We recently met Luma Mufleh and heard about the great organization that she founded called the Fugees Family. She started this non-profit organization with the intent of taking children from war torn countries and helping them rebuild their lives. She did this initially by providing these children with access to free soccer teams. Since it’s founding 7 years ago, the Fugees Family has grown to include year-round soccer for 86 boys (ages10-18), after-school tutoring, a private academy, and an academic enrichment camp. She also recently expandedvthe program to include a girl’s soccer team this spring. Read on to find out why she’s today’s story of inspiration
OWG: You grew up in the Middle East, so how did you end up in Atlanta, GA?
Luma: My move to Atlanta was not intentional. I had moved to Boston after graduation, but I grew up in the desert and New England winters didn’t agree with me. So I moved to Highlands, NC to work at a restaurant that my classmate’s aunt owned. I wanted to clear my head and figure out what I wanted to do. I fell in love with the South and with the hospitality, kindness and generosity that was shown to me: with okra, sweet tea and buttermilk pie! But Highlands was too small and there was not much opportunity for someone in their 20′s. So I moved to Atlanta 2 days before my 24th birthday, not knowing anyone.
OWG: What made you decide to start the team, and why did you choose soccer?
Luma: One day on a drive I had taken many times to Clarkston, Georgia, to a Middle Eastern grocery store that I frequent, I saw some kids playing soccer outside of their apartment complexes; they played barefoot, and argued over a goal. I watched these kids play for about an hour and by the end I was smiling. These kids reminded me of home. They reminded me of the way I played soccer in the streets of Jordan with my cousins. I also realized they were all refugees, trying to assimilate and make a life for themselves in this country. I decided I wanted to play with them, so I came out later in the week armed with a ball. One of the boys ran up to me and asked if they could use the ball because it was in better condition than the one they had. I asked to play in return. The five boys were skeptical about me joining their game. They got in a huddle and finally one of them came up and said, “OK, you’re on their team.” Of course, I got the chubby kid and the really small one, but it didn’t matter. I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time! We argued about goals, we played barefoot and we sweated. We played for over an hour. I played with the boys a few more times over the next few weeks and gradually won them over. According to them, “Girls don’t know how to play soccer,” but obviously I did. I asked them if they had ever played on a team, and they said no but they would love to.
OWG: How have you been impacted by the stories you’ve heard, through coaching experiences or conversations with your team?
Luma: One day, during my first season, I was dropping a kid home when I looked over at him and noticed he was holding his stomach. The conversation went as follows:
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I am hungry,” he responded.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll be home soon and you can get something to eat,” I responded (thinking that he was trying to get me to pick up some fast food for him).
“No, there is no food at home,” he reported.
I struggled to understand. “There must be something, bread, cheese…”
“No, coach, it’s that time of the month.”
“Time of the month?” Later I found out that “time of the month” meant the time the food stamps run out. That night I walked him to his apartment. Inside, it was complete darkness. I looked for food, but there was none. Instead, I found his mother huddled in the corner of the living room, rocking back and forth, shaking her head, and muttering, “I work hard every day, every day I work.” His mom, I later found out, was working 40 plus hours cleaning rooms at a 4 star hotel and not getting paid any overtime.
After buying groceries and trying to draw a budget for his family (and failing miserably), I realized that I had barely scratched the surface. I felt so naive and helpless. Children living less than five miles away from me were going to bed hungry because their parents weren’t getting paid enough to make ends meet. All of a sudden it was clear to me that worrying about whether I was charging enough for a latte was inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. Seven months later, I closed my cafe and filed for bankruptcy. Realizing that my world was changing, I got ready to start a new business that would employ some of the moms of the kids on the team. On the day the cafe closed, one of the moms gave me $50 telling me that this was to help me while I found work. She also said that if I needed somewhere to live I could stay at their place.
OWG: Could you share a specific story of how the team has made a difference in one of the player’s or his family’s life?
Luma: Mark, a 12 year old Liberian, moved to Arizona last year. Two days before he moved I got a call from his principal at school saying that Mark’s mom couldn’t find him. I told him to tell the mom that everything was okay and that Mark had come over, crying, not wanting to move because his family, his ‘Fugees’ are here. He calls every Saturday night, and asks, “Coach, did we win today?”
Coach Luma has now set her sights on a school for these children. To find out more about the Fugee Family and how you can help, visit them at www.fugeesfamily.org and thanks to our friends at Plywood People for letting us borrow this interview.