Mark Kabban is familiar with the linguistic, financial, and educational struggles that immigrants face because of his own family’s experience coming to the United States from war-torn Lebanon. He realized the power of sports and education after earning a college athletic scholarship, and established Youth and Leaders Living Actively (YALLA) to empower immigrant families and their children, using soccer and art to help them develop the knowledge and confidence to pursue their goals. In 2010 YALLA provided over 150 refugee children with soccer scholarships, in addition to offering tutoring programs and community service opportunities, providing a full-rounded holistic program for refugee youth and their families.
We asked Mark some questions about the lessons he's learned and what's next for YALLA.
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?
Mark Kabban: I first learned about the Iraqi refugee crises in 2006 when I was an undergraduate studying in Lebanon and Syria. My original goal was to study abroad where I could also visit my family, but the real purpose became clearer to me when I joined an Arab Capoeira group and began teaching the martial art of Capoeira to refugees from Iraq. I was shocked to see how many families were displaced by the war and living in desperate situations in both Lebanon and Syria. I have learned that since 2003 the death toll in Iraq has reached well over 1 million, in addition to the 1.5 million who have been displaced inside Iraq, and the roughly 200,000 Iraqi refugees in the region who are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In 2008, and upon graduating from college, I moved to San Diego where my brother-in-law, a psychiatrist, was assessing the mental health of Iraqi refugee families. He shared with me the mental health issues facing the child survivors of war, namely their struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While settling in the United States, their conditions worsen, the PTSD compounded by feelings of isolation. I was moved by their heartbreaking stories of terror and torture and murder.
Upon learning about the tens of thousands of refugees who have been resettled in San Diego, I started working as a refugee case manager. I met many children who had lost a parent or who were orphaned by the war and sent to live with elderly grandparents in their new country. I met too many children who shared feelings of alienation and vulnerability. They were resettled in the US and expected to cope with their losses. Their struggles with learning a new language, learning a new culture, and processing the pain of the past galvanized me into action. Being a case manager was not good enough. I knew I could do more.
DS: How do you feel about it now?
MK: Since starting YALLA (which in Arabic means “let’s get going”), I have felt great and enduring moments of encouragement, but I am also haunted by feelings of needing to do more. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of State has resettled almost 60,000 Iraqi refugees. In 2008, after the state of Michigan was declared “closed,” most of the Iraqi refugees were resettled in San Diego, and this influx shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, recently, the UNHCR identified another 18,000 to 20,000 Iraqis in need of resettlement.
YALLA’s programs are very successful for the children in the program, but the challenge lies in increasing our ability to reach more refugee youth. The closer our relationships become with the youth we serve, the more apparent their deep wounds become, and yet, there are so many others needing help. With YALLA’s scholar-athlete program, we have been able to help many refugee youth adapt to their new community, but by creating our eco-therapy program, the child survivors of war diagnosed with PTSD have experienced the healing qualities of nature. The success I have seen in such a short time is very encouraging. I know there is a long road ahead, but if we do it right, we will not have to travel it alone.
DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
MK: There are two boys who will always be a part of me. Soon after starting YALLA, I received a phone call from a representative of a local organization that works with survivors of torture. He asked me to enroll two 10-year-old twin boys with whom they had been working. I was told that they were fond of soccer, and I was glad to accept them. The twins, Chad and Ahmed (nicknamed “Kekito”) had inherently contrasting dispositions. Ahmed struck me to be the most carefree boy in the world, while Chad, a naturally gifted soccer player, seemed to carry his own burden of pain and grief along with that of his brother. Aside from Chad’s occasional emotional outbursts, the boys were doing great. Other than the twins’ diagnosis of severe PTSD, I knew little about them. Naturally, this all changed. While packing up my soccer equipment after practice one day, I was surprised to see Ahmed crying. I quickly went to console him and discovered that a boy in the park had yelled an offensive remark about Ahmed’s mother. In my ignorance, I told him to not worry about “that kid.” I added, “Who cares what he says?” Between Ahmed’s gasping breaths, he managed to respond, “My mom and dad are both dead.” I didn’t know what to do, so I just held him until his tears passed. I took him home that day and discovered that Chad and Ahmed live with their 80-year-old grandmother. In a melancholy voice, she told me that while living in Iraq, the twins had witnessed the murder of their parents. As I left their modest apartment, I promised myself that I would never let the refugee youth ever feel alone.
DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
MK: When I had first expanded YALLA’s program to include middle and high school youth, we were very short handed. In truth, I was a bit stressed with all the new logistics I was managing. After soccer practice during our first week into the new program, a young man approached me and introduced himself as Husam. He was very interested in wanting to help out, but at the time I was so preoccupied with the new program that I did not follow through with him. Another week passed when he called me, again inquiring about whether he could help coach. I invited him to a soccer practice, and I was shocked to see Husam exhibit amazing leadership skills. I could not believe that a 16-year-old could be so committed to our program and our mission. As I got to know him, I learned of Husam’s inspiring life story of perseverance. His father died in Iraq, leaving behind Husam his three sisters and his mother. Soon after insurgents took control of Husam’s Baghdad neighborhood, terrorists threatened the lives of his sisters for not wearing hijabs (the head scarf worn by Muslim woman). After being threatened at gunpoint, it was no longer safe for his sisters to leave the house. Husam was forced to begin working at the age of eight. On a street where daily shootings and explosions took place, Husam started selling ice on the street. As he grew older, he began painting houses, doing construction, and working with an electrician. All of these trades he learned before the age of 11. As the situation in Baghdad became increasingly violent, their house was shelled; Husam’s family fled to Turkey where they lived as refugees for a year. While in Turkey, he continued to work and support his family. Not surprisingly, he feels as though his childhood was cut very short, and through YALLA he is making sure that all his peers are going to have what he never had--a childhood. Husam now coaches two elementary YALLA soccer teams and tutors the scholar-athletes and acts as chaperon on all of the eco-therapy trips. Husam keeps me inspired and reminds me every day of why YALLA is so important for our community.
DS: At what moment did you know that you were actually making a difference?
MK: I knew that YALLA was making a difference when I saw how proud kids felt to be a part of YALLA. The retention rate for our soccer practices, tutoring, and eco-therapy programs are all very high. Being a YALLA scholar-athlete has become a source of pride in the community. This has led to older refugee youth wanting to get involved in our guidance program to take on leadership roles for their younger peers. When given the opportunity to succeed, the drive to fulfill potential in youth is limitless.
DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
MK: Building a grassroots, soccer, tutoring and eco-therapy program from the ground up is a challenging task for anyone, and perhaps even more so for a 22-year-old who still has a lot to learn. Early in the project, I tried with little success to appeal for help from non-profit organizations. The phrase “tough economic times” accompanied many apologetic rejections, while other community groups thought my plans were too ambitious. It became clear that before I could attract the non-profit and community professionals who I desired for YALLA support, I would have to gain approval of a 501(c) 3 and build the program on my own. After starting the soccer program, using what little equipment I had and zero dollars from anyone, I was able to establish a program that quickly gained acceptance as a serious community asset. That’s when I began to receive more help from non-profit professionals, which, thankfully, led to the establishment of the tutoring and eco-therapy program.
DS: What has been the biggest lesson through the process?
MK: When you take on a mission like YALLA, you see that it is bigger than any one individual, and I believe this is why the universe makes sure of its success. YALLA did not come from me but rather it works through me. My best friend, Sandy, gave me a framed plaque at my first fundraising event, the YALLA Gala. It reads “From chaos brilliant dreams are born.” YALLA has opened my eyes to the dynamics of life: death and violence can always be countered with love and new opportunity.
DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
MK: I have learned that nothing motivates like action. With every step YALLA has taken, a community member has taken two to strengthen its cause. When an organization is made by the people and for the people, a strong sense of ownership and empowerment is cultivated.
DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
MK: Every little success you have must be cherished and used to get you through to something bigger. When you believe and feel confident in what you are doing, everything that is needed will be presented to you if you are conscious enough to see them. The daily struggle of an organization is interwoven with miracles. You just have to take time see them. Be excited about every little success and try to see that there are no failures, but only opportunities to learn. When I feel overwhelmed, I always remember that happiness is not the absence of stress, but it is finding something worthy of your existence to be stressed over.
DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
MK: To do what YALLA has accomplished in the past couple of years I had to have faith in life. I believe strongly in everything that YALLA is doing, and I feel that its success is what we say in Arabic “maktub,” destiny.
DS: What’s next for your project?
MK: With dropout rates and ethnic violence at an all-time high in the community where YALLA works, big steps have to be taken. With this in mind, YALLA’s next step is to create a “Peace Building” charter school, which has the ambitious goal of making 100% of its students college bound. Planned to be in the heart of the community, the school is to focus on the educational needs of refugee, immigrant, and other marginalized youth. The school is planned to open in the fall of 2012 for grades 6-12. The enrollment of the school is anticipated to be around 600 to start and will grow exponentially each year. The school will utilize the Direct Instruction (DI) curriculum. Based on extensive evidence, the DI curriculum has shown to employ the most effective teaching methods for inner city and English learning students.
The school leadership will create an entire student body capable and confident that they are college bound. Performing arts will be a fundamental part of the school in an effort to help students discover an unconventional atmosphere where they feel confident enough to learn and speak English. Peace building will be facilitated by an educational exchange of culture. Small groups of excelling students will be placed as TA’s for Arabic, Spanish or English language classes. In essence, this will allow for the Arabic-speaking students to teach their language to English or Spanish speakers and vice versa. Education in this fashion will allow them to see more clearly that their differences are actually positive instead of perpetuating the current disdain and dissension felt in the community.
The school will continue the work YALLA has been championing, motivating youth through soccer and eco-therapy outings. Moreover, mechanisms will be put in place to catch students who fall through the cracks. For example, the entire student body will be placed in small groups that will meet bi-weekly with a teacher to ensure they are on track with school, sports and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the YALLA charter school will serve to promote the desire for academic success by its students, while providing a safe haven for expression through art, the natural environment, and performance.
Bonus Question: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?
MK: YALLA works within the soccer arena in California and who better to create a PSA other than the most well known soccer player in the US, David Beckham.