleh grew up in Amman, Jordan, where she was one of the only girls on the soccer team at her private school. While her background was privileged in many ways, she grew up in a country where being gay was considered a crime. When she came out to her parents, she was disowned. In 1993, she came to the U.S. to attend Smith College, graduating with a B.A. in Anthropology in 1997.
After college Mufleh felt like a woman without a country. Not yet a U.S. citizen, she kicked around from state to state, practically homeless, and eventually got a job in North Carolina at a diner in the mountains. It was there that she met Miss Sarah, a Southern Baptist who took her in, gave her a job washing dishes, cleaning toilets, and working the grill, and “showed her the value of hard work.” Although Miss Sarah was a devout Christian, she made her feel valued and embraced, invited her to celebrate Christmas with her family, and even tried to observe Ramadan.
“I remember being very nervous about coming out to her—after all, she was a Southern Baptist,” Mufleh explained in her Ted Talk. “I sat on the couch next to her and I said, ‘Miss Sarah, you know that I'm gay.’ Her response is one that I will never forget. ‘That's fine, honey. Just don't be a slut.’”
That line got a big laugh and roaring applause. But, to me, it was more than just a humorous aside—it was integral to the effectiveness of the entire presentation. Vulnerability, admitting one’s fears and insecurities and sharing truly personal stories with others is not only key to a good conversation and effective communication, it’s precisely what’s missing in so much of what passes for discourse in today’s media, social or otherwise. Polemics, talking heads, and “gotcha” journalism dominate too much of our media on the left and right. It is only when we speak in the first person and share who we are and how we became that person that we truly communicate.
It was with all this in mind that I reached out to Mufleh, whom I’d worked with on a few op-eds in the past, to be my first guest on The First Person. “I’d love to,” she replied almost immediately, giving me a little more confidence that this newsletter might actually get off the ground. On a recent wintery morning, she was kind enough to speak to me from her home in Columbus, Ohio, where she moved in 2018 to open her second Fugees Academy. Luma’s voice is kind, her speech straightforward and thoughtful, like you’d expect from a good teacher and coach. Before I can ask a question, she asks me why I chose to leave mainstream journalism and start The First Person.
“What prompted you to go this way?”
“Oh gosh, mainstream newspapers,” I reply. “I left the old-fashioned newspaper business with editorial pages that speak in the royal ‘we’ and often endorse certain politicians or ideologies, because I felt it was increasingly partisan and stifling. There’s this ridiculous idea out there that there’s only left and right and we have to shout back and forth all the time, drives me insane. So the independence and creative freedom Substack offers was, to me, a revelation, and I’m hoping it will allow me to have meaningful conversations with real people about real things.”
“Yeah. I'm interested,” says Mufleh. “Too often we don’t have meaningful conversations and discussions. It’s just who can yell the loudest and who can pit one against the other. It’s exhausting.”
“Thanks again for agreeing to do this,” I reply. “The first time I heard of you, like so many others, was through your TED Talk, which blew me away.”
“I lost five pounds that week,” says Mufleh. “I was a nervous wreck.”
“Well, you did a fabulous job. You have this great moment where your students say to you, ‘You hate public speaking. Why are you doing this?’ And you say, “It's important that I speak about us, that I speak about your journeys, about my journey." And you said that people need to know. I think that was really beautiful. It was a moment in the TED Talk when you really grabbed the crowd, and then they started to really listen in a different way. Tell me a little bit about your journey and why it was so important for you to give that talk?”
“It started off way back with a pickup soccer game in Clarkston, Georgia. I'd been running a café and working odd jobs, and I would go to this Middle Eastern grocery store to get ingredients for Syrian dishes. One day I made a wrong turn and saw some kids playing soccer who were originally from Afghanistan, Liberia and Sudan. I coached club soccer at the Y at that point, so I had a soccer ball in my trunk. They reminded me of home. They reminded me of the way I grew up playing soccer with my cousins and brothers, and I grabbed the ball. They wanted it, we haggled, and they finally let me into their game.”
“So that was the beginning of it,” she continues. “There wasn't this overarching plan of I'm going to start a school, or I'm going to work with refugees. It was just kids playing pickup soccer, a game that I love, that was the common language we had. And as I got to know the kids, they'd asked for help with their homework. I'm like, ‘Go get your parents to help you’—not realizing that their parents were illiterate in their home languages. And so I started working with them and very quickly realized that the system was failing them. They were passing even if they couldn’t read. And it shook me because I grew up believing that education in the U.S. was supposed to be this great equalizer. Everybody has access to the same things. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish whatever you want. But my players didn't. They were being set up for failure by a system that didn’t know how to meet their needs.
“So I said, ‘If these were my kids, what would I do?’ I'd send them to a school that could meet their needs. There wasn't one out there. So I decided to start a school with one teacher and six students in a church basement. And just tailor everything to their needs and their gaps. And then every year it grew. In 2018, we opened our second campus in Columbus. And now we're looking to see how we can partner with school districts to implement our model and our approach for their newcomer students.”
“And you had an affinity for these kids as refugees, given your background?”
“Yes, I understand being on the outside,” says Mufleh. “Being the only one in the room, whether it’s being gay or Arab or Muslim, or having left my country. I've always felt that, and I think that’s why I can relate to some of their experiences.”
“In your experience it was soccer, what the world calls football, the ‘beautiful game,’ that helped you through a lot of those issues,” I say. “I had a similar experience with American football. When I was in high school, I had two brothers who had schizophrenia and one of them passed away. Sadly, he died when I was 16. But football somehow saved my life—the structure, the beauty of it, the discipline and the camaraderie. I wonder if you could speak more directly about how the game of soccer helped you, and also helps refugees you’ve encountered.”
“Yes, to your point about sports, it’s organized, it’s structured, you know what to expect. You know you have practice at this time. It's usually very predictable what you do at practice. And I think when you've experienced trauma, having that structure is very much needed. And then you’re with a group of your peers that have your back no matter what. You work as a team; you have another adult to help guide you and push you to your limits. And you feel you can accomplish anything. And it's also feeling strength in your body where maybe outside of the sport, it’s chaos and you’re terrified and you’re scared. It’s like, at least there's one to two hours of my day that I am in control and I am successful, and I am strong, and I'm working with others. Being alone is hard. Your teammates know if you're having a hard time. They can read your body language. They know if something is a little off, and they know what to do. And I think for refugee kids, in particular, coming to a new country, soccer works well, because that is something that they remember from home that has positive connotations.”
“And with soccer, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment,” I say.
“Yeah, all you need is a ball,” says Mufleh. “We have kids from different cultures on our teams that play together, and it’s about winning and losing together, and improving. For me, my teammates were the ones I knew were always there for me. There’s also something special about tough coaches. You know they love you, but they're very disciplined and strict and have high expectations and push you to your physical and mental limit.”
That seems more important now than ever, I suggest, when so much of our time and our interaction is on screens.
“Yeah,” says Mufleh. “And it doesn't have to be competition in a league or something organized. Even a pickup game is important. Because there's play and you’re having fun. Who cares who wins? Everything these days is so ‘I’ oriented, instead of ‘we.’ Sports brings the ‘we’ back in. Yes, our country is divided and the world is divided. But sports bring people together.”
“And yet,” I reply, “the divisions are deep, and young people are aware of them. Since you gave your Ted Talk, the number of refugees in the world has risen to more than 82 million, many of them from your ancestral home of Syria. Now, after the U.S. withdrawal, Americans are focused on the Afghan refugee crisis. The crises in Syria and in parts of Africa and Myanmar have fallen off the radar.”
“Maybe it’s just exhaustion,” says Mufleh. It’s hard to articulate. The Syrian crisis, even in Europe, has dropped off the radar. We prioritize the new trauma, the new war, and forget that we didn’t resolve the previous one. We just keep repeating the cycle. We know countries are unstable and yet there's no preventative action. We tend to blame the refugees instead of acknowledging the role foreign policy has had in creating them. Now it's Afghanistan. We've resettled more than 70,000 Afghan refugees, but we forget about the others. There are still Syrian refugees. There are still Congolese refugees. There are still Myanmar refugees. They’re still there. It's not that we’ve resolved those conflicts, and those countries are stable and everything is fine, but we act that way. I'm in a WhatsApp group with family members. We exchange recipes. And my mom’s cousin is still in Syria. She refuses to leave. She's like, ‘Where am I going to go? I'm going to die here.’ And we'll know when the power's out, because we don't hear from her for days. And then when we do, she sends a picture of a cup of juice, and we're like, ‘What is that?’ And she's like, ‘Well, there's no gas. So we’re having juice today.’”
She’s mentioned Middle Eastern cooking twice now, so I ask her if, as an immigrant to the U.S. and daughter of Syrian refugees, food isn’t, like soccer, a way to remain close to home?
“Yes,” says Mufleh “Food is a great bridge. It's a way to bring community. It’s also a way for everyone to stay in touch with their own cultures. Just ask any immigrant, the first thing you identify in a new city is a grocery store where you can get the right ingredients. It's not a post office. It's not the DMV. It's like, "Is there a grocery store I can go to?" And if not in this town, how far away?”
“What's your favorite Syrian dish?” I ask.
“That’s a hard one. There’s kibbeh labanieh. It’s a meat dumpling with ground meat and pine nuts and allspice, and it's cooked in a yogurt sauce and it's delicious. And then anything with lentils. One of my favorites is noodles with lentils flavored with pomegranate molasses. You can put a flat noodle macaroni in it, and garlic and cilantro. It is so good.”
“That sounds wonderful,” reply. “But as much as I’d love to learn more about Syrian food and recipes, I want to ask you about your forthcoming book, Learning America, due out in April from Mariner Books.”
“Well, it’s about the founding of the Fugees and our trajectory,” says Mufleh, “from a pickup soccer game to two Fugees Academies, with my story woven into it. It’s also about the highs and lows of starting anew in a country, whether it's as an individual or with an organization, or with your family. It’s also about the ways schools fail our kids, and what can be done about it. It’s full of stories and lessons I've learned along the way. I like to say it's the book I wish I had before I started this work, to know how messy it is. I think we usually want the superhero story and we don't talk about shortcomings or the really, really lows and times we failed. I wanted it to be more authentic.
“The truth is schools are failing our kids and that’s not OK,” she continues. “As a country, we should be doing a lot better. Some of it is simple. Some of it is increasing access to team sports, because you talk to kids, and so many of them say football, soccer or volleyball got me through school. Well, if you're hearing that from kids, why are we not doing that more? Why is it exclusive or only try-out teams or only for people who can pay? Why isn't every kid given that opportunity? Kids talk about the arts in the same way. Yet the arts and sports are often low priorities. We have an opportunity now, after the pandemic, to actually do something. But the worst thing we can do is pretend everything is fine and go back to how it was, instead of seeing this as an opportunity to address things we’ve gotten wrong in the past.”
“Did you discover things in the act of writing that you were surprised to discover?” I ask?
“Yes,” says Mufleh. “It made me address some things I had blocked out or compartmentalized. I had to really revisit and explain what a refugee is and why people leave their countries. Most times it’s not just for ‘a better life’—it’s for survival.”
“And you address that directly in your schools, with something called a ‘whole child’ approach?”
“Yes. I think it’s important for all kids, not just refugees,” says Mufleh. “I believe if you design something that works for the most vulnerable, it benefits everyone. Schools tend to focus so much on academics and testing. And don't get me wrong, we have good outcomes, but it's not because of the curriculum we use. It's not even because of our teachers all teaching the same way. It's because of the environment we create in school where kids are seen, they're heard, they feel like they belong. They feel safe. And, I believe that's where they get good outcomes. We begin everyday with a handshake to welcome our students, but also to feel their heart rate, making sure it's nice and steady. We want our kids to feel that they can be themselves, that they don't have to hide a certain part of themselves or be afraid to ask questions. We try to create a team environment where every player thrives. If any of them are hurting, that's our responsibility, and if any of them are succeeding, that's everybody's celebration. Too often teachers and parents just want to celebrate their kids’ wins and not work through the losses. We have to do both.”
Knowing she became a U.S. citizen in 2011 in what she called a “very emotional” ceremony, I ask Mufleh if seeing her students coming together as a team and excel doesn’t give her hope in the U.S. and its motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One.)
“Yes,” she says enthusiastically. “We formed a team with all different races, all different faiths, a school that celebrates everyone, where kids are learning about each other, and they don't feel threatened. I’ve been traveling the country recently, visiting schools from Idaho to Kentucky to Massachusetts to New Hampshire. They all want to do right by their kids. Many of them don’t have the tools to do it. So we’re looking for ways to partner with them and make it happen. I firmly believe the vast majority of Americans are good people. They're not hateful. They're good people. But too often the people who get the microphone are the ones who yell the loudest, not the ones who make the most sense.
“I look back at how I was welcomed into this country. And I know I came with a lot of privilege. I speak English well; I can pass for being born here. But it still welcomed me, and it took me in at my lowest point and it protected me. I'm fiercely loyal and patriotic because of that. And I want to make the country better. I feel we have a responsibility to bring people together and maybe sports—and food—can help us do that.”
“I truly hope so,” I say, thanking her profusely for being my first guest on The First Person, and intent on finding a local Mediterranean restaurant—or friend—that can place before me a lovely plate of noodles and lentils flavored with pomegranate molasses as soon as humanly possible.
Like all TFP conversations, this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Arriving in your inbox later this week, TFP’s first guest essay, Counting Lights. I’m thrilled to have renowned author and philosopher, Scott Samuelson, contributing TFP’s inaugural essay. In keeping with this week’s theme of athletics and education, the author of The Deepest Human Life and Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, reflects on the reward and agony of high-school wrestling—and how he discovered the true meaning of “Reversal is the movement of the Way.”
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