WHEN LUMA MUFLEH WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, she hated her volleyball coach. Mufleh, a Jordanian girl going to the American Community School in Amman, was a strong athlete and used to being the coach's favorite. “I thought I could get away with being late, not giving it my all,” she says. But her coach, Rhonda Brown, would have none of it: She was tough. Brown kept telling Mufleh to get closer to the net. “I can't block, I'm not tall enough!” countered Mufleh, 5' 6". Brown had Mufleh run stairs 500 times a day, on her toes. At the end of that miserable season, Mufleh played her 5' 11" brother. “I thought, no way can I block him,” she says. “But I stuffed it in his face.” Fifteen years later, Mufleh is a coach herself. Guess who she models herself after!
The kids she coaches in soccer are refugees from war-torn countries like Iraq and Sudan who live in Clarkston, Georgia, near Atlanta. Their team name: the Fugees. They're proud they can make the cut with their strict coach. There are no typical soccer moms. These kids get themselves to practice and pay their own way to tournaments with jobs like raking leaves. “If they want it bad enough, they'll work for it,” says Mufleh. The Fugees are tied for second in their division, and their level of sportsmanship is a model for the nation.
A Woman Coach? Before the Fugees, Mufleh occasionally visited Clarkston to shop at its Middle-Eastern market. She noticed there were a lot of boys playing soccer barefoot in empty lots, just the way she used to play as a kid in Jordan with all her cousins. She learned they were all poor refugees.and had the idea to start a team. At first the boys were suspicious of a woman coach. What could she know? Mufleh, still that cocky kid from Amman, blasted a ball past one doubter as he stood in the goal and then asked if anyone else had any questions.
Mufleh soon found herself deeply involved in the refugees' lives. Kids asked for homework help, so she set up tutoring after practice. When she realized some kids' moms weren't making enough money, Mufleh started Fresh Start, a cleaning service that paid a decent wage. She's quite a softie off the field. But on the field, you don't cross Coach Luma.
To be a Fugee, you must have good grades and short hair. No drugs, alcohol or getting girls pregnant. Break a rule, and you're off the team. Mufleh yanked her star player from a playoff game because he punched another kid. As a result, they lost. “That was a hard lesson for all of us to learn,” says Mufleh, who likes to win. But the player never did it again.
This season, Coach Luma offered an incentive—a pair of Nikes to anyone with straight As. “I didn't think anyone would get it this season, but two weeks later one kid had pulled three Bs into As,” she says. “They want to succeed, and if you give them reasons to, they will.”
Louise Sloan writes on medicine, health, and women's issues and interests. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Spring 2007.
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