On her way to the grocery store one day, Luma Mufleh, then a girls' soccer coach at a YMCA in Clarkston, Ga., noticed a bunch of boys playing soccer in the streets of the Atlanta suburb. Many were dark-skinned and had foreign accents. None had uniforms or cleats. Their mothers, some of them in veils, looked on.
The sight reminded Mufleh, who is 32, of her childhood in Jordan. "It looked like home," Mufleh told Beliefnet, "so I sat outside and watched them play."
Within a week, Mufleh was coaching the boys, ages 9 through 17. Like her, the children were all immigrants to this country. Unlike her, they came as refugees from war-ravaged lands--Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Gambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan. Many had witnessed atrocities. They knew hunger, loss, and terrible grief.
Dubbing her new team "The Fugees" in a nod to their common bond as refugees, Mufleh soon found herself as busy off the field as on. Many of the children and their families needed help finding work, getting enough food, and negotiating new schools, new languages, and new customs. Last year, she founded Fugees Family Foundation, a nonprofit that works to ease the transition of refugee families to life in the United States.
Mufleh is nominated as one of Beliefnet's Most Inspiring People of the Year for devoting herself to the needs of young immigrants and working to smooth their transition to becoming Americans as well as athletes.
"Coming to the U.S. and leaving my country, I had such a hard time adjusting," she told Beliefnet. "But now I realize there are so many people who have it much harder, and I don't want them to feel the way that I felt. I want them to feel there is a place for everyone here."
Mufleh’s inspiration comes from her grandmother, who gave food and money to anyone who came to her for help. "She was a very humble and giving woman. She never turned anyone away. She said, 'I give what I can of myself, and I don't expect anything in return.' That has always stuck with me." She is also inspired by the mothers of the kids she coaches. "Their strength, resilience, and determination are what motivate me to do better every day," she told Edutopia Magazine.
Today, the Fugee family is growing. There are four soccer teams of about 100 children, including one for girls ages 12-16. All sign a contract committing to doing homework and staying away from drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and bad language. A dispute with the city of Clarkston, Ga., over a field for the Fugees to practice has been settled, at least temporarily. Mufleh must ask permission of the city for a place to play every few months.
The program is expanding beyond just sports. Fresh Start, a cleaning service she founded to provide income and self-development for the parents of some of the soccer players, has been handed over to the employees. Fugee Family has launched a tutoring program, on a trial basis, to help students who might be falling through the cracks. And last summer, she took 40 kids to her alma mater, Smith College in Northampton, Mass., to participate in a literacy and sports camp.
"Their parents have never been to college, so they'll be first generation to go, and we wanted to show them what the possibilities were," she said.
But it is her own education, she says, that is just beginning.
"I am getting more of an education now than I did in my four years of school," she told Beliefnet. "Of what it means to be poor in this country or to be black. In school you can write papers on it and spend hours talking about it, but until you see it firsthand you don't really understand."