English-Language Learners

She Drew on Her Love of Soccer and Dolly Parton to Create Schools for Immigrants

By Alyson Klein — March 06, 2023 3 min read
Afghan refugee students at Stough Elementary School learn how to play chess on April 1, 2022 in Raleigh, N.C. Pictured clockwise are U.S Chess Federation executive director Carol Meyer, Stough ESL teacher Cindy Linton and students Ahmad, Sadiqullah and Qudratullah. Stough Elementary School in Raleigh has been the educational home for some of the 1,200 people being relocated from Afghanistan to North Carolina.
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Growing up in Amman, Jordan, Luma Mufleh had an unusual role model: Dolly Parton. Watching Parton play a secretary who teams up with two coworkers to get the better of their bully of a boss in the 1980 movie “9 to 5" inspired Mufleh’s own sense of resilience as a young immigrant, and later an educator.

“That image of Dolly taking matters into her own hands and changing things really stuck with me,” Mufleh said in a keynote speech on March 6 at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, which attracts educators from all over the world.

Mufleh eventually attended Smith College in Massachusetts, and then applied for asylum to remain in the United States. Mufleh is gay, which in her home country was “an offense punishable by death,” she told the audience. When her asylum request was granted, “I lost my family, my home, my country, but I gained my freedom.”

Mufleh ended up in Atlanta, where she started a patchwork of soccer teams for refugee children that she called “the fugees.” When she realized local public schools were not meeting her players’ academic needs, she opened a school of her own in a church basement. She sought to teach newly arrived students using the strategies that had worked for her when she came to study in the United States—along with a dose of Dolly Parton-style resilience.

Over time, Mufleh’s first school expanded to become the “Fugees Family,” a network of schools in Georgia and Ohio dedicated to refugee and immigrant education. Mufleh is now partnering with a district in Kentucky to help educate new arrivals, with more partnerships on the runway.

Here were some of her big takeaways for educating newcomers to the country, delivered in a speech that kicked off this year’s conference:

Luma Mufleh

Be realistic. Don’t push for miracles

Mufleh found that many in education were looking for the classic “rags to riches story,” where a child who faced “war and famine and violence” in their home country was able to overcome those obstacles through hard work.

But without the right supports, that meant some of the children on her soccer teams were “being placed in algebra even though they did not add,” she said. “Kids who couldn’t recognize any letters of the alphabet were asked to read Shakespeare. Kids were being passed through the school system, not because they were learning but because administrators and educators didn’t know what to do with them.”

At Mufleh’s schools, teachers emphasize the fundamentals of numeracy and literacy, even if a student’s age dictated that they should be learning more advanced content. The effort paid off, with students mastering two or three years of learning in a single school year, she said.

Kids who couldn't recognize any letters of the alphabet were asked to read Shakespeare. Kids were being passed through the school system, not because they were learning but because administrators and educators didn't know what to do with them.

Arts and physical education are must haves, not extras

At Mufleh’s schools, all students get to play soccer, learn martial arts, and do art. That imperative grew out of Mufleh’s soccer coaching experience. She found that “belonging to a team made quiet kids loud. It made scared kids brave. It helped kids who’d armored themselves with anger open up and laugh and smile,” she said.

What’s more, she added, “there’s study after study that shows arts and athletics do incredible work in healing trauma. Arts and athletics are multi-sensory. So you don’t need a language to participate in them. You can create incredible pieces of art without knowing a word of English.”

Why can't we take time to teach people so they don't get humiliated or bullied or made fun of. We can make the welcome mat a little longer, a little softer and gentler.

It’s OK to give English learners a safe space

Mufleh’s model separates new arrivals from native speaking peers while they work to master English. “When we explain our model, you know, a lot of people say, ‘well, it’s segregation,’” she told the SXSW EDU crowd. “And it is, in a way. We’re segregating the students temporarily, for them to feel safe, for them to feel academic success. You can’t throw someone into the ocean when they don’t know how to swim. They need to be around others like them to learn the basics and learn how to swim. And then we won’t have so many people drowning every day. We see success in women’s colleges and HBCUs where that space is super important for people. Yet for English language learners across the country, we’re so scared of doing it.”

American culture may baffle new arrivals

Back in Jordan, when sharing food, it’s common to “double dip,” Mufleh said. But here in the United States, it’s generally considered rude and unsanitary, as Mufleh learned here as a college student. Later, Mufleh watched her soccer players try to wrap their minds around American customs like trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Helping students learn to navigate these differences is part of educating English learners, Mufleh said. “Why can’t we take time to teach people so they don’t get humiliated or bullied or made fun of,” she said. “We can make the welcome mat a little longer, a little softer and gentler.”

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