In 2004, Luma Mufleh took a wrong turn on her way home from a Middle Eastern market where she picked up her weekly supply of salty halloumi cheese and flat bread.
She ended up turning into an apartment complex in Clarkston where she saw barefoot refugee children playing soccer in the streets with a raggedy soccer ball and using rocks for goals. The sight reminded Mufleh of her childhood in Jordan, where soccer was an important part of her life. She returned to the apartment complex a few days later with a soccer ball, and then decided to form a soccer team for refugee boys — the Fugees (short for “refugees”).
Since then, Mufleh and her nonprofit, the Fugees Family, have grown to include year-round soccer programs for girls and boys, tutoring and Fugees Academy — the nation’s only school (which is free for students) dedicated to refugee education.
Mufleh was recently named one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2016. The honor puts a spotlight on the Fugees Family, which provides a community of support, helping kids to heal and adjust to American life.
Mufleh, along with nine other nominated heroes, who include a retiree who transformed his horse farm into a sanctuary for children with disabilities and a man who brings once-in-a-lifetime experiences to young adults battling cancer, will each receive a $10,000 cash prize. One of the 10 heroes will be named “CNN Hero of the Year,” and receive an additional $100,000 for his or her cause. You can vote for the “CNN Hero of the Year” via email, Facebook Messenger and Twitter. People can vote up to 10 times a day, per method, every day through midnight Pacific Time Dec. 6. To vote, go to www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/vote/.
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“At a time when we have 65 million refugees in the world, more than World War II, it is important that this issue and work be highlighted,” Mufleh said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And we are humbled to play a very small role in welcoming refugees in the USA.”
“It’s getting people from all over the world, from all different faiths, to come together to do something great,” Mufleh, who is Jordanian-born and now a U.S. citizen, said in the CNN piece.
Last spring, the Fugees Academy graduated its first class. The Fugees have helped more than 800 refugee children.
The remarkable efforts of Mufleh and others will be highlighted on “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” which will air on CNN at 8 p.m. Dec. 11. ABC’s Kelly Ripa will join Anderson Cooper as co-host for this special 10th annual show, which will air live from New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
Over the years, Mufleh and the Fugees have received widespread media attention. In 2012, Mufleh was featured in an AJC Personal Journey. One morning during the fall of that year, Mufleh, who is known for tough love and helping some of our newest and most vulnerable residents thrive, told her students the story of how the Fugees got started.
There was this one kid running around all over the place, and he wouldn’t hold his position, so I asked what was his name, and they said, “One Shoe.” The boy was wearing just one shoe, one oversized black sneaker on his left foot, his kicking foot. He was having the time of his life. After One Shoe came off the field, he took off his sneaker, wiped it off carefully, put on his flip flops, preparing himself for the walk two miles home. He never complained. … The most important thing to remember is your love of the game. What matters most is you play hard and you play with heart.
Lewis Makor was on that first Fugees team. Twelve years old at the time, the Sudan native was quiet and shy.
“If I never met Coach, I’d be out of school, working right now, and maybe pulled into the wrong crowd,” Makor said in 2012. Now 23, Makor is currently studying at Georgia State University.
Mufleh taught him how to do a corner kick and pass a ball to a teammate. She helped him learn to read. And she inspired him on how to live his life.
“She always says to me, ‘Dream big. And if you can’t reach it, keep going for it,’” said Makor.