Friday, January 4, 2013
On the field of El Cajon Valley High School, dozens of kids practice drills and play soccer after a long day at school. These kids are part of YALLA, a San Diego non-profit that provides free tutoring and soccer training to immigrant and refugee youth.
Eighteen-year-old Ahmed Abdulkareen moved to the U.S. in 2009. Like many here, he comes from Iraq.
“Of course there was a reason why we left from Iraq to Jordan and it’s cause the war of course and… a lot of things,” said Ahmed.
When the war in Iraq started, Ahmed was diagnosed with a blood disorder. To get medical treatment his family moved to Jordan before coming to the US.
Last year Ahmed moved to the San Diego area, his love for soccer drew him to YALLA.
“It made my school life a lot easier cause it helps me a lot through school, like the homework the things I don’t know how to do, the things that I need help on for the school,” said Ahmed.
Earlier in the day, Ahmed worked on his college applications with YALLA’s founder Mark Kabban. Ahmed plans to study nursing.
YALLA stands for Youth And Leaders Living Actively. It’s also Arabic for “Let’s go.” College is the goal, soccer the vehicle to get there.
“When you start winning, when you start succeeding, than that really spills over to everything else, “ said Kabban, “And we’re starting to have them realize that they can succeed in school.”
It’s a strategy 25 year-old Kabban has experienced first hand. While he was born in the US, Kabban lived in Beirut before moving back to America when he was 9.
“When I first came here, like a lot of the kids in our program right now, I felt kind of lonely, I didn’t really fit in, and economically there’s that visible difference between you and other kids,” said Kabban, “But when I used to play sports all those things didn’t matter.”
Kabban went on to get a college football scholarship. After graduating from Baker University in Kansas, he worked as a refugee case manager for Catholic Charities in San Diego. While there he witnessed the tough transitions families faced, kids stuck in their apartments, struggling with school.
“The difficult thing for the kids is that they have expectations to do homework and do college applications and do SAT prep,” Kabban said, “but when they get home, their parents don’t speak English and there’s nobody that knows the language, has a good command of the language.”
According to the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, in 2005, 1 in 4 immigrant or refugee youth dropped out of high school.
The lack of resources available for these kids is what motivated Kabban to start YALLA in 2009. In addition to helping kids with soccer and schoolwork, the program also focuses on connecting kids to the outdoors.
Currently YALLA operates in the Cajon Valley Union and Grossmont Union High School districts. During the soccer season YALLA serves 200 students ranging from elementary to high school.
Kabban says he’s seen significant improvements in the kid’s academic success. About 20 YALLA kids have gone to college, many aspire to go into fields like engineering and computer programming. The aim is to set the bar high.
“I just want these kids to be able to feel like they’re in the driver seat of their destiny, cause I think when you’re a refugee, you don’t get to choose your lifestyle, you don’t get to choose to your country to be destroyed, you don’t get to choose to loose family members or start over,” Kabban said, “But I want these kids to feel like they’re back and they’re choosing what’s going to happen next for them.”
For the future, Kabban hopes to start an all girls refugee soccer team. But the primary goal for YALLA, he says, is securing funding for a community center dedicated to YALLA’s mission of guiding immigrant and refugee youth to success.