United States Tennis Association and Nickelodeon team up for a day of play for children at Wells Park

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Hundreds of children took the field at Wells Park this weekend, and as we celebrate our nation’s independence, we are reminded that our country has always served as a land for a new start.

In this century, immigrants from Mexico are seen as the primary group moving for a better life, but in El Cajon, there has been a flood of immigrants from all over the world. If you pointed out five of the kids on the field, they would likely all be from other countries.

Hundreds of children took the field at Wells Park this weekend, and as we celebrate our nation’s independence, we are reminded that our country has always served as a land for a new start.

In this century, immigrants from Mexico are seen as the primary group moving for a better life, but in El Cajon, there has been a flood of immigrants from all over the world. If you pointed out five of the kids on the field, they would likely all be from other countries.

With language barriers and an infinite amount of new problems to solve, the transition is rarely easy. That’s where YALLA and Nickelodeon comes into play.

YALLA stands for Youth and Leaders Living Actively and it is also the Arabic work for “let’s go”. YALLA partnered with the cartoon giant to host a day of fun as a part of its Road to Worldwide Day of Play celebration.

Mark Kabban is the founder and executive director for YALLA. Kabban was named one of the top five best young world changers by DoSomething.org and was named an international hero by CNN Heroes in 2012 for establishing YALLA and said he was a young immigrant himself.

“My family immigrated to San Diego when I was nine years old,” he said. “We all had to leave our country because of war, in Lebanon. We use soccer as a hook to get kids into our education and leadership programs for getting on track to go to college.”

Mohammed Abdulazeez, 11, is heading to El Cajon Valley middle school this fall. Abdulazeez said his family is from Iraq and lived in Turkey for three years. He said he has been in America for one year and four months, but YALLA has helped him transition quickly.

“I learned English in about one month,” he said. “I tried really hard to understand. In school they don’t let you have it translated into Arabic.”

Abdulazeez may be young, but he has his eyes on the future.

“I’m trying to reach my goal of helping people in Iraq, to stop people from being hurt,” he said. “After school I want to find a job and still be in YALLA.”

Janice Luna Reynoso is the YALLA Academy Director and a founding member of the organization, she said YALLA provides many services.

“Our short term goal is to get a building to facilitate all of their programs. We want to be able to create a hub for immigrant and refugee families where they can access different programs and get to know their resources, most of which we provide. It has to do with their education, college prep, SAT prep. We’re ranging in our services all the way from kindergarten until college students, who do come back and participate in the program.”

Reynoso said they are currently serving more than 300 families and have received a lot of attention from media giants such as attention from CNN, BBC, and Univision.

 “It’s a little bit of a dream come true,” she said. “For us to be able to serve our youth and be able to provide not just the educational component, but to be a part of leadership and impact the community is great. Seeing them happy is really what we are doing it for. All the staff, the volunteers, they do it for the kids.”

Kathy Caputo, Director of the College Prep program, started as a volunteer a year ago and said she fell in love with the kids. 

“They’re stories, what they’ve overcome, how beautiful they are,” she said. “They see America the way we’re supposed to see America. They are grateful, they don’t take things for granted. It’s just such a joy to be around them. When you ask what’s they’re favorite class they say I can’t decide.”

Said she has kids going to UCLA and UC Berkeley that have only been speaking English for five years. “They share that,” she said. “They are all here in a similar setting, where maybe they don’t speak the language, don’t have friends. It really makes you aware of the all the excuses we make in America. These kids just take opportunity and they’re grateful.”

Although education is the goal, YALLA is still made up of soccer teams. Antonio Lavenant coaches the girl’s 19u team and heard about YALLA while coaching at El Cajon Valley High School. Lavenant said he loves what he does.

“I’ve been working with some of these kids for years and I’m just watching them grow. To me that’s awesome that they’re still here in our program because that means we’re doing something right. They want to come back.”

Raizeen Suleiman, 16, attends El Cajon Valley high school and has been coached by Lavenant for three years. Suleiman said her parents are from Kurdistan and that YALLA has been great for her education.

“They always want you to succeed in your education first and then soccer second,” she said. “They teach good sportsmanship, working together. After school we go to tutoring for an hour and then soccer practice. My IQ of soccer wasn’t that great. He helped me with what classes to take and even with my homework during practice hours, mostly math.”

The day of play was a treat from the usual kind of soccer practice said Lavenant.

“A lot of times we don’t have all the teams out here and today as an organization and YALLA family were coming here and spending time with each other,” he said. “That’s not always possible with us all doing so many different things.”

Mazen Saka, 11, and his brother Manoouel are both from Iraq and attend Literacy First Charter School. Mazen said that soccer allowed him to meet friends despite the language barrier.

Soccer has taught Saka to overcome adversity, he said. That lesson was learned in a recent match where his team trailed by three goals and he refused to give up.

“We just told each other work harder and keep going,” he said. “We still thought we could win.”

Saka’s team went on to win the match, scoring six goals.

As a day of fun came to end, Roland Guevara, Director of Public Affairs for Nickelodeon, said YALLA was an easy choice for a playmate.

“Part of our goal at Nickelodeon is to come play with kids and of course our initiative for recognizing health and wellness for young people,” he said. “YALLA was one of the organizations in San Diego that was doing great work.”

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