Opening The Golden Door
YALLA Helps Refugee Children Develop The Skills They’ll Need While Becoming A Team, On The Pitch And In The Classroom
One of the first misconceptions about Youth and Leaders Living Actively (or YALLA) that you might have is that it’s a youth soccer program. That’s understandable, because it is a youth soccer program—but that is only one small part of the story. And, it’s not where this narrative begins.
“I actually don’t even know how to play soccer,” says Riyam Mansoor with a laugh. Despite that lack of experience on the field (she does stress that she’s an FC Barcelona supporter in our conversation), Mansoor, YALLA’s Assistant Academy Coordinator, is perhaps the poster-child for what YALLA is all about. Born and raised in Iraq, Mansoor arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 2009—a huge change in her young life, and one that is facing all of the kids in the YALLA program, which is built to help refugee children make a life, and a future, for themselves in the United States.
“[I came to the U.S. as a refugee], and that was one of the reasons that I wanted to get involved,” Mansoor says. “I understand exactly what they’re going through because I went through it, and sometimes I can be the bridge that communicates between their old culture and their new culture. They may be going through some kind of psychological or emotional problems, or culture shock—I can help them to bridge that gap.”
Not only is Mansoor fluent in Arabic and English, she also speaks French and Chaldean. She’s a product of the community where YALLA is located—El Cajon, just outside San Diego, California—and her studies have seen her graduate from Grossmont College and take her academic pursuits to the University of California, San Diego. I said poster-child earlier—perhaps role model is a better term.
“I don’t speak Spanish yet,” Mansoor says, “But I’m learning.”
Something tells me she’ll get the hang of it.
“Arriving as refugees, probably 99% of us are families of low-income—having no money or actually already in debt,” explains Mansoor. “The kids often have a crazy obsession with soccer—they play street soccer back in Iraq, and they start almost before they can walk. So, I was trying to find an inexpensive soccer team for my baby brother—at that time I think he was 5 years old. That’s when we heard about YALLA. People told us that they were offering soccer for free, and that they had an academic program. We thought, why not?”
At that time, YALLA had just gotten started. The issues facing founder Mark Kabban and his fledgling staff were abundant, from funding to organization to basic communication. Fortunately for Kabban, this diverse community possessed the talent and helpful spirit to take on all of those challenges.
Case in point: Not only did Mansoor herself decide she wanted to help, but also her whole family got involved in the program. Now, Mansoor is involved in almost every aspect of YALLA (except, of course, the coaching soccer part—it may not be FC Barcelona, but she’s a fan nonetheless).
San Diego, like its Northern California neighbor, Oakland, is a refugee resettlement city. “San Diego is one of the largest resettlement cities in the country,” explains Kabban. Typically, San Diego is among the top two resettlement cities in the country, alongside Houston, Texas. “There’s a long tradition of it here, going back to the 1970s. Vietnamese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean—a lot of Burmese refugees come here. There are refugees from Afghanistan. Then in the early ’90s there was an influx of refugees from Iraq. In 2006, there was the Refugee Crisis Act, which was passed by Congress, allowing for a more appropriate number of refugees to be settled in San Diego, and across the country.”
He continues: “Where we are, in the last five or six years, two-thirds of all the refugees coming into the city of San Diego have been resettled here in El Cajon. El Cajon is the lowest-income city in the county, and the seventh lowest in the state of California.”
Which is exactly why Kabban chose El Cajon when he founded YALLA.
“After that bill was passed, there was a large influx of refugees into the community, and the school district was scrambling to figure out what to do,” Kabban says. “Meanwhile, after-school sports clubs and the city’s parks and recreation weren’t really engaged in the process of reaching out [to the refugee community], so there was a need to build that connection.”
But how to go about it is a very complicated question. Where do you begin? How do you address the fact that these kids are coming in with wildly disparate educational backgrounds and familiarity with the English language? The problems that face these kids are myriad.
“They all have a formal, interrupted education,” says Kabban. “We have students that were held in detention centers at the border for seven months; we have students who, when they were waiting to be resettled, didn’t go to school for years. So when they come here with an interrupted education in their own language, and then start an education in a new language—how do we fill in those holes?”
This is where YALLA begins to separate itself—the key is a willingness to embrace modern technology alongside building individual connections.
Students in the K-8 program at YALLA receive customized education, built to work for their current reading and math scores, using tablets and computers. The results of this pay dividends in three ways: First, it allows YALLA to accurately assess problem areas for individual students so that their curricula can be structured to address appropriately; second, it allows their academic advisors to help a greater number of children through one-on-one tutoring; lastly, it keeps everyone working at the edge of their abilities—it’s not too difficult for some while too easy for others.
“It allows us to customize and create individual goals for students on a weekly, or an annual basis, in terms of where we want to get them,” he says.
Immediately, the advisors (mostly paid interns drawn from the local college community) know how, in specific terms, to help and challenge each student, and this in turn helps with building relationships with each child’s family.
“Early in our development, we were a homework-based after-school assistance program, but that doesn’t help fill in the holes, it just gets their homework done. This is more building up their foundation. The idea is to have them enter high school at a level where they can compete for a four-year education in college.”
This approach, coupled with cooperation from the school district, has had a tremendous effect.
“For the 2015–2016 school year, in only seven months, our K-8 students increased their literacy scores by one full grade level,” Kabban says.
Then, at the high school level, YALLA helps students prepare for standardized tests, and educates them about the application process.
“We offer a complete preparation to apply for college,” Mansoor says. “I’m especially fond of this one, because when I arrived in this country, I didn’t have a free program that would tell me what SAT or ACT meant, that outlined the huge application process for going to college. It’s not just ticking boxes.”
Not having a program available to help meant that Mansoor didn’t realize all that was involved. The result was that she felt unworthy of going to college.
“That’s why I’m so fond of this program. I get the opportunity to take that feeling that I had away from a lot of students, because we’re providing them with the structure and the information to get them into the colleges of their dreams.”
She’s not lying. Just look at the schools where these kids are going—Cal, Stanford, UCLA, UCSB, University of San Diego, to name a few.
Kabban adds: “In the past three years, 85% of our seniors gained acceptance into four-year universities and earned over $3.5 million in scholarships. In 2016 alone, our senior class earned over $2.4 million in scholarships. It cost us $1500 per student to go through the 18 month Junior/Senior College-Bound program and they earned an average of $115,000 — that is a 7000% return on investment.”
Sounds like a dream come true, indeed.
“I would say that our academy is like a Japanese garden,” Kabban says. “The success of it is in the details.”
That dedication to his work, and attention to detail, stems from his past as well. Kabban (whose family is from Lebanon), was born in Connecticut during the Lebanese Civil War—his family returned to Lebanon following the conflict, but later emigrated to the United States when he was still very young.
“I moved to San Diego with my family from Beirut in 1996, when I was in the fourth grade,” he recalls. “I always loved sports—I always loved running around being active, but I’d never played any kind of organized sports up to that point. But I started playing basketball and football—that’s what I got into.”
“We had a family friend who played for a competitive soccer club, and they took me out to a practice once. I remember other kids being happy I was there because I was a decently athletic kid—the coach wanted to sign me up, but it turned out that it was over $1,000. My family was on welfare. So, I started playing basketball and football because it was $40 per season.”
Turns out that Kabban was indeed athletic. After high school, he was awarded a football scholarship to play wide receiver at Baker University in Kansas. “It was my dream,” he says.
It’s also why he didn’t play soccer. But that’s not why he set up YALLA first as an after-school soccer program—that came from knowing his audience, and building from the ground up, as always, with the community in mind.
“The great thing about soccer for our scholar-athletes is that they live and breathe it.” They play pickup games together; they talk about the Champions League; they know the most obscure players on teams most people in the U.S. have never heard of—in short, they love it.
It started in 2010 with a single team, training with Kabban. Now, YALLA has a Soccer Director, Ryan Shera, who structures his training using the Coerver Curriculum. Like everything else, Kabban and YALLA place an emphasis on longterm development over short-term gains.
“The beautiful thing about our whole organization is that the soccer side and the academic side are very similar—we stress skills, and individualized training,” says Kabban. One example of this is their mixture of teams during practice—rather than always being divided by age, YALLA’s athletes train with groups according to their skill level. Just as it does in the classroom, this keeps kids performing at the edge of their abilities without having it be easy or overwhelming.
This also means that all of the coaches have the chance to connect with all of the players, as opposed to only their given team.
“We give them the freedom to fail, and the quality of training to play at the college level, if that’s what they want in the future,” Kabban says. “It’s not a fluffy soccer program where we’re just trying to have fun—it’s about structure and mentorship, and we really do have knowledgable trainers to help these kids achieve their potential.”
Ask Kabban his best advice for other programs in similar circumstances, and he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s about being there. It’s about building relationships,” he explains. “Start in any way that you can, and find your allies. When I first started, most principals ignored my emails. Except one. She got my in, understood what I was trying to do, and from there became an evangelist.”
They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For many of the kids in YALLA’s programs, there are already thousands of miles behind them. But YALLA is going the extra mile for them, too.
They’re on the threshold of their potential. They just need a guiding light to find the door.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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