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Coaching Her Team to Seek Higher Goals

By Kristen Cole

When Smith alumna Luma Mufleh ’97 affixed a sticker with the name of her alma mater to the rear window of her car, she did not realize it would get her into trouble with one of the boys she coaches on her soccer team.

Then 10, the boy proudly declared that he, too, would go to Smith. Mufleh’s explanation that Smith is a women’s college caused the youth, a refugee from Liberia, much consternation.

According to Mufleh, the boy, named Jeremiah, retorted, “Coach, you told me if I set my mind to something, I could do it.” Indeed, that is a message that Mufleh imparts to her team, called The Fugees, both on and off the playing field.

Mufleh, 32, burst into the national spotlight in January when The New York Times ran a front-page article featuring her unflagging efforts to improve the lives of her players, all refugees from war-torn countries. Her work was set against the backdrop of a town that was characterized as unwelcoming—its officials objected to providing practice fields for the team.

Surrounded by the youth soccer players she coaches, Smith alumna Luma Mufleh ’97, pictured above and at left, returned to campus one week in August with the 40 members of her boys’ team, all refugees from war-torn countries, to test their skills as both students and athletes. Photo by Mike Thomasson / Pivot Media.

Since then, Mufleh has accepted an offer for the movie rights to her story from Universal Studios, signed a sponsorship deal with athletic apparel company Nike and shared her story with other national media, including the Today show. She has received donations and offers from strangers and won over refugee parents who were initially reluctant to have their daughters play soccer. Mufleh began the first Fugees girls’ team in February.

Mufleh also orchestrated a weeklong stay at Smith College in August for players on her boys’ teams to attend a literacy camp. None of the players, many of them high school students, had seen a college campus, says Mufleh. Before the media attention, Mufleh envisioned bringing a few of the boys to campus, far from their environs in Clarkston, Georgia, where her team is based.

But as a result of the attention, she received funding from Nike to bring all 40 boys, ages 12 to 16, to Smith. Mufleh does not hesitate to say that first and foremost her players are students. To quote her directly: “student-athletes, in that order.”

“Smith changed my life,” says Mufleh, a Jordanian who decided to remain in America after she graduated. “It’s very powerful to let kids know what is possible,” she adds.

Although the players are enrolled in junior high and high school, many of them still struggle with reading and writing the English language. That is largely because they are enrolled in age-appropriate not skill-appropriate classes, Mufleh says.

“After learning about Luma’s work with the Fugees in January, it made perfect sense to combine Smith’s teaching and sport resources with the Fugees’ need for fast-track education,” says Lynn Oberbillig, director of athletics. “ We are very proud that she has made it her life’s work addressing the social injustices the Fugees face daily, and we simply wanted to support her work.”

As part of the literacy camp, the boys each created three-minute videos about some of their experiences, which include witnessing the horrors of war and facing the challenges of adapting to a new culture.

Mufleh has faced her own challenges since her story was published. Not surprisingly, the public attention has sapped some of the time she used to devote to her players off the field—helping them with their schoolwork or just going fishing.

“All you do is go to meetings and talk to people,” Mufleh recounted one youngster telling her. “That kind of woke me up. They are my priority.”

Mufleh was pleased to get the news that two Smith graduates, Catherine Bosserman ’07 and Elizabeth Tolmach ’05, would be able to assist her in some of the new tasks that had befallen her. Bosserman was recently hired as the Fugees volunteer coordinator and Tolmach as community outreach coordinator.

“I heard wonderful things about Luma long before I met her,” says Tolmach. “This is the type of organization I want to work for—one that is responsive to the people and constantly growing and improving.”

Mufleh was pleased to take a break from the attention she receives in Georgia to return to her alma mater for a week, albeit with laptop and cell phone in hand.

In addition to staying in Franklin King House, the team visited the botanic garden, Smith’s Museum of Art and Neilson Library, and traveled to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

Even before the trip to campus, one of the players experienced a boost of confidence. When Mufleh told the players that they would be able to attend the literacy camp, Jeremiah, now 12, had an immediate response.

“See—I told you I would go to Smith,” he said.

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