Though refugee youth living in America come from different countries and speak different tongues, there is a language they can all have in common: soccer. As YALLA education director Lars Almquist explained, soccer is “a universal language among a diasporic community.” YALLA founder, Mark Kabban experienced this phenomenon himself when one day he was juggling a soccer ball outside and a group of refugee kids joined him in a pickup game. Having lived in Lebanon for most of his youth, Kabban knows how hard it is to move into a new society. Inspired by his impromptu soccer match, he founded YALLA, a Peace Builders Soccer League and tutoring program for refugee kids. Youth in his program come from Iraq, Africa, and Latin America, and often immigrated to the United States to escape civil war, genocide, and forced labor. Many have never been to school a day in their lives, but in their new homes, they have a chance to acquire knowledge, make new friends, and prepare for bright futures in college or trade careers.
By word of mouth and outreach efforts, young refugees come to the YALLA office, hoping to join the soccer team they heard about in school. But the soccer league is really just a hook to get kids involved in YALLA’s true mission—to help youth acclimate into and succeed in their new lives in America, both socially and academically. In exchange for the chance to play, scholar-athletes must spend the same amount of time in after-school tutoring sessions as they do in soccer practice, so that they hone their math and language skills along with their bicycle kick. Within this strong community of peers, young refugees can build a home and work toward success that was long denied to them.
While tutoring youth in YALLA, Almquist found that it only takes a small push to help them progress from hopelessness to success. Everyday they work, they build a foundation of knowledge in a new language. Eventually, something clicks and they can finish problems on their own or begin tutoring other children. Then they can focus on a larger goal, such as going to college, getting a job, or finding a scholarship to play soccer after graduation.
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