Transforming refugees into citizens through sport

July 24, 2017

When Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian immigrant in the US, set up a soccer club for refugee children in Charleston, Georgia, she had more than just sport in mind.

The Fugees – the team Mufleh founded in 2004 – worked on the self-esteem, education and confidence of the refugee boys as much as on the soccer itself. Five years later, their story became the subject of a bestselling book, Outcasts United, written by Warren St John, the rights to which have just been bought by Universal Pictures.

When we consider the plight of refugees today, the Fugees’ tale seems more urgent than ever. What I find so empowering in Mufleh’s work is that she did not stop with the soccer team; she has gone on to build the only school in the US dedicated to refugee education.

This academy, which has enrolled more than 90 boys and girls aged 10-18, blends the academic basics with classes in leadership and character building. Sport remains an integral part.

Refugee children, victims of war and displacement, begin their new lives with enormous academic, social and economic handicaps, not to mention the trauma of the violence they have left behind. Many have never had any formal education. Without support and guidance, they might fail at school and – crucially – never acquire the skills to become a useful and valued citizen in their new country.

In a recent TED Talk, Mufleh explained what drove her to nurture refugee children. “We have seen advances in every aspect of our lives – except our humanity,” she said. And it is this she would like to see change.

The Fugees team reflects our global disharmony in microcosm. Its members come from Afghanistan, Burundi, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan. Many endured unimaginable suffering before reaching Charleston in America’s Deep South. Before matches they share a Christian prayer (in Swahili) and a Muslim prayer (in Albanian).

Of course, it is never easy for refugees to integrate, particularly when host communities are also slow to embrace them.

Refugees almost inevitably come from places where there has been change, conflict, upheaval and discord, ending up in more peaceful, calmer communities where behaviour driven by their former lives stands out. If they commit a crime or minor offence, the act can become magnified by the media and in public opinion, leading to anger, fear and paranoia on all sides.

So when we welcome refugees, it is worth remembering that there may be growing pains as communities begin to live together. And that offences can be dealt with by the law, but not with prejudice.

The integration of languages and cultures may take years and some conflict is inevitable.
But refugees and host communities can create a future of peace and creativity together.

Time and patience on both sides is necessary. It may be worthwhile creating a new collective agreement of compassion and patience – being open-minded and not falling back on prejudice, paranoia and fear whenever disharmony occurs


Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation