By Dave Rice
Dajon and Yousif, two participants in YALLA San Diego’s Peace Builders Soccer League, greet me as I’m walking back to the grass field behind Meridian Elementary School in Granite Hills, a neighborhood in the eastern part of El Cajon. I’m here with a handful of others to take a tour of the program, guided by Mark Kabban, the program’s founder and program director, who started YALLA as a way to reach out to San Diego’s extensive refugee youth population through soccer while also strengthening their chances of educational success.
Soccer is used as a hook to draw kids to the program, Kabban explains, though all participants in the Peace Builders recreational program as well as YALLA’s (Youth and Leaders Living Actively) competitive soccer clubs are also enrolled in the group’s tutoring and academic programs. The group serves as a “one stop shop,” providing tutoring as well as counseling services and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) programs to both children and their parents.
The program has been a big success in the refugee community, says Kabban as we walk through the three soccer pitches that have been coned off and hosting matches throughout the morning – as the midday sun beats down only one of the three set up farthest from the school buildings is being used by the oldest group of kids that are out today. 200 elementary age students, plus another 60 in high school currently participate in the program, but there is a long waiting list. YALLA provides one teacher and one athletic coach for each 20 students, but even with a lot of part-time and volunteer staff their budget can only fill so much of a need.
As we walk, Kabban is the subject of numerous enthusiastic greetings from children whose games have ended but are hanging around while their siblings take to the pitch. Salah, a young girl whose family fled Iraq and spent two years in Jordan before arriving in the United States, asks if she can play in another game.
“I’m not even sweaty!” she insists, causing chuckles among those of us fighting to stay cool just standing around absent any signs of nearby shade, excepting the tree where our tour started that’s since been taken over by a handful of mothers who’ve congregated to chat.
Some of the more talented and dedicated youth rise above the Peace Builders league and participate in the program’s competitive soccer club. Both Dajon and Yousif are members of the under-12 club team. YALLA fields an under-age 8 boys’ team, as well as under-10, under-12, and under-19 squads. This year they’re adding girls’ teams in the under-10, under-14, and under-19 divisions, funded in part through a donation campaign on Groupon that raised about $2,000. Yousif is a captain and has even been offered a scholarship from a Spanish professional team willing to foot the bill for him to study and develop his skills in Spain for a year. His family is divided on whether or not he should go, especially since he needs to maintain U.S. residency for five years in order to qualify for citizenship as a refugee.
Kabban himself comes from a refugee background, having emigrated as a child to Connecticut during the 15-year civil war in Lebanon, fought from 1975 to 1990. His family decided to leave after his uncle, aunt, and a young cousin were killed as a result of the fighting. After the war’s conclusion his family returned home, but finding limited educational opportunities for his siblings in Beirut, the family left again for the United States, this time landing in San Diego when he was about ten years old.
He went on to receive a scholarship to play American football at Baker University in Kansas, where he was selected to deliver the commencement address earlier this year. With a just hint of well-earned pride, he adds that he is the university’s youngest graduate to receive such an honor.
“When I came back from Kansas in 2008, I discovered that San Diego had become the largest city for refugee resettlement in the United States,” Kabban says, explaining his motivation for establishing the YALLA program. “I started working as a refugee case manager, and I saw that there was a huge need for these kids – they were coming here speaking no English, they weren’t getting a lot of assistance at school. They’d get homework and no one at home would be able to help them due to the language, high school kids had no idea how to apply for college.”
YALLA serves a large and ever-growing refugee population – in 2012 an estimated 2,600 people came to the San Diego region fleeing violence and political persecution, many of them landing in the eastern suburb of El Cajon. Los Angeles, the second-most frequent destination for such immigrants, saw 700 individuals arrive last year. An estimated 11,000 survivors of torture in their home countries now live in San Diego, roughly 70 percent of them are in the East County.
A little more than half of the new arrivals are children or teenagers, who often find themselves behind academically because interim asylum countries such as Jordan are frequently reluctant to enroll the children of refugees into local schools. Arriving in the United States, an estimated one in four of these youth will end their education before completing high school.
I catch up with Kabban a week later at the East County Career Center, an aging single story facility on East Main Street in the heart of El Cajon, where the Grossmont Union High School District has provided YALLA with some office space, as well as classrooms for older youth in the program. While we meet, a group of adult students participates in an English learners’ program put on by a different group outside Kabban’s office.
Outside the Career Center, YALLA runs on-site programs at Chase Elementary and at Meridian, both in the Cajon Valley K-8 district. High school students gather at El Cajon Valley High School for soccer practice, but travel to the Career Center for the educational component of the program. These schools, along with a few others locally, Kabban tells me, have some of the highest populations of refugee children enrolled in the nation.
“Through partnerships, we have EL [English learning] classes for parents of our kids, Survivors of Torture International [also a San Diego-based group] provides therapy sessions, and there are babysitting programs for younger kids,” Kabban explains. “Then we provide the education programs for all the kids. So the whole family’s getting served.”
I reach Janet Reynoso, YALLA’s education director for kindergarten through fifth grade students, by phone to talk more about the educational component of the program.
Preschool-age children and middle school students come to one of the two elementary sites after school, and are broken into two groups – second grade and younger first hit the fields for play and soccer practice, while third grade and up comes into the classroom for study. Halfway through the afternoon, the groups switch places.
“We have a homework table for each grade, plus a non-homework table,” says Reynoso. “We provide curriculum for all the students. After they finish their homework, we provide them with language arts, mathematics, and other hands-on activities to work with.”
“For non-English speakers, we break them up into a smaller group and address their difficulties. Perhaps it’s being able to comprehend the curriculum that we’re providing, or we’re using flash cards to help identify objects or words in English. If time and capacity allows, we can work with them in very small groups or one-on-one.”
Reynoso says volunteer participation is crucial to providing this much-needed individual attention to immerse students in the language of their new country, which is crucial to their success in the public school system.
“The English language component is where we run into more of a barrier,” Reynoso tells me. “We only have certain tutors that speak fluent Arabic, and a couple that speak Spanish.” But, she says, “it’s almost a good challenge” not being able to translate at times, as it pushes for a more immersive experience for children.
“The way that the children walk in [to the program], that’s going to determine their learning capacity,” concludes Reynoso. “If their attitude is open and positive, it’s automatic that they’re going to learn. So thank goodness for the soccer – it’s just the perfect combination for what these children need.”
Despite the group’s successes in working with the local school districts, YALLA hopes to continue to expand its program.
“They’ve been amazing partners for us,” Kabban tells me about both school districts. Still, he has his sights set on obtaining a facility that the group can call their own.
“We need a facility where we can tutor kids five days a week instead of two, have extended hours where kids can come in to work on projects,” says Kabban. “We need more time for [California High School Exit Exams], for SAT preparation, to help with college applications.”
The group hopes to raise between $15,000 and $20,000 to acquire space for a center in El Cajon and cover operational costs for a year. Fundraising efforts are in the planning stages, and grant money is also being sought.
While a few students have been accepted to four-year universities, for now the program is focused on getting participants through high school and into community colleges. Kabban says 100 percent of YALLA’s students are on track to graduate high school, all have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to connect them to money for college, and all have completed college applications.
“They just don’t have enough credits to fulfill state requirements to go directly to a four-year university,” Kabban says, noting that many students in the program arrived as sophomores or juniors in high school, having missed a year or more of classes. He expects university enrollment to jump next year, when the program hits its four-year mark and the graduating senior class will have worked with YALLA throughout high school.
YALLA operates a website sharing some of their success stories and offering ways for the community to get involved at www.yallasd.org.