One Book, One San Diego 2010
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Outcasts United is the story of a team of refugee boys, the remarkable woman who coaches them, and the town where they live, a once-sleepy southern hamlet that has been upended by the process of refugee resettlement. It's a story about the challenges posed by our quickly changing world, and one that reminds us of what is possible in this country when we put our values in action.
The Fugees come from Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, among other countries. They are boys whose families were selected by the UNHCR for resettlement in a small town outside Atlanta called Clarkston. Most arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs and already in debt – owing thousands of dollars to a government agency for the cost of their one-way plane tickets to America. Once in the U.S., resettled refugees are given just three months of assistance from the government before they’re on their own, left to do the best they can to build new lives in a strange land.
This kind of transition would be difficult for anyone, but children and teenagers face special challenges. They are caught between worlds – no longer of the countries in which they were born, yet still separate and outside from the culture of their new home. They are outsiders at school, and at the same time, come under pressure from parents who see efforts to act or dress "American" as a repudiation of their native culture. Outside of school and their homes, the boys must also contend with pressure from the local street gangs who don’t hesitate to take advantage of the newcomers’ desire to belong.
The boys on the Fugees, while from many different countries and cultures, share this experience of being caught between worlds, and something else -- a love of soccer, a game many of the boys learned to play in refugee camps, using a bundle of plastic bags and twine for a ball. The Fugees have none of the fancy cleats or embroidered soccer bags common to their competition. But their passion for the game and the bonds they form across cultural barriers help them compete against some of the league’s best teams, even as they struggle off the field to find a sense of security and belonging in their new home.
Clarkston, Georgia is a town of 7,200, situated on slightly over one square-mile of Georgia clay, a little over ten miles east of downtown Atlanta. While many small towns around Atlanta have been swallowed by the growing city or county governments, Clarkston has proudly maintained its independence. It has its own mayor, city council, police department and court. Clarkston’s motto is "Small town...big heart."
In the late 1980s and early 90s, agencies that resettle refugees chose Clarkston as a home for new arrivals from around the world. The town had a surplus of cheap apartments, access to public transportation, and was close enough to the bustling economic engine of Atlanta to offer the prospect of jobs for newcomers. The first arrivals were from Southeast Asia. Soon, refugees arrived from the conflicts in the Balkans, and later, from Africa and the Middle East, radically changing the makeup of a simple southern town whose Baptist church was built in 1880. Today, more than a third of Clarkston’s residents are foreign-born, and most of those are refugees. Clarkston High School, once all-white, now has students from over 50 countries. In some ways, Clarkston is America on fast-forward, a town transformed by immigration not over a span of decades, but in the course of just a few years.
As refugees arrived and changed Clarkston, resentments built up among long-time residents. They had never been consulted about the resettlement process, and the town was given few resources to deal with the problems that resettlement brought on. Simple interactions like the issuing of a traffic ticket became opportunities for confusion and misunderstanding. Some older Clarkston residents began to feel like refugees themselves; though they’d never moved, their surroundings became, to some, threateningly unfamiliar.
By 2003, opposition to refugee resettlement in Clarkston began to mobilize. Residents had had enough. At about the same time, a newcomer to Clarkston decided to start a soccer team there for refugee boys. Unaware of the mounting frustration towards the resettlement process, she could not have known that even the simple game of soccer would get caught up in the battle over Clarkston's identity.
Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian-born graduate of Smith College, grew up in Amman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman and a doting mother. But her decision to stay in the United States after college drove a wedge between Luma and her parents. Disappointed and angry at his daughter’s decision not to return home, Luma’s father cut her off completely. At twenty-two and in a country she barely knew, Luma was all alone.
After Smith, Luma moved to Decatur, Georgia, a progressive neighborhood on the eastern side of Atlanta. On a drive to a Middle Eastern grocery store in nearby Clarkston, she came upon a group of boys playing soccer in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Luma joined in. On return visits, she got to know the boys, learned about their backgrounds, and ultimately decided they needed a proper soccer program of their own.
At the time, Luma couldn’t have known how her simple plan to start a soccer team for refugee boys in Clarkston would present so many challenges. She had to fight to find a place for her team to play, in a town where soccer had come to symbolize unwelcome change. She had to find a way to get boys from over a dozen countries – white and black, Christian and Muslim – to play together as a team. And she had to do these things as an outsider herself – a woman soccer coach in a league dominated by male coaches, a Muslim woman in the Deep South. But her journey would change a town and the lives of many.
Outcasts United is the story of what happened when these three disparate elements -- a town, a team and a coach -- came together in a kind of impromptu social experiment. It's a book about resilience in the face of extraordinary hardship, the power of one person to make a difference and the daunting challenge of creating community in a place where people seem to have so little in common.
Warren St. John has written for the New York Observer, The New Yorker, Wired and Slate, in addition to his work as a reporter for The New York Times. His first book, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania (2004), was named one of Sports Illustrated’s best books of the year, and ranked number one on The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of the best books ever written about collegiate athletics. St. John was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He attended Columbia College in New York City, where he now lives with his wife Nicole.