BEIRUT: At her home in Iraq, a six-year old girl hears a knock on her family’s front door. She doesn’t know it yet, but the sight on the other side of the door will haunt her for years to come.
Answering the door, the girl finds her father chopped up in a body bag.
It is an all-too-common story, according to Mark Kabban, founder of Youth and Leaders Living Actively (YALLA) in San Diego, California, and current mentor to the young girl and her nine-year-old sister.
After studying international relations at Baker University in Kansas, Kabban, a Lebanese citizen, planned to move to Egypt to help refugees. But upon seeing that his adopted hometown of San Diego had received an influx of refugees from the Iraq War, Kabban changed course and began working as a refugee case manager. Soon, Kabban was inspired to start YALLA.
“With college as the goal, YALLA is the first and only program in California that uses [football] as a hook to engage refugee and immigrant youth in education and eco-therapy programs,” Kabban told The Daily Star through an email exchange.
Founded in 2009, YALLA accepts refugees on a scholarship basis to play football while at the same time ensuring that they participate in an educational program. The program includes: tutoring, life skills, inter-relational skills and preparing for higher education.
“I decided I would help the kids and start this program because I knew that nobody else would. I had no investors – it was just me, some mismatched and torn [footballs], determination and some famous Lebanese stubbornness.”
Kabban is not a refugee himself. He was born in Connecticut, spent the bulk of his childhood in the Beirut neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud and later moved with his parents to San Diego. Yet upon arrival in the United States, he faced many of the challenges encountered by refugees. “My family was on welfare when we moved to the U.S. and our English was not great,” he recalls. “Sports kept me on track.”
Kabban initially struggled to fit in at school with his “funny clothes,” leading to kids calling him poor. It wasn’t until Kabban started playing American football that he bonded with peers. He later received a scholarship to play in university. Friendship came through sports and Kabban quickly realized its importance in providing a sense of normalcy to children struggling to adapt to new environments.
“The [refugee] kids reminded me of myself when we left Lebanon,” recalls Kabban. “I decided I would help the kids and start this program because I knew that nobody else would. I had no investors – it was just me, some mismatched and torn [footballs], determination and some famous Lebanese stubbornness.”
Today, Kabban not only has matching, new footballs but 18 partners and over 600 refugee and immigrant children enrolled in YALLA’s Peace Builders’ Soccer League. According to Kabban, the collection of children is diverse and includes Africans, Iraqi Kurds and Chaldo-Assyrians, Thais, Burmese and more.
Kabban points out that many of the Iraqi refugee families involved in YALLA lived illegally in Lebanon before being given refugee status in the United States. “[The Iraqi families] say that the Lebanese people were the warmest and most loving people they ever met.”
It was the fear of being deported back to Iraq that pushed the families to move on, though Kabban notes that the “younger Iraqi refugees come speaking [in] Lebanese accents.”
Wisam was one Iraqi who came to San Diego sporting a Lebanese accent. Wisam fled to Lebanon with his family after enduring much trauma. His best friend and 250 others were killed by a suicide bomber, he saw a man shot in the head by a sniper while shopping for groceries and his father was subjected to death threats. Living in Beirut at the age of 13, Wisam found work in a factory to support his family, including his pregnant mother. While ducking the authorities for fear of deportation, Wisam and his family were granted refugee status by the U.S. and relocated to San Diego.
Today, Wisam is enrolled in many of YALLA's programs. He attends tutoring sessions and coaches the Under-10 YALLA team while still managing to be the star of the Under-19 team.
Players such as Wisam have inspired Kabban to continue expanding his program. “I plan to start a [football and college preparatory] school for the refugee children,” he explains.
While Kabban is passionate about his career path, he regrets that his role in society must exist.
“I feel lucky that I get to help my ... youth rebuild their lives, but I am unhappy for the reasons why,” Kabban acknowledges, referring to war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and other practices that force children to become refugees.
Regardless of the sadness that shadows his sentiment of goodwill, Kabban will continue his work. He is considering applying for a Master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies, though he jests that he will first wait to see if “any universities will give me free tuition. That might be an excuse to never get my Master’s.”
In the meantime, Kabban has his hands full: “I always joke that if you don’t volunteer with YALLA, you probably won’t see me.” Indeed, he has taken on a tremendous workload, what with engaging in nearly constant physical activity and simultaneously trying to heal the psychological scars of traumatized children. But he doesn’t seem to be daunted by the task or disheartened by its lack of prestige and lucre.
“Luckily, my mother is not putting pressure on me to [pursue] a profession that makes money,” Kabban chuckles.
“If it is needed, I will continue to serve refugees my entire life.”