Written by Hanna Lee
Mark Kabban grew up in civil war-torn Lebanon. After his uncleâs family was murdered, Kabbanâs family relocated to San Diego. New to the United States, it was initially hard for Kabban to assimilate into the culture. It was when he discovered sports that he gained the confidence to feel comfortable in his new home.
Recognizing sports as a great unifier and equalizer for youth, Kabban launched Youth and Leaders Living Actively (YALLA). YALLA’s mission is to empower refugee youth to build a sense of community through soccer, eco-therapy and education.
Over 200,000 Iraqi refugees have relocated to the United States since the start of the Iraqi war. Half of these refugees are under 18 years old and missing large segments of their formal education. Kabban developed an interest in the refugee population at an early age. He discovered that his hometown of San Diego is the number one resettlement city in the United States. He started working as a refugee case manager, but felt restricted in his role and saw a huge need that was not being met.
âThere are thousands of refugee youth without extra curricular activities or venues to help develop their English skills,â recalls Kabban. âI knew that I could do something more for them.â He quit his job as a refugee case manager and took a teaching position while launching YALLA in the process. Starting with one team, the program has grown to serve over 200 kids in just 19 months.
The three-prong program of soccer, eco-therapy and education forms a well-rounded venue for refugee youth. The eco-therapy component takes shape through hiking, mountain biking, community service days and gardening. âWe call it eco-therapy because evidence shows that when kids are connected to nature it really heals them,â explains Kabban. âA lot of these refugee youth are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have seen unimaginable horrors. Seeing the natural beauty and getting out into the community helps them.â
Most refugee kids arrive in the US from different parts of the world and donât know the language, but their love for soccer is universal. âIf you put a soccer ball in front of a kid, no matter what language they speak, they know what to do with that ball,â says Kabban. Soccer captures their attention and motivates them in school. In order to play soccer, all YALLA scholar-athletes are required to participate in the tutoring program twice a week. In addition to the tutoring program, all scholar-athletes are registered in 25 hours of one-on-one tutoring.
Kabban says all of the refugees have heartbreaking stories of loss, but one story in particular stands out in his mind. Shortly after the launch of YALLA, he received a call from a local organization working with child survivors of war and torture. The organizationâs representative asked him to enroll two 10-year-old twin boys, Chad and Ahmed. The boys loved soccer and had been diagnosed with PTSD. Kabban noticed the differences between the two boys immediately. Ahmed had a happy disposition and Chad seemed sad, as if carrying the pain for both brothers. âOne day after practice I was packing up and I heard Ahmed crying. I asked him what was wrong, and he couldnât respond because he was crying so hard, but eventually got out that some kid made fun of his mom,â remembers Kabban. âI told him not to worry about that kid and quipped âwho cares what he says?â Between gasping breaths, Ahmed told me that his parents were both dead.â
âI didnât know what to do, so I just hugged him,â recalls Kabban. When Kabban took the twins home that day he discovered they lived with their 80-year-old grandmother. She revealed that the boys had witnessed the murder of their parents while living in Iraq. In that moment, Kabban vowed he would never let the refugee youth ever feel alone. He explains that even if kids seem happy and normal, you might not realize that they are carrying a lot of pain.
For the future, Kabban hopes to reach as many refugee youth as possible and help them adjust so they find a pathway to college. His advice for DoGooders: âWhen you start doing something amazing, people want to be a part of it,â advises Kabban. âDonât be afraid to ask for anything and always know youâre working towards something bigger than yourself. When youâre helping the disadvantaged, youâre giving a voice to the voiceless.â
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