Mark Kabban, founder of YALLA, is one of five finalists vying for DoSomething.org's $100,000 grant prize. The organization will announce the winner on VH1 on Thursday.
My favorite moments with the children in my program are when I get the chance to speak with them on a more intimate level. One such moment occurred after a soccer match on a sunny San Diego afternoon. I was sitting with a couple of my high school players under a willow tree, and they shared their experiences of living through war and being refugees.
Wisam -- a slender and talented forward on the under-19 team, opened up about his experience. He explained that in 2006 life in Iraq turned for the worst for everyone living in the country. His family is Chaldean, a minority group in Iraq heavily targeted by extremists. He recalled that Iraqis were living in peace with one another, but after the war there were fundamentalists, mostly from outside Baghdad, who made life frightening for everyone else. There were weekly killings in his neighborhood. His best friend and 250 other people were killed at a bakery when a suicide bomber stood in line and detonated his bomb, an explosion that shook Wisam's home as in an earthquake. Shortly afterward, Wisam was doing his family's grocery shopping and watched a man get shot in the head by a sniper. He said, "I was terrified and ran home as fast as I could and told my father who promised me that I never had to shop again." When he saw people dying every day, he came to believe that life is "cheap," and this was scary. He added, "When militants attack US soldiers, they can defend themselves, but for people like me and other Iraqis, we will just die."
On a humid Baghdad night in 2006, Wisam's family received a death threat. Wisam's father knew it was time to leave their home in Iraq and strike out into the unknown, marking the beginning of their lives as refugees.
Destined for Lebanon, Wisam's family of six took a bus through the desert and arrived safely to Syria. At the time, Lebanon was in a war of its own, so Wisam's family had to take a treacherous 12-hour hike through the mountains along the Lebanon-Syrian border and enter the country illegally. Wisam said that the journey to Lebanon humbled him like no other experience in his life. He described their swimming across rivers and climbing dangerous mountains. This was no problem for the athletic Wisam, but as he put it, "I felt very bad for my mother who was pregnant, and I had to comfort my younger siblings who were very scared." In Beirut, Wisam found factory work. At the young age of 13, he understood the need to provide for his family, even though, as an underaged worker, he was paid very little. Because Iraqi refugees are targeted by Lebanese police officers, Wisam constantly feared being deported. In public, he "tried to dress, talk, and act Lebanese."
In 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees approved his family's status as refugees and resettled them in San Diego, the number one refugee resettlement city in the United States. Shortly after arriving to San Diego, Wisam heard about YALLA from a friend at school. He is now enrolled in YALLA's technology labs, attends tutoring sessions, coaches the under-10 YALLA team, and is the star of his own soccer team. His almond-shaped eyes beam when he talks about the future, which includes his hope to attend college to study mechanical engineering. He adds, "I know YALLA will help me make my dreams come true. I have come too far not to do so."
When I work with refugee youth, I feel very connected with them because my family has traveled the same road to the United States. We fled civil war in the Middle East and suffered painful losses. To this day, my mother cannot speak about the murder of my uncle, his wife, and baby. He was a doctor, providing free medical care to the poor when he was killed by militants. I came to San Diego from Lebanon when I was 10, and the YALLA youth see a little bit of themselves in me. If I made it, why not them? YALLA's program gives refugee and immigrant youth a place of stability, a place to heal, and to once again control their own destinies.
YALLA's 150 refugee scholar-athletes receive 10-15 hours of program activities each week, making it their primary after-school care. YALLA is the first and only comprehensive program in California that uses soccer to motivate child survivors of war to help rebuild their lives. Using soccer as incentive, YALLA requires its scholar-athletes to adhere to both its rigorous academic tutoring and to receive treatment through its eco-therapy program. YALLA's personal and intensive approach helps each child, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have either lost family members or have been orphaned by war. YALLA has a lot of work ahead, as the refugee influx has still not reached its peak. www.yallasd.com