Outcasts United (2009) by Warren St. John tells a story about something I never even knew was going on in America today. Large numbers of refugees from war-torn nations worldwide are relocated to new homes in the US, but instead of blending into immigrant communities in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, they are moved wholesale into small towns, often ones that have hit economic hard times and need an infusion of new residents. One of these locations is Clarkston, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta that in the last decade has seen an influx of refugees from Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Congo and dozens of other countries. St. John paints a surreal portrait of housing projects packed with people of many cultures and languages with virtually no interaction with people born in America. The long term residents have either moved away or are obstinately trying to reclaim their small-town lifestyle by ostracizing and mocking the refugees, keeping them under police survaillance and restricting where they can go or work.
Fortunately, for this book to have a shred of hope there are also people who more charitably are working to help the refugees acclimate to life in America and escape from poverty (often brought on by debt for paying one-way fares to the US and exacerbated by cultural and language gaps in finding good work). One of these people is Luma Mufleh, a woman born in Jordan and educated in Western-style schools. She studied abroad at Smith College and at the cost of being disowned by her parents chose to remain in America after college for the greater opportunities afforded to women. She is the creator and coach of the Fugees soccer team which allows the “misfit” boys of Clarkston to come together to share a common bond on the field. Luma is a strict coach with rules that must be followed by any boy who wants to play on her team. She kind of reminds me of University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit in that she sounds very harsh but still commands the respect and admiration of her players. Luma also gets result as her Fugees with very little in the way of equipment, uniforms, and as documented in this book, even trouble getting a decent practice field, still are able to compete with and defeat teams from Atlanta’s wealthy white suburbs.
The Fugees are in fact three teams – under 13, under 15, and under 17. The central drama of this book regards the U15 squad which Luma actually dissolves early in the season when too many players refuse to follow the rules like getting haircuts and showing up on time for the bus to a game. Yet a core group of players are able to convince Luma to reconstitute the team with tryouts for new players even though there’s little chance the team can gain any ground in the standings so far into the season. The U13 team also shows considerable success in making it to a local tournament.
This is a well-written book centered on soccer but more about the life of refugee peoples in this small town in Georgia. It’s quite remarkable and thankfully quite hopeful. I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it.
- St. John’s article about the Fugees in The New York Times
- Review of Outcasts United on NPR’s “Only a Game”
Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John. Spiegel & Grau (no date), Hardcover, 320 pages