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CNN 'Hero' honoree to speak at commencement
Baldwin City, Kan. — Since graduating five years ago from Baker University, Mark Kabban has gained national attention for developing a program in California that uses soccer to motivate young immigrants and survivors of war to help transition to a better life through education and leadership. Eager to share the success and inspiration behind YALLA, which means "Let's go" in Arabic and stands for Youth and Leaders Living Actively, Kabban will deliver the keynote address to the Class of 2013 at Baker's commencement on May 19.
"I want to let the graduates know that their education at Baker has prepared them to accomplish anything they want to do," said Kabban, who received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Baker in 2008, studying international relations and political science. "I want to encourage them to take risks, believe in themselves and to follow their passions and dreams. I've learned that when you do that you are motivated, and when you pursue what you want to do is when you are the happiest."
For his efforts reaching out to the youth in San Diego, Kabban in 2012 was named a CNN Hero. He was honored a year earlier on VH1 as a recipient of a Do Something Award, which annually salutes the Top 5 world changers. The Do Something Award is based on the nonprofit organization's mission to motivate young people to take action around social changes through national campaigns and grants for projects that make an impact. Also in 2011 he was named one of the Top 10 Unsung Heroes by takepart.com
Soccer serves as therapy for the young players, who for an hour or two forget their worries. Because of funding from local foundations and businesses, YALLA provides everything — tutoring, soccer and year-round field trips — at no cost, something the kids appreciate because nearly all of them know that money is tight at home.
"It was really humbling," Kabban said of the CNN honor and other national recognition. "I was happy to bring attention and awareness to the plight of refugees in my community and, in a wider context, the world. It felt good that our initiative was being recognized. It makes it easier for our program to succeed and for our kids. The kids are the heroes. It is an honor for me to be serving them."
When Kabban started YALLA, he worked with just one soccer team. Now the program serves 400 children.
"I don't know what I had hoped when I created the concept," he said. "It is working out well and has gone beyond my expectations. It's been a great journey so far. There is a big need for it in San Diego. When I was studying at Baker, San Diego had become the largest city for permanent resettlement of refugees in the U.S., and over half the refugees were children. I am working on getting a grant to expand to six different schools, so there is potential for us to grow greatly."
After graduating from Baker, Kabban planned to go to Egypt to earn a graduate degree in forced migration and refugee studies. But on a visit home that summer, he learned about the large influx of refugees that San Diego had experienced in recent years, discovering the mental health issues facing Iraqi refugee families, especially the struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. The conditions worsened once the families were in the United States.
"I became inspired to do something and got a job as a refugee case manger and realized what they were going through," said Kabban, who was just 9 years old when he and his family moved from Beirut to the United States. "It started with the help of a great many people."
Kabban remembers many great contributions from Baker faculty members — Sandy Tugman, Ryan Beasley, Erin Joyce and Mahmoud Al-Kofahi — who helped him along the way.
"Sandy (the student academic services tutoring coordinator) was my biggest inspiration and one of the first people I had contact with after I came to Baker to play football. She told me she would always be there for me. Since day one of starting YALLA, she has helped me create website text, grant writing, and editing speeches. She came out for the first fundraiser in 2010 to support me. That is why I love Baker so much. Even after you leave, they are still your teachers."
"Professor Beasley really believed in me and gave me so much confidence in myself as a student and as a writer to help me to help these kids. He made me see my talents and, most of all, he believed in me."
"Professor Erin Joyce found funding through the honors program my senior year to do original study in Beirut. She wanted me to do work with the Middle East population and refugees. Believing in me allowed me to dream big dreams."
"I learned a lot from Professor Al-Kofahi while teaching an Arabic course (with him) on the Baldwin campus."
Kabban won't forget the years he spent at Baker. "It was the first time teachers believed in me and brought out my best," he said.
A message that he is sure to share with students on commencement day.