This tuition-free school provides refugees a unique opportunity and a quality education
Renewal Awards finalist Fugees Academy is expanding from Georgia into the Midwest to empower refugee and immigrant students
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
Adapting to a new environment and culture can be difficult for anyone—especially for children and young adults fleeing the trauma of war. Fugees Academy, the only private school in the country with an exclusively refugee student body, was founded to provide an empowering and fruitful education for young refugees. The school, which serves boys and girls in grades 6 through 12, graduated its first high school seniors in 2016. It boasts a 100 percent college enrollment rate among its graduates, and has ambitious plans to expand into Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana.
Fugees founder Luma Mufleh is a Jordanian-born immigrant, whose background and upbringing—her grandparents fled Syria after a military coup—give her a unique perspective on the plight and promise of refugee children, and the potential that can be unlocked by giving them a proper education. Mufleh, or “Coach” as she’s known to her kids, saw a need in her suburban Georgia community that has received thousands of refugees over the past two decades. We asked Mufleh how her grandmother inspired her, and about the resilience of the refugee community. The following is an edited and condensed version of our Q&A. Learn more about Fugees Academy on their Facebook page, and follow Mufleh on Twitter at @fugeesfamily.
Tell us about the work Fugees Academy is currently doing.
Fugees Academy, America’s only school with an enrollment of exclusively refugee students, is opening a new campus in Columbus, Ohio. In the fall of 2018, we will extend our reach into America’s Heartland by providing refugee students with a rigorous and compassionate education. In the five years that follow, Fugees Academy will open five more campuses in Cleveland, Chicago, and Indianapolis. By expanding our campuses to cities that innovative organizations might overlook, we seek to provide tools for refugee students to find empowerment, education, and employment.
With 100 percent college enrollment, Fugees Academy is also developing a leadership pipeline of refugee and immigrant community leaders within our system of schools. From community based supper clubs to partnering with organizations like Special Olympics, our athlete-scholars are discovering the tools to help themselves, their communities, and our country.
Who is the Fugees community?
Our community is refugee youth, girls and boys, ages 11 through 19. We are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and more. Currently, we reside in Clarkston, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio.
How did you start your community work?
In 2004, I owned a cafe in Decatur, Georgia. I would often shop at this Middle Eastern grocery store that sold authentic food. One day, when I was heading back home, I took a wrong turn. I ended up east of the city, in Clarkston, a small township with one of the most diverse and burgeoning refugee populations in America. I did not know that then. I only knew what I saw.
What I saw were a handful of boys outside of an apartment complex playing soccer. The ball was tattered. The goals were rocks. It reminded of home, of the way I grew up playing soccer in the streets of Jordan with my brothers and cousins. As the daughter of a refugee, I recognized the urgent joy and near ecstasy on their faces as the game unfolded.
The next week, I returned to the same spot with a brand new soccer ball and asked to play. The boys—from Afghanistan, Sudan and Liberia—consulted and agreed. I was their teammate. Before long, I became their coach and we became “The Fugees.” When the boys told me they needed help with homework, I became their tutor. Later, when I discovered some could not read, but were passing English in their local high schools with A’s and B’s, I asked myself what I would do if these were my kids.
I figured that I would send them to a school that could meet their needs. However, there wasn’t one. Moreover, I couldn’t afford private school tuition for one of them, let alone a whole team. So I started a school. We went co-ed in 2011. And now, still, years later, each Fugee knows me first and always as “Coach.”
What inspired you to do this work?
I was eight years old when my grandmother took me to visit my first refugee camp in Jordan. My grandmother had fled Syria for Jordan in 1964 during the first Assad regime, and my grandparents had to rebuild their lives starting from scratch, eventually became independently wealthy Jordanian citizens. I was born in Jordan 11 years after my grandmother had fled their home. Back then, I didn’t know why it was so important to her that we visit the camp.
I remember walking into the camp holding her hand, and her saying, “Go play with the kids,” while she visited with the women in the camp. I didn’t want to. These kids weren’t like me. They were poor. They lived in a camp. I refused. She knelt down beside me and firmly said, “Go. And don’t come back until you’ve played.
My community has taught me to appreciate life and all the little things. To slow down and listen to the birds and smell the grass. To be truly grateful that we are alive. They show what is best about America.
Reluctantly, I went. I never wanted to disappoint my grandmother. A few hours later, after playing soccer with the kids in camp, I returned. Walking out, I excitedly told her what a great time I had and how fantastic the kids were. “Haram!” I said in Arabic. “Haram on us,” my grandmother said, using the word’s different meaning, that we were sinning. “Don’t feel sorry for them; believe in them.” Don’t ever think people are beneath you or that you have nothing to learn from others.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
Every student at Fugees Academy represents a first-generation middle school graduate. The overwhelming majority of data suggest our students should not be finishing high school. Our students are not only graduating: currently, 100 percent of all graduates are enrolled in college. Entering our school with little or no formal education, students at Fugees Academy often begin school in America having missed the bulk of formal education.
Some of our students had never gone to school until they came to the United States. Others had their education disrupted by four to eight years of war. Traumatized by the ravages and echoes of war, our students find healing, order, and community at Fugees Academy. Students are provided the tools and education necessary to break the cycle of poverty before it begins.
We expect a lot of our students. We expect them to beat the odds. We expect to them to compete academically and on the soccer field. We expect all of this and more. We hold them—and ourselves—to these exacting expectations with a constant beating heart, and a sense of hope.
What do you love about your community?
I love the resilience of my community. Their strength is unlike any other I have ever seen. They are determined and strong and hopeful, and more than anything, their souls are beautiful. They have taught me to appreciate life and all the little things. To slow down and listen to the birds and smell the grass on the field. To be truly grateful that we are alive. They remind me every day of the opportunities that are available and the rights that we have. They show what is best about America.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
People automatically, almost by reflex, feel sorry for refugee children and families. I want people to know how powerful, capable, and resilient refugees are. Too many people coddle our community without grasping what incredible things they have done and are ready to do.
What leader or leaders inspire you?
Coach Pat Summitt: As a coach, wife, and mother, she broke barriers and set new standards for her entire sport.
Malcolm X: He was unabashedly proud of who he was, spoke of the strength of his community, and was unapologetic in his approach. Always learning, always curious, never afraid to admit a mistake or to take a new path, he led an extraordinary life of transformation.
Queen Nour: With grace, modesty, and clarity, Queen Nour paved the way for Arab women by speaking up on issues of honor killing and women’s rights decades before it was popular. I remember as a child watching her rock the boat because of the strength of her convictions, never wavering or compromising on what she believed in.