Visiting Speakers

Episcopal Honors Founder of School for Refugee Children, Caps Study of Refugee Issues

Luma Mufleh — a native of Jordan who founded a school and support programs for refugee children in the United States — today received Episcopal’s Allen C. Phillips, Jr. Integrity in Action Award, concluding the School’s multi-day exploration of refugee issues.
In a speech before the entire EHS community (LocalLive), Mufleh said that she started the school, Fugees Academy, because of the enormous challenges facing refugees in traditional schools when they can’t speak English or lack grade-appropriate skills. “We have a moral obligation to give every kid in this country a quality education,” she said, adding that the school serves as an introduction to everything from “escalators to democracy.”

While privately funded, Fugees has faced resistance locally and from state policymakers. But since it opened in 2007, every graduating student has enrolled in college. “Every piece of data says they shouldn’t graduate, that they will never complete high school, that they will live in poverty for generations,” she said. “Yet they do the impossible; they embody everything that makes this country great."

Mufleh was named a Top 10 CNN Hero in 2016 and has been featured many times in the national media. She came to the United States to attend Smith College and sought asylum here because of dangers she faced in Jordan as a lesbian and a Muslim. She started her work with refugees following a chance encounter with a group of boys playing soccer in the streets of Clarkston, Ga., home to large communities of refugees. The children were from war-torn countries such as Liberia and Sudan. Mufleh later joined them for a pickup game, then organized and coached a team for them to play in local leagues and around the state. The team was called the Fugees, a nod to their refugee status.

In 2007, Mufleh opened a school for refugee children in Clarkston. The school grew into a larger nonprofit, Fugees Family, that now includes a tutoring program, summer camp, college-prep program, and support network. A second Fugees Academy opened in Columbus, Ohio, last year, and a third campus is planned for Cleveland next fall.

Episcopal’s exploration of refugee issues began on Friday, when Meron Tekeste '19 spoke in chapel (LocalLive). When Meron was 10, he and his mother fled the de facto dictatorship in his native Eritrea to join his father, who years earlier had left the country for the United States. Traveling only at night to avoid border patrols, they crossed deserts, mountains, and jungles. “It was a long and dreadful journey,” he told the Callaway Chapel audience. “The only thing on my mind was to keep on going and, most importantly, surviving.”

Meron said he frequently thinks about the children and families in the refugee camps where he and his mother spent six months before coming to the States. “I live for those kids who lost their lives pursuing a better future,” he said. “I learn for those kids who never had an opportunity to get an education. I persevere for those kids, because I am one of those kids.”

Students on Saturday visited an exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Syrian refugees. And Sunday afternoon, the School aired the Oscar-nominated documentary short film "4.1 Miles," about Kyriakos Papadopoulos, a captain in the Greek coast guard, and his efforts to help Middle Eastern refugees crossing the short span of the Mediterranean between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos.

After the film, Natalie Block ’19 and Shaunjaney Bryan ’19 talked about their EHS service-learning trip to Greece in 2017. On the trip, Episcopal students met with Lesbos residents, officials from nongovernmental organizations, and many refugees. Natalie noted how many of those who had fled their war-torn countries were starting almost from scratch after giving up respected careers and happy lives. “Everything they had worked for was now worthless; that was just shocking,” she said.

Finally, on Sunday evening, the social studies department hosted Megan Bracy of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants as part of its Lyceum series of speakers who provide historical context about issues of the day. Bracy talked about the work of the 108-year-old committee to resettle refugees in cities across America and help them find homes and jobs. She noted that the Episcopal Church and other major religious denominations are key partners in the resettlement efforts, and offered ways for students and staff to help locally.

During the early 1980s, the United States set a ceiling for refugees that routinely topped 100,000 as the country tried to help those fleeing Cambodia and other Southeast Asia countries experiencing war or genocide. In 2019, the federal government will accept at most 30,000 refugees, the lowest number ever, according to Bracy, who predicted the Trump administration will actually approve even fewer.

In receiving the Integrity in Action award, Mufleh joins a distinguished roster of previous recipients that includes international aid worker Dr. Paul Farmer, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and the late John McCain ‘54.

The award honors Allen C. Phillips, Jr., a distinguished faculty member whose devotion to character, integrity, and sacrifice is legendary at Episcopal High School. Over his 40-year career, Mr. Phillips taught English and coached the football, basketball, and baseball teams. During this tenure, he served as Episcopal’s dean of students for 26 years and as faculty advisor to the Honor Committee. Phillips retired from Episcopal in 1994, remaining an active member of the EHS community until his death in November 2007.

The award was established in 2000 to honor Mr. Phillips. It was created by John Burress ’54, John Walker ’79, Ed Walker ’85, and then-Headmaster Rob Hershey.