A few dozen local students from across the globe soon will be the first class at renowned institution.
Young refugees living in Columbus will have a school to call their own this August when the award-winning Fugees Academy expands for the first time.
It's a school unlike any other. The story of the first Fugees Academy, in suburban Atlanta, has been told on the Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning and CNN, as well as in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Founder Luma Mufleh's TED talk was named one of the most inspiring of 2017, and the story of the youth soccer team that prompted the school's creation was told in a book by Warren St. John.
Mufleh, a Jordanian immigrant and Muslim of Syrian descent, started the academy in 2007 with six sixth-grade students—all U.S. refugees from war-torn countries with little if any formal education. She'd established and coached soccer teams for young refugees in the area for three years and wanted to do more.
By 2016, the private school for sixth- through 12th-graders had its first graduating class, and Mufleh wanted to replicate it in other cities with large refugee populations. She picked Columbus, in part because Ohio students can receive vouchers to help pay for private schools, and she wanted to stick to her Atlanta model of zero-cost tuition for students. In exchange, the students agree to wear uniforms, learn in a highly structured, no-excuses, English-only environment and strive for success every day.
Applicants must be low-income refugees and pass two tests. The first trial is two days of soccer conditioning, aimed not at assessing athletic prowess but at revealing grit and determination.
“We look for the students who don't give up, who do whatever it takes to be successful,” says Mufleh. Selected students then take an academic test, and rather than accepting those with the highest scores, Mufleh takes those with the lowest—“the kids who would not be successful at all in a traditional school,” she says. “Our sixth-graders will be reading children's board books.”
Soccer is an important part of the curriculum, a way for students to get a physical workout, be part of a team and, for many, feel the comfort of something familiar.
“For many kids in refugee camps, the only joy they had was soccer,” says Nadia Kasvin, co-founder and director of Us Together, a Columbus-based organization that helps refugees statewide.
Mufleh will start taking student applications in late June. The school will begin with 56 sixth-graders and will add a grade level each year. Its first home will be at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in the Northland area, which has a large immigrant and refugee population. “We're excited to give them a starting point,” says the Rev. Roger Au, transitional pastor at St. Andrew. “There is a tremendous need in our community to help refugees, and we're right in the middle of it. We felt it was a good mission outreach.”
Kasvin is excited about the new opportunity for children who have survived war and refugee camps. “We need to pay attention to the underlying trauma these kids have experienced, and we hope the school is going to be the answer for those who truly need it,” she says.
“It's a place to heal,” Mufleh says, “where they're not judged, where they're all at the same level.”
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