October 6, 2010
Luma Mufleh, the inspirational coach of a soccer team called the Fugees (for "refugees") in Georgia, topic of the best-selling book Outcasts United and the subject of a forthcoming motion picture, will speak at Johnson State College on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m., in Dibden Center for the Arts. Her presentation is free and open to the public.
Players on the Fugees team come from 18 war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Congo, Somalia and Sudan. Most of them have endured unimaginable hardship: one young boy was forced by soldiers to shoot his own best friend, another watched his father shot to death, and all have been robbed of their childhood.
An immigrant from Jordan, Mufleh moved to Georgia upon graduation from Smith College. After seeing a group of boys playing soccer in the street without even the most basic equipment - "something that reminded her of home" - she organized a soccer team and recruited them as members. She quickly realized that in addition to the challenges faced by all adolescents, the players on her team were dealing with post-traumatic stress, language barriers, cultural disconnects and devastating poverty.
She made a commitment to the young children and in the process made a commitment to their families as well. The team provides strict discipline (all players must sign a code of conduct contract), tutoring for the players, and a sense of community for them and their families. Weaving together a community based on shared experiences both on and off the field, Mufleh helps the players develop support networks for themselves and their entire families.
In 2006 Mufleh helped found an organization to help refugee families transition to life in the U.S. by providing tutoring, housing assistance, and health and educational programming. She also founded Fresh Start, a cleaning service that employs immigrants and refugees and helps then learn English, computer and other skills. In 2007, Mufleh gave ownership of Fresh Start to her employees.
With an emphasis on what can be done to change the life of one child, one family at a time, Mufleh's work is the kind of "social entrepreneurship" that radically transforms any community.
Mufleh's appearance is one of several events at JSC this fall related to refugee issues in general and the book Outcasts United in particular. Outcasts United is this year's common book at JSC and an integral component of the college's First-Year Experience program for incoming students. Many themes of the book - making a new start, adjusting to a new way of life, meeting new people and adapting to change -" dovetail with the experiences of students who are starting college, and the book and related events help students broaden their understanding of the world and make connections with people "outside their comfort zone." The book's author, New York Times reporter Warren St. John, spoke at the college in September.
Mufleh talks movingly about how she became involved with the Fugees, the plight of the children she helps and what they teach her in return. The story of The Fugees and their coach embodies many of the ideals that are thought of as "American": using one's own ideas and talents to help the common goal and remembering, as she puts it, that "we don't win or lose aloneâ€"it's always the team score in the end."