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'Fugee' Power

(By correspondent Tiki Barber and producer Izhar Harpaz)The most important power that any of us have is the power of influence. Some people abuse that responsibility for personal gain or ill purpose. Others, however, use it to profoundly change the lives of those around them; Luma Mufleh is one of those people. After seeing a group of refugee kids playing soccer in a rundown neighborhood outside

(By correspondent Tiki Barber and producer Izhar Harpaz)

The most important power that any of us have is the power of influence. Some people abuse that responsibility for personal gain or ill purpose. Others, however, use it to profoundly change the lives of those around them; Luma Mufleh is one of those people. After seeing a group of refugee kids playing soccer in a rundown neighborhood outside Atlanta, Georgia, she decided to start a soccer team.  And under her leadership "The Fugees" have become so much more than just a group of kids kicking around a ball on a grass field.

To her players, Luma has become much more than their soccer coach.  They depend on her for guidance, support, direction; to many of them she is their mother away from home. To some she has become "mom," plain and simple. When we first met Luma, we could feel that nurturing spirit in her. She has a capacity for caring for people she barely knows.  On the field, whether at practice or during a game, she is as tough a coach as they come: firm without being overbearing, she expects a lot from her players, and she doesn't mince any words in letting them know it. She is equally immovable when it comes to schoolwork. She told us:

"It's a requirement to attend tutoring.  And if you don't attend tutoring, you're not going to play. These kids have so many things stacked against them.  If they let that part of their life go, like, if they give up on their academics, where are they going to be, you know, eight years from now?”

So when it came to soccer and studying it was “tough love,” but away from the field and classroom we saw how Luma shed some of her resolute demeanor. Whether she was putting her arms around a kid who was struggling with some personal problems – and virtually all of the children are – or holding one of her player’s baby sister during one of her frequent family visits, she exuded warmth and compassion.  It’s something these kids need as much as they need direction, Luma told us, especially in a country that reveals itself to be not only one of immeasurable promise, but also of continued struggle:

“I think in this country there's this concept of melting pot.  We all come in and we're immediately okay.  And it's not like that… I mean, it doesn't make sense when other people are like, well you're not American. I'm like, "well, they are. They're trying to be."

For now, Luma is the voice that her players don’t have…yet. Her “Fugees” know she is there for them whenever they need her. Whenever. Who among us has not longed for such a pillar in their lives? The Fugees have Luma Mufleh.

Shamsoun Dikori is one of Luma’s “Fugees”. For us he became the embodiment of personal inspiration and determination, a pioneer among his peers.  He is the first in his family, and also the first in his extended “Fugee” family to go to college -- and on a full academic and soccer scholarship to boot. He is the first to take steps toward the American dream that virtually all the Fugees aspire to.

 Shamsoun is deep; deep in a way that lets you know he is aged much more than his years would suggest.  He is humble and shy, yet confident and self-assured.  He has seen and experienced unimaginable pain – the destruction of his village and a car crash that killed his mother and three younger siblings – yet he smiles as easily and broadly as an innocent child. His goal is clear – to become a doctor and return to his birth place in Sudan’s Nuba mountains to help improve the lives of his impoverished brothers and sisters. We found this desire to “give back” among many of the Fugees, no doubt inspired by the coach who is giving so much to them.

On our last day of shooting Shamsoun and his family invited us over for dinner. Their home is modest but filled with warmth and openness.We met his father, Daldoum, a reserved and humble man: even after Shamsoun told him over a delicious meal of okra and potato stews that he was accepted to college on a full scholarship, he barely reacted.  But we see could see that inside his heart was bursting with pride. Quietly he said, “our relatives in the Nuba Mountains will party for days.”All the guests around the dinner table grew silent. And for a moment, it seemed, we all could hear the pulsating rhythm of far-away drums and the faint crescendo of singing voices, united in celebrating the boy who had dared to believe he could overcome the physical and spiritual destruction of war… and succeeded.

Click here to visit the Fugees Web site.  Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this report, which aired on TODAY yesterday and today. Click here and here to watch the video.