How football brings refugee children together

Luma Mufleh on founding Fugees Family Schools and using sport to heal from trauma

January 08, 2024
Image: Luma Mufleh
Image: Luma Mufleh

“I’ve seen football bring kids from warring factions together,” says Luma Mufleh, founder and CEO of Fugees Family, a US non-profit organisation that runs schools for refugee and immigrant children. She is speaking to me on Zoom from her office at a school in Columbus, Ohio, a map of the world visible over her shoulder. “We have kids from Sudan and South Sudan playing on the same team, Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shia… Football’s a global language.” 

A gay, Arab, Muslim woman and a refugee herself, Mufleh has always found football to be a lifeline. Her grandparents, also refugees, fled Syria in 1964 during the first Assad regime, packing five children (including Mufleh’s mother) into a car, while also pregnant with a sixth. Mufleh was born in 1975 and grew up in Amman, Jordan. Her grandmother took her to play with children in Jordan’s refugee camps. “I was scared—it was crowded and dirty,” she recalls. “But take away the surface, and it comes down to a ball and kids playing together.”

In deeply conservative Jordan during the 1980s, coming out wasn’t an option. “I knew I was different,” she recalls. “The ‘messages’ were strong enough to know I shouldn’t tell anyone.” She left Jordan in 1993 to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where, aged 16, she read a Newsweek interview with Martina Navratilova discussing her sexuality. “I started sobbing because I finally had a word to identify with.” 

During her senior year at college, Mufleh applied for asylum. “As a gay woman, it would’ve been dangerous, possibly fatal, to return to Jordan. When my father learned I was gay, he and the rest of my family, except my grandmother, cut me off financially and emotionally… My whole identity was ripped out.” 

Luma graduated from Smith College with a BA in Anthropology. She drifted for a couple of years, until, in 2004, she met a group of refugee kids playing football outside apartment buildings in Clarkston, Georgia. 

Mufleh ended up coaching the boys, naming the team “Fugees”. “My first group of kids were from Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan… I had a 15-year-old kid from Sierra Leone whose fingers had been chopped off—he’s a goalie and I didn’t realise until I tried to put the gloves on him.”

In 2006, she founded Fugees Family, an organisation dedicated to refugee and immigrant education. Fugees Family schools teach children from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC and Myanmar. “Everybody on the team’s experienced something, whether they witnessed their grandmother being murdered, their moms being raped, or dads being killed… To go through what they’ve been through and come out on top, that’s strength.”  

Playing football at FF schools is “non-negotiable” for all students. “Every kid plays on the football team and does music or art once a day. We start off our mornings with yoga or martial arts. Our teachers are trained in trauma-informed practices. We have psychiatrists we refer out to in extreme situations, but a lot of studies show sports and arts heal people much better than traditional therapy.”

Fugees Family now has three schools—in Ohio, Georgia and Kentucky. There are plans for five more academies in 2024, and a goal of 25 schools across the US by 2025. 

Mufleh now lives in Columbus and is married to a Jewish woman from the Midwest. They have three children. Last summer, she reunited with her family in Turkey. “It had been 26 years since we’d been together. It was the first time my kids had met their grandparents. It was magical. All of us softened a bit—the anger had to be let go of.” 

In 2022, around the world, the number of people displaced by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuses increased by 19.1m from the previous year. The total forcibly displaced population last year was 108.4m. “We’re looking at setting up living arrangements on the moon. But we can’t take care of each other or protect each other,” says Mufleh. “Only 0.01 per cent of us get to start a new life in a safe democratic country.” 

She blames the global refugee crisis on western governments’ support for dictators and deplores the dangerous demonising of immigrants and refugees by US politicians, the UK government and other global leaders. “I’d like people to embrace immigrants,” she says. “You have people who have fled war, fled their country, left everything behind. These people are resilient, strong, brilliant… They can bring so much of their cultures to ours.”  

Believe In Them by Luma Mufleh is out now (Cogito, £9.99).