Personal Journeys: A new Sunday feature that spotlights the lives of extraordinary individuals and the stories that define our region and connect our community.
Luma Mufleh flipped open the alumni magazine from Smith College, a prestigious women’s college in Massachusetts. A classmate just earned her Ph.D., another was now a doctor and still another one worked on Wall Street.
Luma’s recent accomplishments included waiting tables at The Cheesecake Factory and starting a coffee shop headed for bankruptcy.
Back home in Jordan, half a world away, Luma’s fabulously wealthy parents didn’t mince words.
So this is what you are doing with your degree in anthropology?
Even soccer, a constant in her life from the streets of Jordan to the manicured fields of Atlanta, had lost its appeal.
Luma had recently resigned from coaching a girls YMCA team, tired of parents yelling at their kids from the sidelines and focusing on playing time and wins.
In 2004, Luma was approaching 30. She didn’t have a career. She didn’t have soccer. And she didn’t have family.
“I was lost,” she said. “I had no direction. And I had a lot of self-doubt.”
On bad days, she’d think maybe her parents were right: She didn’t belong here. Maybe she should move back to Jordan, where she’d never have to work a day in her life.
On better days, she’d hold on to the hope that she’d figure out what she was meant to do in Atlanta.
And then one afternoon, distracted by her thoughts, Luma 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.
2. A privileged life in Jordan.
The eldest of four children, Luma was raised in a Muslim household amid wealth that seems straight out of a fairy tale.
Her family lived in a mansion and employed three maids, a nanny, a cook, a chauffeur and a butler. She attended the same school as Queen Noor’s children. A chauffeur transported Luma to school every day.
Once when she was bored playing inside on a cold, rainy day, a young Luma told her wealthy grandfather she wanted a lamb. He left the house and returned with the animal for her to play with inside the house.
Luma was athletic and excelled in school, and she had lots of friends. Her best pals included a girl from Pakistan and another girl from Britain.
Luma’s younger sister, 27-year-old Inam, remembers her older sister’s bedroom teeming with books.
“It was like a little library,” recalled Inam al-Mufleh, who lives with her parents in Jordan, during a telephone conversation.
Books in English were scarce in Jordan, so Luma asked her father to get her books every time he traveled outside the country. She devoured Enid Blyton’s “Secret Seven” and “Famous Five,” and everything by Charles Dickens.
Despite her upbringing, Luma sensed not everything in the world was storybook perfect. She challenged societal expectations in the Middle East — for herself and her younger sister.
“She had high expectations for me, in a good way, with everything — school work and sports,” said Inam said. “She was very, very strict with me, and she cared. … She was a sister, a parent, a friend.”
Luma expected a lot of her sister, because others didn’t.
“She is a girl, and the bar is set so low,” said Luma.
If Inam stumbled in school, Luma didn’t want an apology. She wanted a plan for doing better next time.
Luma can have a tough exterior, Inam added, “but she is also very sensitive. She just doesn’t like to show it. She doesn’t like to show weakness.”
Luma was deeply influenced by her late grandmother on her mother’s side.
Servants in Luma’s house dined separately from the family. At her grandmother’s house, family and staff ate meals together.
Her mother hosted black-tie charity events. Luma’s grandmother handed out food and supplies in person at refugee camps, and she brought Luma along with her.
Luma began paying more attention to the world around her. She realized her allowance was more than the salaries of the family’s maids, cooks and chauffeur. She started slipping them money.
3. The struggle to find a purpose in America.
Luma always imagined the United States as a place where there would be no limits.
While studying at Smith College, she reveled in the opportunities to study any subject she wanted, read any book she wanted, say whatever she wanted about the government — good or bad.
It was a place where the academic bar was high — and focused entirely on women.
It was liberating.
Still, the abundance of choices were almost too much at times.
“I remember at Smith, a group of us went to a grocery store, and I was in charge of getting the olive oil, and minutes later, a friend found me standing in the aisle with olive oil,” said Luma. “I couldn’t decide. There were 20 kinds of olive oil. … I was used to a couple olive oils, and that’s it.”
At 24, Luma moved to Atlanta, lured by sweet tea, okra and warm weather.
She got a job waiting tables, then worked in information technology for a nonprofit. She opened up Ashton’s, a coffee shop in Decatur.
None of it felt right, so she turned to soccer, the one thing that could lift her spirits even on the crummiest of days. But when soccer fell flat, she felt unhinged.
“I didn’t want to fail but I associated success with wealth and status, so I was afraid of that as well,” she said.
When Luma’s parents realized their daughter was not returning to Jordan, the financial support disappeared.
“Having that rug of privilege pulled out from me, I went from having everything to having nothing,” said Luma. “It made me realize there are people who don’t have a lot, and it’s not always because you are not working hard enough.”
In a post-9/11 America, Luma started doubting everything, even her Arab roots. She considered changing her name.
“I think that was the low point in her life,” said Misty Wyman-Ferrer, a former Smith classmate and close friend of Luma’s. “And many of her friends were worried about her.”
That’s when Luma missed the turn and ended up in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Clarkston. A group of boys were playing soccer using rocks as goals. At first, she simply watched the boys play from her yellow Volkswagen Beetle. They argued and cheered in different languages as a worn-out ball bounced off asphalt. Many of the boys were barefoot; one was wearing just one shoe, too big, on his left foot.
They reminded her of the way she played pickup soccer with siblings and friends back home. There were no referees, no adults, just a group of kids brimming with energy and reveling in the game of soccer.
Luma soon learned the boys — from Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia — were among several thousand war refugees who had been placed in Clarkston, a small city east of Atlanta, a major hub of refugee resettlement.
She returned a few days later with a new soccer ball and asked them if she could play. If they said yes, they could keep the ball.
They really wanted the ball, so they huddled and agreed to let her in.
Luma formed a team and called them “Fugees,” short for “refugees.” She became their coach.
“I could identify with these kids: being an immigrant, and as a foreigner, making it your own, that dual identity, how to keep that part of you that is Arab or African or Asian and combine that with being American,” said Luma. “I felt like I was one degree separated from them.”
And without any formal plan, the Fugees evolved in unexpected ways.
It started one evening after practice. A player asked her for help with his homework, then another, until they formed a line. Before long she found herself sitting on a floor in a dimly lit hallway at an apartment complex assisting boys with everything from Shakespeare to geometry.
She discovered many of the middle-school-aged boys couldn’t read or write, so she did something bold. With the parents’ permission, she pulled six of the players out of public school, hired a teacher and rented apartment space. The kids jumped two, three grade levels. She added six more students the following year.
Last year, she opened up the school to girls. Today, Luma is the CEO of Fugees Family, a nonprofit organization devoted to child survivors of war, and runs Fugees Academy with 57 refugee children.
4. Building a school with high expectations.
Minutes before 8 a.m. on a recent morning, Luma stands at the front door of Fugees Academy, eyes noting any deviance from a strict dress code.
“Fix your collar. … Button your cuffs. … Fix your collar. Button your cuffs.”
She calls her style “Montessori meets military.” The rooms are basic and cheery, filled with hands-on projects and books. Students watch their language. Rudeness can land you in detention.
Luma runs a disciplined institution, but it’s full of tough love. Those who want to get on board must first sign a contract, agreeing to rules that demand good behavior on and off the field: no smoking; no drinking alcohol; no earrings on boys; no big jewelry on girls; no wearing pants that fall down; no gang activity; and no hair longer than Luma’s for boys.
“The bar is set so low for these kids,” said Luma. “So we need to set a high bar and expect that they meet it.”
Children stand up when an adult enters a classroom, but when Luma walks into a room, the children leap out of their chairs, stand tall, eyes intently focused on a woman the students call, “Coach.”
She refuses excuses. A child didn’t finish his homework because he doesn’t speak English? Get help from an after-school tutor, she says. The power out? Go to a classmate’s house where the lights are on, she says.
“I am a softy and I used to be like, ‘If they are late, they are late,’” said Claire Thurman, who runs the after-school mentoring program. “But Luma told me, ‘Don’t make excuses for them. If you make excuses for them, they will make excuses for themselves. If we expect them to be responsible, they will know they can be capable themselves.’”
Of course, it isn’t always easy to be so firm. Luma recently cut three boys from a soccer team because they showed up late for tryouts and were a no-show on another day. They had been on the team for three years, but with a pained look on her face she says the rules are the rules for everyone.
When a student showed up for class recently without a tie, Luma ordered him to go home and get it.
“It would have been easier to just say, ‘Go upstairs to class.’ But I told him to go home and find your tie, and if you don’t, come back with $10 for a new one.”
He showed up 10 minutes later with the tie.
“This is not about, ‘It feels good to help people,” said Thurman. “For Luma, there is this moral imperative that we can’t stand by and watch these kids fall through the cracks. It is unacceptable. … This being Luma’s adopted country, she sees all of the hope it has to offer, and she also sees the system can let down the most vulnerable people.”
Luma is relentless at work. In addition to running the school, she teaches a religion class and coaches five soccer teams. She’s at school by 7:30 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 7 p.m. Then she’s on the computer, working out ideas for everything from fundraising to expanding the facility. Fugees Family receives no public money and runs on donations, mostly small. Seventy percent of the funding comes from donations of about $125 a year.
She keeps the door open to her cinder-block office, which is appointed with a red couch and inspirational movies such as “Gandhi” and “Dead Poets Society.” Students stream in not only to talk about school or soccer but just about everything else — dad lost his job, a relative is sick, a friend is in trouble.
Freshman Babba Jaden, 15, turned to Luma for help coping with anger. It didn’t happen overnight, but Babba said he is more at peace.
“My mind sometimes wanders, and I could get easily distracted,” said Babba, who watched his mother die of a treatable illness in South Sudan because she couldn’t get to a hospital in time as a result of the violence and chaos. “But I am doing better. Coach is helping me.”
Babba said Luma is more than a coach, more than a principal.
“She is like a parent to me.”
Luma often visits families after hours. She doesn’t write checks or buy food, but she helps solve problems.
“If you pay for one power bill, you pay for 50 power bills,” she said. “I don’t believe in coddling. … So they might have to go without power for a few days or a week; maybe they need to budget better.”
Still, she is dogged in developing solutions. She encouraged two moms who struggled to pay their bills to move in together to save money on expenses. So they did.
To help families pay rent, she started The Fugees Supper Club: Moms take turns preparing meals from their native countries for the public, charging $10 a plate. They can clear as much as $800 for one meal. She also started a women’s soccer team for the moms to help them unwind once a week.
She hosts a Fourth of July cookout for the kids every year and celebrates children’s birthdays. She recently organized a cookout for a boy turning 13. It was his first birthday party.
When Rajaa Dafak moved to Clarkston from Baghdad three years ago, she asked Luma for advice on adapting to her new home.
“She speaks fluent in Arabic but she won’t talk to me in Arabic,” said Dafak, whose son attends Fugees Academy. “She told me I must learn English. If she hears me talking to my son Mahmoud in Arabic, she will say, ‘No, you must speak in English.’”
In the Middle East, Dafak said, women can be doctors and lawyers, but they can’t open schools — or coach a boys soccer team. Here Luma and other women don’t have such limitations.
“My son respects her, and I think he respects me more now, too,” she said.
Despite Luma’s efforts, some kids do fall through the cracks, and they haunt her. Early on, there was a teen she kicked off the soccer team for suspected gang activity. Within a couple weeks, the boy killed another youth and is now in prison. There was another boy, acting out of character, who was arrested for armed assault.
“You wonder, could I have done something differently? Could I have paid more attention? And I just thought, I can’t do this anymore. It’s too much …” Luma said.
“But then I would have had to face these kids here and tell them I quit, and they would think, ‘What about the rest of us?’ You see how hard they fight for everything they have …
“You just have to take lessons from life and figure out how do we make this net a little tighter.”
Luma tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears.
“How did I get over that? she said. “I didn’t.”
5. Making plans for the future of the school.
One recent morning, Luma 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,” said Lewis. Now 19 and a senior at Tucker High School, he plans to go to college next fall. Luma is setting up a meeting with Lewis’ parents to discuss his plans.
Luma taught Lewis 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 trying,’” said Lewis.
Last September, Luma became a U.S. citizen after scoring a perfect 100 on the citizenship test.
Asked what it meant to be a U.S. citizen, Luma said to a CBS TV crew, “to finally have a home.”
Luma no longer wants to conceal her Muslim roots. And she’s come to accept, even embrace, being cut off from the family’s fortune.
“All that money can be very controlling, too,” she said. “There is something about making my own money and buying my own home.”
Over the years, Luma and The Fugees have received widespread media attention, including a piece on CBS last year, which led to donations of about $250,000. Luma was “blown away” by the generosity, but it’s still not enough to keep up with her dreams for The Fugees. Luma wants to build a campus in Clarkston that will house a three-story LEED-certified school, a health clinic, a small theater, soccer fields and a community garden. The organization recently purchased 19 acres and needs to raise $4.5 million to get the project off the ground.
Luma envisions the campus as a model for the country. Friends say she misses many nights of sleep worrying about how to secure funding.
But the project has given her a new sense of purpose and direction.
“When you want something to happen, you make it happen,” she said. “We have no other choice.”
About the reporter and photographer
Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer after four-year stints with the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She lives in Decatur with her family, was educated at the University of San Francisco and is often inspired by the people she writes about.
Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Bacon Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal. Skinner first picked up a camera when he was 12, and he feels blessed to have a job that gives him a passport in to the lives of so many interesting people.
How we got the story
Helena Oliviero first heard about Luma Mufleh’s work with refugee children in The AJC and other media outlets including The New York Times. In September, Oliviero asked Luma to share her story about how she came to start a school for refugee children. Since then, Oliviero and photographer Phil Skinner have spent several days at Fugees Academy, attending classes, soccer practices and Supper Club dinners. In addition, Oliviero interviewed some of Luma’s friends, colleagues and family members.
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Coming next week: Andy Stanley leaves his father’s fold to build an Atlanta mega-church.