For Top 10 CNN Hero for 2016 Luma Mufleh, “never giving up” is a defining characteristic. She is the founder and director of Fugees Family, Inc. (“The Fugees), a nonprofit organization devoted to working with child refugees from 28 war-torn countries, and the Fugees Academy, a tuition-free private school providing education for these survivors. Most of the children she works with have endured unimaginable hardship, and all have been robbed of their childhood. Mufleh inspires students to reach their full potential in this country – both on the soccer field and in the classroom. She is a social entrepreneur who has created several businesses to gainfully employ refugees and immigrants in her community. Mufleh has received numerous awards, including the Search for Common Ground Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award, and the Smith College Medal for her work. She has appeared in NPR, CNN,, and The New York Times. The Fugees, “is a perfect example of what this nation is supposed to be about, which is to provide a refuge for the refugees.” —Tom Brokaw
1. What or who inspired you to do the work that you do?
The person who influenced me the most was my grandmother. She fled Syria in 1964 with her children packed in one car for what she thought would be one week. My grandfather stayed back and was tortured by the first Assad regime, which also took over his factory. My grandparents ended up starting over in Jordan. My grandmother took me to my first refugee camp in Jordan and encouraged me to play with the other kids, but I didn’t want to because they looked different and it was very much out of my comfort zone. She told me I should never think anyone is beneath me. After warning me to go play and not come home until I did, I returned three hours later, having played soccer the whole time. My grandmother taught me you always have something to learn from others. That’s always been my guiding voice.
2. What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome building Fugees Family and the Fugees Academy?
It was challenging to start something that’s never been done before. We run a no-tuition private school, and when I go to Heads of School meetings, they’re talking about things that aren’t applicable to us. We’re not a typical soccer team, either, because we care about the whole child, not just the sports aspect. Everywhere we go, we’re pushing the envelope in some way. Currently, there’s an anti-refugee sentiment, and it’s been brutal on us. The rhetoric has been increasing – not just online, but in person and at games. The kids definitely feel it and don’t feel safe. People are telling them to go home, and some are even calling them terrorists. They don’t respond, they don’t engage, but when a kid comes into your office asking, “Why do they hate us?” it’s heartbreaking. I tell them the only way to rise above that is to win. Some donors have stepped up, and others have stepped away. I think it’s been hard to see that shift – that we’ve now become a political cause or statement, even though we are doing the exact same thing we’ve been doing for 10 years.
3. What’s the most fulfilling aspect of the work you do?
Being with the kids. We have kids who come in who are shell-shocked: first, from being in America, and then from the trauma from which they’ve escaped. Seeing that transformation happen over seven years, from being insecure and not being able to read or write, to being the first in their family to graduate from middle or high school, going on to something bigger, and beating all the odds against them, is beautiful. They become a family. We have kids from warring factions: North and South Sudan, Sunni and Shia, Bantu and Tutsi, on the same team, becoming like brothers and sisters, and it’s pretty powerful to see that. If these kids can overcome these prejudices, we all can.
4. What personal strengths have enabled you to make a difference?
There’s an immigrant work ethic and perseverance that people who were born and raised here take for granted. There are so many possibilities in this country. You can do whatever you want, however you want. I’m a gay, Muslim woman working with refugees in the South. This can’t happen in any other part of the world. This country is very solution-driven, and when I wanted to start this school, I knew it could work out. I grew up in a part of the world where solutions were oppressed and women weren’t part of the solution, so being in part of the world where that is possible gives me a lot of energy. I feel like I’m two-degrees removed from the kids here. I grew up privileged with an excellent education. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be here. I feel that these kids need to have those opportunities, as well.
5. How do you define success?
When we ask our students what they want to be when they grow up, a lot of them want to take care of their mom or their parents. That’s not the traditional definition of success. Being a doctor, a millionaire, winning a championship – those aren’t the definitions of success. I just want the kids to be happy. I want them to feel like they belong, and to be able to integrate and embrace what this country has to offer, while bringing what they have from their own countries here. It’s a delicate balance.
What book are you reading now? Dark Money
What is your favorite motto? Treat people the way you want to be treated.
What is your purpose or mission in life? Empowering refugees to make a better life for themselves. Making the world a kinder, gentler place to be.