For two hours each afternoon, Armistead Field comes alive with the sound of laughter, broken English and the pop of cleats to leather as children of Clarkston, Ga., come together for a typical game played around the world — soccer.
But the members of this soccer team, aptly named the Fugees, are anything but typical American teens. They have come to this small town on the outskirts of Atlanta to escape their war-torn homes in Afghanistan and Sudan and Bosnia. In a way, this soccer team, started by a young woman who once felt lost herself, provides an escape from the hardships that they now face as refugees starting over America.
“I think we all have places that are refuge for us, and that’s where we go, you know. We feel safe there,” Luma Mufleh, coach of the Fugees soccer team, told TODAY correspondent Tiki Barber. “It’s a place where they’re not judged. There are no problems coming on the field.”
The daughter of a steel-factory owner, who grew up in an affluent Arab family in Jordan, complete with chauffeurs and cooks, coach Luma was trying to find her own way when she stumbled upon The Fugees three years ago. Her father had sent her to study at Smith College in Massachusetts, but after four years, Luma made the difficult decision to remain stateside.
“I felt I was disappointing them by telling them I didn’t want to come back. And I did,” she said.
Suddenly Luma was privileged no more. Her father cut her off and for the next few years she bounced from place to place, always looking to prove herself to the patriarch she had defied.
When she happened upon the Fugees, however, all of her troubles were suddenly put into perspective.
“One kid on my team saw his dad shot to death. I’ve had another kid see his dad’s fingers cut off in front of him and then his shoulder slashed. Some of the moms have been raped. These kids, the rebels take them and they say, oh, you’re gonna be a soldier for us. And they give them drugs. They give them weapons. They’re giving them a bandana to identify which group they’re with. And they send them out to kill and you’re thinking about them and you’re like, how can — you know, how did — how did you survive that?”
Stumbling upon the Fugees
In 2003, Luma was running a small café in Georgia. During a drive through nearby Clarkston, she saw a group of kids playing soccer, barefoot, and it reminded her of home. She got out of her car and played a game with the kids, then returned for a few more times over the next few weeks. Pretty soon she was posting signs in Arabic and recruiting a team. Seven months after the first practice, she closed her café. The prices of coffee, Luma said, seemed trivial compared to her players' reality, which flashed to the forefront at the most unexpected of times.
“We’re out on the field one day practicing and some kid in the neighborhood was lighting fireworks loose and everybody hit the ground. You know? And one of the kids was scared, he’s like, ‘They’re coming for us.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And it reminded him of when the rebels went into his village.”
While they are physically safe now, Luma knows that life in America poses its own challenges. Most of the kids’ parents have no education so the poverty at home is often crushing. They battle constant racisim on and off the field. Some of her players told Luma it feels as if they have exchanged one war for another.
In one game, Luma instructed her players to smile no matter what. The team obliged, even when the opposing coach got ejected for calling one of them the "n" word.
“How do you smile when somebody’s — you know, putting you down?”
More than a coach
Luma has become more than just a coach to her players, who range in age from 9 to 17. She has become an advocate, fighting for better fields; she is a source of income, having started a cleaning business that employs six refugee women; and she is a pivotal figure in her players' attempts to integrate. She knows the soccer field may be their refuge, but the classroom is their future. So with the help of volunteers, she’s instituted tutoring sessions after each practice. Attendance is mandatory.
“You know, some days it is overwhelming because the families don’t have much so a lot of it rests on you,” she said. “I mean, sometimes it scares me ... the responsibility.”
On the day she told her father she wasn’t coming back home, Luma never imagined she would have embraced such a responsibility.
She had barely talked to her dad in years when he came to the U.S. for a visit.
“We went over to one of the families’ houses for dinner. And we’re sitting there eating,” Luma said. “And the kids don’t eat the fish 'til my dad is done. And then they eat the fish, and they’re sucking off the bone. And he’s just — my dad always has something to say. And he, you know, didn’t have anything to say. And we walk out after it’s done. And he — puts his arm around me. He’s like, ‘I’m proud of you.’"
Luma says her relationship with her father is better than it’s ever been, although she has not been back to her family’s home in Jordan in 12 years.
“You can’t just take two weeks off to go home,” Luma said. “I don’t know if my dad will fly 50 kids home with me.”
That’s what she says it will take to get her back; she can’t imagine leaving the the Fugees for more than a few days. But if her father wants her home, he better act now or else he might be buying a few more plane tickets. The Fugees seem to be growing exponentially, and in February Luma added a girls’ team to her three boys’ squads.
She, and The Fugees, show no signs of slowing down in the future.
“These kids are my life. These families are my life,” she said. “I mean is it destiny? Is it fate? Is it — did I just land here by accident? I don’t know..."
"I mean I belong here. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”