Books
10:14 am
Mon April 13, 2009

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, An American Town, by Warren St. John

So this is a story, truly, of the Fugees and soccer, but also of the American immigrant experience as it takes place in the 21st century, with global influxes. St. John demonstrates that the process is often difficult, but with good will and common sense, it can be done.

Alabama readers know Warren St. John from his immensely successful and entertaining book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey Into the Heart of Fan Mania. In that 2004 book, St. John travelled for a season with the football RV crowd in Alabama, going from game to game and meeting the odd characters who travel to stadiums days in advance, eat and drink, cheer like mad, and sometimes even choose football over family weddings or anything else. Thus the subtitle: "mania."

St. John did a wonderful job of immersion reportage in that book and, although he likes football, he has always seemed to me more of a soccer guy.

Outcasts United is a study of youth soccer in Clarkston, Georgia, but Clarkston is no typical town and the members of the Fugees, short for refugees, are no typical young soccer players.
Clarkston, on the eastern edge of Atlanta, was designated a refugee settlement center by the U.S. government. Consequently, many women and children (few husbands and fathers) were resettled there from war zones and refugee camps on three continents, more than one hundred nationalities. The town became an example of what is now called superdiversity. The families were from Liberia, Kosovo, Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Bosnia, Burma, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Congo. They spoke Swahili, Arabic, French, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, and many other languages. All were learning some English, and doing better at it, of course, than their moms.

Clarkston was a tough place. There were gangs, Crips and Bloods, open drug dealing and even shootings around the apartment complexes. The immigrant boys were in danger from violence and some were tempted to join the gangs, especially the Liberian boys who already spoke English, were black, and knew hip hop culture from the streets of Monrovia, where they had suffered civil war and terrible violence for nearly thirty years.

Fortunately for these boys, Luma Mufleh, a young woman from Jordan, was also in Clarkston, and Luma took it as her calling to coach and mentor these boys with dedication and ferocity. She insisted on full effort, punctuality, discipline, no long hair, no swearing, total commitment, and in tutoring and coaching these boys certainly saved many of them from ruined lives or even death.

St. John's story follows the program over several years and the teams through a season, game by game. There is much to overcome. They have no uniforms, no shoes, most of the time they have no real goals to practice with and sometimes no grass field to play on. They sometimes were barefoot or in cast-offs. One game they played was against the boys from Alpharetta, where soccer costs parents about five thousand dollars per boy. America is diverse, all right.

The mayor of Clarkston refuses the team permission to use a public park. The older citizens of this town really don't know what to make of these lost boys and behave badly at times, especially, for a while, the local police.

Happily, some do not. The owner of the local grocery, Thriftown, was going broke because of white flight and the refugees, until he realized he could accommodate them by selling whole lambs, goats and fish, keeping the pork separate, and providing rice, cassava powder, and fish sauce . He adjusted and business boomed.

Likewise, the local Baptist Church was failing until they decided to open up to Christians from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and became the Clarkston International Bible Church, with the most musically interesting services in Georgia, I am sure.

So this is a story, truly, of the Fugees and soccer, but also of the American immigrant experience as it takes place in the 21st century, with global influxes. St. John demonstrates that the process is often difficult, but with good will and common sense, it can be done.

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