We’re asking leaders to reflect on their many contributions to the education sector. From the “why” behind their work and what calls them to serve school communities, to where they draw everyday inspiration from and more, we’ll feature leaders’ perspectives on Ahead of the Heard in the coming weeks in a series honoring Women’s History Month.
Luma Mufleh is an entrepreneur, coach, refugee activist, author, and founder of Fugees Family, Inc., a nonprofit founded in 2006 that uses soccer, education, and community to empower refugee children to successfully integrate into the U.S. With a network of schools in Georgia and Ohio, Fugees Family’s focus on educational equity for refugee and immigrant children and families is reimagining schools and community building; the organization is a recent recipient of $10 million in philanthropic funding from MacKenzie Scott to grow its model. I caught up with Mufleh to talk about Fugees Family’s work, how her team is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.*
Amy Chen Kulesa:
How has your identity and experience shaped the work of Fugees Family? What draws you to this work?
I have a “hat trick” of identities as a gay, Arab, Muslim woman born outside of the U.S. Sometimes those identities don’t fuse neatly. I was always an outsider growing up, in so many spaces. If I was in a predominantly Muslim space, I didn’t fit in because I was gay. In the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t fit in because I was Muslim. And I was raised in the Middle East where women are second-class citizens. Men were expected to do certain things and to have access; women in my orbit weren’t. These experiences made me more determined to find spaces where I could be completely whole.
Today, I surround myself with people and spaces that accept all of me, not just parts of me or “asterisks” me. That’s why I founded Fugees Family to empower refugees and immigrants. I have firsthand experience of what it feels like to be an outsider, especially at such a young age. I had to hide my sexual orientation from my friends and family members, and struggled in school because of it. I was bullied and my only safe escape was in sports — I was accepted on the field as a good athlete.
I want to make sure kids are completely accepted for who they are. It’s so important that kids feel safe, seen, heard, and celebrated for their authentic selves. That’s why we focus on reimagining schools to support refugee, immigrant, and English language learner (ELL) student populations — enabling them to show up every day and feel supported to thrive.
Fugees Family was called out in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s case studies highlighting exemplary whole child practices.* Identity and culture are key to the Fugees model. What does that look like in practice?
At Fugees Family, we focus on a lot of areas to amplify and celebrate identity and different student cultures. Two examples:
- We ensure that on a student’s first day of school, teachers pronounce their name correctly. You’d be surprised how much it means when a child doesn’t have to correct or “Americanize” their name. Our work with schools happens before the child enters the classroom. We instill that a child’s identity is an asset to embrace and we support difference as a good thing.
- We celebrate everything in a school building — every cultural or religious festivity and culinary traditions, too. The whole school gathers to experience new cultures and to learn about diverse traditions. It’s a great opportunity for the community to teach us in ways large and small. Holi was on March 17 this year, and all the kids were counting down the days, even though Hindus aren’t in the majority in our schools. They love it. Our students are curious and eager to learn about each other instead of seeing differences as a distance.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the racial reckoning in the U.S., the Afghan refugee crisis, and the needs in Ukraine have all had significant impacts. How have you and the Fugees team evolved to address the needs of students, faculty, and communities?
COVID-19 lifted the veil and exposed everything that was wrong. It’s undeniable now. ELLs are front and center in this dynamic. We realized we couldn’t go back to how things were — that would be the worst thing to do. So, what was our role and responsibility moving forward? To change, Fugees began thinking about supporting institutions that have large populations of refugee children and working with them at a systems level to build better practices and models so that everyone has a softer landing place. We launched a new approach, called Project Teranga, to grow our impact, and are partnering with districts to implement our model in their schools or newcomer programs. It’s exciting work that needs to happen.
At the same time, our work is unfortunately tied into war and conflict. For example, with the large influx of Afghan refugees entering the U.S. and resettling nationwide — some 70,000 people across the country, half of whom are school-aged children — our team has firsthand experience going to Fort Dix and doing student assessments. What we found was heartbreaking. Many of these kids were in refugee military bases for seven months with mediocre services, no access to education, and were stripped of their dignity and humanity. We heard so often that “it’s better than the alternative,” which infuriates me. The lens should instead be “is this the best we can offer” and if the answer is no, then we must act. Anything less is unacceptable.
What are you most excited about in terms of the work ahead?
Fugees is evolving our model and creating sustaining partnerships with districts via Project Teranga. That is energizing work. We’re focused on building coalitions to advocate for and serve historically underrepresented students in supportive communities with greater access to high-quality education. We’ve been in our bubble for so long and now we’re out there forging new partnerships with people ready to work alongside us to better serve refugee, immigrant, and ELL students. It’s inspiring to see that level of collaboration.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other school or district leaders?
This work is messy and working with kids is rewarding, but hard. If you’re looking for a playbook, get out of the space right away. A lot of the work is about relationships and building infrastructure, providing tools, and having high standards. You have to be in it for the long game, and you have to show up every day. If you can’t commit to that level of focus and if you don’t expect the best out of yourself, your team, and your community, don’t do this work.
To close, and in honor of Women’s History Month, is there a particular woman who has inspired you? And what advice would you give to other female leaders in the field?
My grandmother is a huge inspiration. She’s the strongest, kindest woman I know. She fled her home in Syria as the mother of five, pregnant with her sixth child. She moved to a new country and her husband was paralyzed. She had to be and do everything. She’s a person of incredible strength and optimism and believes in the best of people.
I’m also inspired by the compassionate, focused, and determined mothers I’ve met in my work. Their insights and perspectives on life, kids, what’s possible, and what’s wrong make me a better person.
In terms of advice for female leaders: don’t settle. Expect the best. Don’t compromise. Take up space, and then take up more space. Because the world is better off with more women leaders.
Thank you for sharing your reflections, Luma.
*(Editor’s note: Fugees Family, Inc. is a current Bellwether client and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a former client.)