The children and teenagers at Yalla are refugees and immigrants, ages 6 to 18, who have escaped from countries of conflict and resettled with their families in San Diego County. Despite their differences, they all have something in common: the passion for soccer. For them, soccer is a community that transcends language barriers, forming strong friendships and inspiring them to be physically active and socially responsible.
"Yalla" translates to "let's go" in Arabic. Founder Mark Kabban, whose family is from Beirut, Lebanon, understands what it feels like to start life over in an unfamiliar place. He began the nonprofit in 2009 and through soccer and academics the Yalla Academy has empowered over 2,000 kids in the city of El Cajon, California, which has become a hot spot for refugee resettlement since the 1970s. Volunteers work daily after school with the kids on their academics with the main goal of preparing them for college. During the past four years, 88 percent of Yalla graduates have been accepted into four-year universities and have earned $5 million in academic scholarships.
Academics aside, the passion that attracts most kids to Yalla, is soccer. There are competitive weekday practices led by soccer director Ryan Shera, and on Sundays, pick-up games are led and run by the Yalla kids. Shera, previously a civil litigation lawyer, says he believes that giving the kids the highest quality program in their own communities allows them to be creative players and brings them back to their roots where "soccer is first" in many of the countries from where they come.
The tutors and soccer coaches at Yalla help families who were forced to leave their home countries and resettle in the U.S. to reestablish their identities and assimilate into a community centered on soccer. They have found an extended family, community and support at Yalla. The ultimate goal is for the students to not only achieve accountability and responsibility through their soccer program, but to also develop life skills for college and beyond.
The members of the Khummi family, (from left, Nancy, 12; mother Nadia; Maryos, 9; and Yousif, 15) are Chaldeans from northern Iraq. After fleeing to Lebanon in 2007, the family, which also includes father Adeeb, immigrated to El Cajon, California in search of religious, economic and political freedom, and a better life for their children.
"When we was in my country, Iraq, Baghdad ... they have war ... between people. To live there, too scary. First, we leave and went to Lebanon. And we lived there about year and four month. We came here, because his [Adeeb, Nadia's husband] uncle came here first, and he talk about here is very nice, and safe. That's why we came here ... we can do whatever we want to do, like freedom. That's why I like here." -- Nadia Khummi
Maryos Khummi kicks a latex glove filled with air he made as if it were a soccer ball at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego. Maryos was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 but is in remission. He continues to have tests and further care.
Nancy Khummi, center, laughs along with the Matti family at a soccer practice.
"I like that it's a different club, it's not like all the others. It's not like, 'You're good, you join. You're not good enough, leave.' We accept anyone, we're all family and friends. We all get along very well. It's unique." -- Nancy Khummi
Maryos Khummi, right, works with tutor Zainab Salih at Yalla Academy. Before and after soccer practices, the multilingual staff and volunteers at Yalla help K-8 students with homework and prepare older students for college. During the past four years, 88 percent of Yalla graduates have been accepted into four-year universities and have earned $5 million in academic scholarships.
Yousif Khummi, left, plays soccer with brother Maryos in their apartment. They try to play soccer every day. A cancer survivor, Maryos' "Make-A-Wish" dream is to meet Cristiano Ronaldo.
"I've been here for seven years, now about to be eight. Yalla is my home. ... I can't play soccer without school, without grades. I got to do everything to play soccer. I just go to school to play soccer." -- Yousif Khummi
Members of the Fayiah Pittman family are refugees from Liberia, Africa's oldest republic which endured a long-running, ruinous civil war and rebellion in neighboring Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Junior, (far right) and Ruth Pittman have two sons, Cyrus, 13 and Jonathan, 9, and baby Marilyn Fayiah. Junior immigrated to El Cajon in 2004 with the help of UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency. In 2015, Ruth, Cyrus and Jonathan were finally able to relocate to the United States and live together with Junior as a family.
Junior describes how much he had to work to bring his family to the U.S. "It was not easy for me, for my family to bring them over. After I came here ... my wife, she [was] in Liberia, but it was not easy for me. There were three people to bring then. It was not easy. I working every day, 24 hour for two years." --Junior Pittman
Junior Pittman recalls his experience fleeing war in Liberia as a child and eventually coming to live in a refugee camp in Guinea with his aunt. He became separated from his mother, and his two sisters and nephew died during the conflict. Liberian refugees walked across the country of Guinea to safety, sometimes crossing rivers where many people died because they couldn't swim.
"Sometime you will walk for three days. Sometime one month, you will walk to go another country to save your family sometimes, or save yourself. Sometime, you have to walk, sometime three month before you reach your destination, if you want to be where you family, to save lives. Sometime in the bushes one week, three weeks. Sometime no food, only water. Sometime have a million. Two hundred people walking." -- Ruth Pittman
Cyrus Fayiah studies while his sister Marilyn plays nearby in their apartment in El Cajon. Ruth is thankful Yalla has helped her sons do well in school because when they first arrived, she didn't have anyone to teach them. Jonathan and Cyrus study and do chores before playing soccer in their free time.
Cyrus and Jonathan play soccer at their apartment complex with their neighbor Zach Yousif, right.
"What I learn about playing soccer is when you're out with your friends ... you get to talk to each other and you get to play with each other and you get to hang out with your friends and you get to love new friends or new people and different people around the world." - Jonathan Fayiah
Cyrus Fayiah washes his soccer uniform in his apartment bathroom, which he often does after practice and games.
"Coach Ryan he told us that [if] you are 99.99 percent ready, then you are not ready. But if you are 100 percent ready, you should be here. Every time you come on the field, you should be prepared and bring everything you need to be a skilled soccer player." -- Cyrus Fayiah
The Matti kids (from left, Dani, 14; Matti Matti, 9; Amira, 12) left Guatemala after Matti was nearly kidnapped. They traveled by bus to Tapachula, Mexico, where they were turned in to immigration. They remained in a detention center for five months before being aided by the UNHCR, which helped them reach the U.S. border, receive amnesty and relocate to El Cajon.
Alaa Matti, left, grew up poor in Iraq and started working at the age of 10. He left when he was 17 to escape being forcibly recruited by the Iraqi army. He settled in Guatemala where his uncle lived and met his wife Olga, right, where they married and had three children.
"In Guatemala, it's really hard because there's a lot of violence, and they kidnap kids or family members, who then ask for money. My uncle also wasn't OK with our relationship because we were different nationalities, so we came to a thought where he could've done this [the attempted kidnapping of Matti] because he wasn't OK with it... we decided immediately that it was too dangerous for us to be there." -- Alla Matti
Matti talks with his father Alaa as they sit down for a meal at their apartment. Matti wants to be a famous soccer player when he grows up, like his favorite player Hector Bellerin from Spain who plays for Arsenal.
Amira and Dani Matti work on their laptops at home. Amira's dream is to become a heart surgeon when she grows up because she loves helping people. Dani wants to play soccer in college and become a mechanical engineer.
School was very difficult for Dani when he first came to the U.S.: "I was kind of sad because all of my friends that I had at school were getting good grades, and everything. I wouldn't get some of the stuff because of the language. It was hard to understand. I think when we came to Yalla everything changed ... they would help us on our math homework. On everything. When it came to soccer, it was just something that would keep us off of our minds off problems."
Matti Matti smiles while he participates in a soccer practice at Yalla. Matti likes to prepare for games the day before, making sure he drinks enough water, his backpack is packed and his uniform is ready. He often wakes up at 5 a.m. on game days out of excitement.
Daniel and Mary Ukang, with children, from left, Ukang Yamun, 10; Apiou Yamun 6; Nyapout Yamun, 4; and Akuar Yamun, 12. Daniel and Mary were part of the mass exodus with thousands of people fleeing the civil war in South Sudan in 1987. Daniel was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, along with thousands of others, and in 1991 they made the long trek to Kenya where they settled in the Kakuma refugee camp for several years. In 2001, Daniel was able to immigrate to the United States, settle in El Cajon, and eventually bring his family to California in 2008.
"The Sudan government tried to invade our South Sudan areas and that's the time our villages was attacked ... so we had no choice but to run. So on our journey all the way to Ethiopia, I had met so many boys, in the same way they were mostly targeted by the government to be taken to the soldiers. ... The girls were taken to be slaves or whatever. ... [After four years in Ethiopia] we had to walk back to Sudan where we had to cross river Kotto. Most of my friends were dying in that river because the enemies was chasing at us, shooting at whatever went in the river. Crocodiles in the river, getting everybody. ... UNHCR helped some of us to come to Kenya, and that's where we've been, there for 11 years. Living in Kenya before the United States government decided, hey, let's give the chance to the Lost Boys to come to America. So that's how we came here." --
Akuar and his sister Nyapout hang out in his bedroom. When Akuar first arrived in the U.S., he most remembers the cold weather and how he had to share a room with his brother. Like most of his friends, he hopes to be a professional soccer player when he grows up.
Ukang Yamun plays with neighborhood kids near his home.
"We play soccer Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday because it's fun to play with other people, people that you just met, and people that you knew for a long time." -- Ukang Yamun
Daniel Ukang hugs his daughters Nyapout and Apiou.
"When we were doing the interview on coming to America, everybody's saying how great America is, you know what you will have everything you need. You will have whatever you want. ... They didn't tell you, you had to work for it. So everybody expect that, 'Oh I'm gonna have everything.' So you didn't know you have to work for it to get what you need. That was the scary part, finding out you have to work hard to get what you need. ... If you don't have a job, you don't work, you can't find anything. So that's the hardest part." -- Daniel Ukang
Akuar Yamun plays soccer with neighborhood kids at Wells Park in El Cajon. Yalla founder Mark Kabban approached Akuar's father, Daniel, about training the boys at Yalla after he saw them playing soccer together. Once Mark told Daniel his goal was to help them do well in school and get to college, Daniel registered his sons and started bringing them to Yalla every day.
Editor's note: Mark Kabban is incorrectly named the Executive Director of Yalla in the above video. His title is Founder.