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Soccer Inspires Refugee Youth to Reach for Gold

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There's something about Mark Kabban's face that says 'I am going to change the world -- you just watch me.' Kabban, 25, was a professional soccer player for college ball and has transferred his passion for the game to children who need it most. "Most of the kids are from Iraq," said Kabban.

Kabban is the executive director for Yalla SD -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to the use of sports and education for refugee kids. Located in El Cajon, California, one of the highest ranking refugee resettlement cities in the country, Yalla offers a competitive soccer program, a peace builders league, after school tutoring and other creative initiatives for refugee kids.

Lei Htoo, 10, is one of those kids. When Lei Htoo kicks the ball his long silky dark hair whips up into his face. Lei Htoo was resettled in El Cajon with his mother and siblings from a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border. They are originally from Burma but fled the bloodshed when he was just a boy.

Lei Htoo bites the side of his tongue when he's nervous and fidgets when I ask him about soccer. "Coach Mark is really nice," he says. A sentiment echoed by all of Kabban's kids whether they are teenagers or six year olds.

Kabban's grin is contagious but he's not all mister nice guy. Like any competitive player, Kabban has high expectations for the kids and you can see it on the field. "Think like a leader," barks Kabban as the 10-year-olds struggle with a drill.

After soccer practice and tutoring, Lei Htoo brought me to his family's apartment where he has planted a garden. The weathered stucco building is brimming with the smells of East Asian noodles and the sidewalk outside his front door resembles the United Nations -- it's a smorgasboard of diversity.

Lei Htoo quickly begins, with pride, naming where he got each of the plants including the dates; I am fascinated. "My grandpa taught me about plants. We used to grow lots of vegetables in Thailand." He goes on to recount horrors only a refugee child would know. He told me his Aunts, who he never met, were murdered by Burmese soldiers and how he misses his grandpa who had to move to Minnesota.

"A big challenge for refugee children is when their families get split up. For his father and grandpa to not be with him and for him not to have a male role model really affects Lei Htoo," said Kabban.

Kabban goes on to explain that the challenges that refugees face are not that different from the challenges other immigrants face. Refugee children struggle with English. One of the core reasons Yalla focuses on education is because refugee children often don't have anyone to help them with their homework because of language barriers.

"We use soccer as a hook but what we're really doing is preparing these kids for college," said Kabban.

Kabban came to the U.S. from Lebanon when he was nine. He said he always felt different and struggled to fit in. He relates to the challenges refugee kids face. One of the young men who has been working with Kabban for two years has gone on to become a coach for Yalla.

"You got to be a leader for other to show them the right thing to do. You've got to stand up," the young man said. Kabban believes the values essential to playing a team sport such as leadership, collaboration, accountability and responsibility are applicable to all parts of the young peoples lives.

"I am proud of my kids everyday because they always show up and want to be better. They want to give their families a better life," said Kabban.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) a majority of refugees are women and children. Most refugee children struggle with access to education and are at risk of feeling alienated when they come to the U.S. This can lead them into a cycle of self-destruction and poverty. "Their families have sacrificed so much to get them here... when they show up everyday they are ensuring that they are going to be a success for their family," said Kabban.