In “Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, An American Town,” Warren St. John, a New York Times reporter, tells the story of refugees joining a team to reach their goal – a new life in the United States. A front-page article in the Times, in January 2007, began St. John’s reporting on the Fugees and he followed up with two articles inspiring him to write his book.
St. John brings together the refugee’s desire for community in the diaspora, education as a means to success, discipline and fun.
Refugees and immigrants are at opposite ends of the spectrum. A refugee is a person in exile, one fleeing, no matter the cost, from persecution. The immigrant is one who has opted to settle in a new country. According to the Homeland Security Office Department of Immigration Statistics, 166,392 persons were admitted to the United States as refugees during 2008 (the latest statistics available).
According to the Georgia Department of Human Resources (last statistics available from July 2007), Georgia ranks among the nation’s top 10 state programs in resettling new citizens. Currently refugees from 41 countries have settled in 40 of Georgia’s 159 counties with the highest concentration in Fulton and DeKalb (where Clarkston is located) counties. In 2006, approximately 2,000 refugees resettled in Georgia.
Clarkston, 13 miles east of Atlanta. is home to the Fugees soccer team, composed of refugees from Sudan, the Congo, Kosovo, Liberia, Iraq and Afghanistan. St. John tells of the obstacles that the team has faced – lack of equipment and a permanent playing field and the most egregious of all, Clarkston’s mayor, Lee Swaney, who declared it illegal for the Fugees to practice on public athletic fields. An article about the soccer team ran in The Atlanta Journal Constitution on April 6, 2005, and a few months later another article in the same newspaper highlighted the dispute between the team and the local government. The mayor of nearby Doraville echoed Swaney’s stance according to St. John, complaining of seeing “immigrants playing soccer in a town cemetery.”
St. John focuses on Luma Mufleh, the coach of the Fugees. Mufleh left Amman, Jordan, and her well-to-do family in search of freedom from the constraints of the Middle East. She had attended the American Community School in Jordan, where she first tasted liberty from Muslim expectations of women through sports – playing soccer, basketball, volleyball and baseball. In St. John’s book her coach, Rhonda Brown, says, Luma was “keen to learn, dedicated and the kind of player a team could be built around.”
St. John writes of Luma’s relationship with her grandmother, the only one, “among the family that seemed to understand the implications of Luma attending college in the United States.” Her grandmother knew that once there, Luma would never return to Jordan. Her departure created a vast rift in the family and the silence fueled Luma’s desire to create a new family in the United States. Today, Luma has reconciled with her family who have visited her in Clarkston and assisted the Fugees through sponsorship of school and athletic supplies.
As much as the author tells Luma’s story, he also provides insight into the soccer players and their families. The stories behind the relocations of Luma and members of the Fugees to the United States and what happened to family members left behind are the most intriguing parts of the book.
To assist the refugee community visit the website of the Refugee Resettlement & Immigration Services of Atlanta (rrisa.org), a non-profit agency that provides services to transition into American culture for hundreds of refugees annually.
In the course of writing his book, St. John asked Luma to put her philosophy into words to “provide a framework for others who hoped to replicate the kind of program she created.” According to the author, he learned that there was “no great secret to what made the Fugees work. “They were powered by simple but enduring ideas: a sense of fairness, love, forgiveness and most of all, a willingness to work – to engage in the process of turning these simple notions into actions that could affect others.”
Writing of the developments since he turned in his manuscript, St. John says that, “Relations between the city of Clarkston and the Fugees, for the most part, have improved.”
Pages in newspapers and news websites recount impersonal refugee stories. Warren St. John has made the larger story personal and emotional. The non-fiction telling of the Fugees’ success is a lesson for all citizens as well as those who have adopted the United States as their home. Crossing cultures the book shows that community, hard work and dedication create a future worth living.
For a full speaking-tour schedule and information visit the publisher’s website.
This story was distributed by the Georgia Online News Service.