A Yalla student wears a soccer T-shirt during an after-school lesson in El Cajon. (Photo by Erin Siegal McIntyre)
Inside a nondescript building on the corner of East Main Street and Avocado Boulevard in El Cajon, dozens upon dozens of shiny porcelain soccer balls sit on desktops and counters. It's hard to find a level surface that isn’t playing host to a small soccer ball-shaped vase.
Instead of holding flowers, each holds writing utensils. It almost looks like an army of No.2 pencils and pens have punctured each little ball.
The word means "Let's Go!" in Arabic, and the concept is deceptively simple: Use an existing passion to inspire learning in students. Yalla’s young participants are composed entirely of refugees and immigrants.
“We use soccer as a hook to entice children to come in and get academic,” admits Sarah Cooper, the organization’s interim executive director. “The kids come in, and they want to play soccer.”
But in order to join the teams, they first have to commit to an intensive after-school study program.
Yalla also stands for Youth and Leaders Living Actively. The unique organization fuses a potent blend of sport and study to help participants adjust and excel at life in the United States.
The organization was founded in 2009 by Lebanese-American Mark Kabbal. His own family had fled war, and after arriving in the U.S., he quickly identified a need to better support refugee kids, particularly in Southern California.
Since the 1970s, San Diego County in particular has been a hot spot for refugee resettlement. More than 14,500 Iraqi refugees have been resettled here over the last eight years, and it’s estimated Iraqi-Americans now make up a third of El Cajon’s population. Today, around 40 percent of Yalla’s cohort is Iraqi.
Soccer Is the Best Way to Solve Problems, Say Refugee Kids
The teens and children at Yalla range in age from 6 to 18. They’re from a stew of countries that have grappled with conflict, including Congo, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Colombia, Syria, Guatemala and Afghanistan. Approximately 1,500 kids have been helped by the program.
But despite their diverse countries of origin, the Yalla kids share a die-hard obsession: soccer.
“Whether they're coming from African countries like Liberia or Sudan, or coming from Latin American countries, they all play soccer,” Cooper explains wryly. “And that is something they can do together without having to share a language.”
The recipe generally works well. Last year, the 20 graduating seniors raised $2.4 million in scholarships. Two were named Gates Millennium scholars.
The program is funded through donations and through partnerships with the Refugee School Impact Grant Program (RSIG), administered through the Cajon Valley School District and the California Department of Social Services.
Once in a while, tutor supervisor Zainab Salih says, kids get rowdy and have to be reprimanded.
“We tell them, if you don't behave, you're going to spend five extra minutes inside the academy,” she explains. “And they’re like, 'No! I can't lose the soccer time!' ”
Salih herself is a refugee. Alongside her husband, she worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad, which she eventually fled after receiving threats.
The younger kids in the program, she says, barely remember their countries of origin.
“They have no idea about Iraq,” she continues. “The older ones have stories, they still remember the violence, the bombs, the blood. ... Sometimes when they start talking, you feel the pain in their voice and in their eyes.”
Salih says that the students’ thirst for soccer -- which could perhaps be called an obsession -- often extends to the classroom. Many write essays and poems on the topic.
“When they choose a story to read, it's always about soccer,” Salih says. “And then they’ll go and read the same story two or three times.”
Every afternoon at Yalla headquarters, a team of volunteer tutors work the adjoining classroom areas, providing one-on-one assistance. Kids use Google Chromebooks and learn from interactive online platforms like Khan Academy and Imagine Learning.
At times, the concepts can be tough.
On a recent Wednesday, a boy from Guatemala vainly tried to understand both the practical aspects of his online English lesson while grasping its content: dog sledding. A patient tutor sat beside him, warding off frustration and trying to explain.
Another volunteer tutor, retiree Patrick Foley, says hearing President Trump's rhetoric about immigrants provoked him to work at Yalla.
“The campaign of xenophobia and racism was one that I wanted to respond to,” Foley recalls. “And the only thing I could think of to do in a constructive way was to volunteer here, so that the students understand: that is not my America.”
The ongoing political climate has worried some in El Cajon. Still, others like Salih are trying to remain optimistic and hopeful.
“We’ve got to believe in our president and try to adapt,” she says. “Maybe he doesn’t see the good about our Muslim faith and us being immigrants right now, but I believe that if we prove [ourselves], he’s gonna see the good in us.”
For the children and teens at Yalla, the soccer field is a both a place of belonging and a place where they can, albeit temporarily, forget about the outside world and focus on one thing: improving their game.
Weekday practices, games and Yalla’s Sunday street soccer pickup games are fiercely competitive. During the Sunday games, co-ed teams of six play each other on the concrete basketball courts outside Cajon Valley Middle School. Community members are invited to participate.
“Coach Ryan, man, he's the smartest person you'll ever meet in soccer,” declares 14-year-old Osama Abdulazeez. “He knows everything.”
Osama came to the United States with his parents and younger brother when he was 10. Back in Iraq, he played soccer in the street.
His first months in the United States, Osama says, were difficult, and he struggled to adjust in school, barely speaking English. Then he found out about Yalla through a friend.
“I feel really grateful,” Osama says, noting that he dreamed of playing “serious” soccer in the U.S. even before his family arrived. “Yalla really blessed me. It's amazing. Soccer is the best way to solve problems.”