Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Townby Warren St. John Published 23 Apr 2009
|Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town.pdf|
|Publisher||Spiegel & Grau|
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The extraordinary story of a refugee football team and the transformation of a small American town.
Clarkston, Georgia, was a typical Southern town until it was designated a refugee settlement centre in the 1990s, becoming home to scores of families in flight from the world's war zones—from Liberia and Sudan to Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly Clarkston's streets were filled with women wearing the hijab, the smells of cumin and curry, and kids of all colours playing football in any open space they could find. Among them was Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian woman who founded a youth football team to unify Clarkston's refugee children and keep them off the streets. These kids named themselves the Fugees.
Outcasts United follows a pivotal season in the life of the Fugees and their charismatic coach. Warren St. John documents the lives of a diverse group of young people as they miraculously coalesce into a band of brothers, while also drawing a fascinating portrait of a fading American town struggling to accommodate its new arrivals. At the centre of the story is fiery Coach Luma, who relentlessly drives her players to success on the football field while holding together their lives—and the lives of their families—in the face of a series of daunting challenges.
This fast-paced chronicle of a single season is a complex and inspiring tale of a small town becoming a global community—and an account of the ingenious and complicated ways we create a home in a changing world.
"Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town" Reviews
Perhaps I rate this book too low. It is a heartwarming sports story about a rag-tag group of misfits, facing extraordinary obstacles, who are molded by a stern but loving misfit coach into a disciplined and successful organization. Since my favorite forms of literature are Jacobean revenge plays, dark fantasy, and Edwardian ghost stories, this is not exactly the ideal book for me.
The high school where I work made me read it. The administration—along with the administrations of over 40 colleges and universities—chose it for our summer reading book. Left to my own devices, I would have probably read Mervyn Peak's “Titus Alone” instead.
Still, it kept my interest. The transformation of the sleepy little town of Clarkston, Georgia--first swallowed by Atlanta's urban sprawl, then filled with large numbers of immigrants from disparate refugee communities—is fascinating in itself. Furthermore, the stories of the various families of refugees—most from war-torn Muslim countries—are both moving and historically informative. Finally, the account of the soccer coach Luma Mufleh—a young woman disowned by her wealthly Jordanian family because of her decision to remain in the United States—and how she transforms these uprooted, traumatized boys into disciplined members of unified soccer teams is not only interesting, but also an object lesson in leadership.
Author Warren St. John deserves a great deal of credit, for he refuses to do what many journalist would do in such a place: make this story more inspiring and “cinematic” than the facts themselves actually warrant. Instead, he describes the team and its struggles straightforwardly, and declines to sensationalize his material.
My major problem with the book perhaps arises from Mr. St.John's admirable restraint. Ms. Mufleh is a very private person, and I suspect not a particularly reflective one. Consequently, this account of her great achievement is something always viewed from the outside, something that remains public, artistically incomplete.
I am not a fan of soccer, but I picked this book up based solely on my fondness for Warren St. John (author of Rammer JammerYellow Hammer). This story of Luma Mufleh, a native of Jordan, and the Fugees, her soccer teams comprised of boys whose families fled to the United States from across the war-tattered globe, transcends any sport that might have served as the catalyst for their coming together.
Clarkston, Georgia is one of several US cities in which refugees are relocated, and Outcasts United is as much about the difficulties faced by these communities as they are forced into assimilation of disparate cultures as it is about the Fugees, but the heart and soul of the book lies in the transformation not only of the boys from vastly different places but of Luma Mufleh as well.
This is a big, complicated world, but in Clarkston, Georgia, Mufleh and her Fugees have found a way to build relationship between and around every possible cultural difference: politics, religion, and race. The answer is so simple: changes don't come through policies, they come through people working together, playing together.
Since this was an advance reading copy, a promised epilogue is not included, and I will be waiting anxiously for the completed book to come to market to have answers to the heartbreaking turn of events at the end.
I share with you this link to a youtube video about this remarkable woman, and her inspirational Fugees.
If Disney got its hands on this would, the script would look a lot like a true-story Bad News Bears or Mighty Ducks or Major League. Rag-tag Bunch of Misfit Kids Ruffle the Establishment and Win the Championship. Fortunately, that's not actually what this book is about. And fortunately (as far as I know) Disney doesn't yet have its hands on this one.
What makes the book engaging is that it presents several good narratives. The author is at his best in presenting the social turmoil brought about in the small Atlanta suburb, where the good-natured but xenophobic mayor and the ideologue police chief are cartoonishly unprepared for the new settlers. Some people and institutions in Clarkston embrace change, while others retreat from the community or resist outright. But the transformation story of Clarkston, Georgia, resulting from the dramatic influx of resettled refugees from every imaginable contemporary conflict, is topic enough for a book. These stories are captured wonderfully.
The bigger challenge for the writer, a white American (and a grown man), is capturing the lives of the refugees themselves, and the kids in particular. This is still done as well as one might be able to hope. Many of these children find the soccer team to be critically important for them. They learn to take responsibility for their own actions and play together. But more importantly, the team and its unlikely coach give them structure and friendship, an outlet for youthful aggression, and a role model. The author particularly focuses on the growth of the under-13 soccer team, since those kids work together, grow, and best embody the hope and spirit of their coach.
But the most compelling storyline centers on the under-15 team. These kids endure chaos in the form of a perfect storm. Many are from single parent families whose head-of-household has to work long hours to keep the family afloat. Many arrived in the country at an age advanced enough to make the language and cultural transitions particularly difficult. And to top it off, they are at an age that proves to be awkward even for the most well-adjusted of our species. Some of the kids cope well, but many others do not. As a result, the team fares poorly.
Each year, San Diego's public library and public radio team up to choose a contemporary book to promote as the city's book for the year in a program called "One Book, One San Diego", and this is the chosen volume for 2010. (And this is why I read the book at all.)
Cynically, I was disappointed when I first saw their choice this year. For the fourth year in a row, it's nonfiction, and I was afraid I'd get too much of a dose of that feared Disney pic. But this book really was much more fun than I'd feared. And given that San Diego is every bit as common a destination for refugees as Atlanta, it's a very relevant choice.
"Regardless if you love soccer (or even really understand the game fully) you will enjoy this book. The book follows a youth soccer league made up of resettled refugees in Georgia, but it's really not that simple. Yes, you will learn a lot about soccer -- but you become aware of much more than that. How a small white, Southern town deals with an influx of refugees from conflict zones from around the world. What life was like in the war zones, refugee camps and other places people traveled through before resettlement. You also come to understand that once they arrive in the United States, refugees face a whole new group of challenges. [return]This book as much about the people themselves rather than the game they play. Your eyes and your heart will be opened having read this book."
Richie’s Picks: OUTCASTS UNITED: THE STORY OF A REFUGEE SOCCER TEAM THAT CHANGED A TOWN by Warren St. John, Delacorte, September 2012, 240p., ISBN: 978-0-385-74194-1
“There he was with his immigration face
Giving me a paper chase
But the sun was coming
Cos all at once he looked into my space
And stamped a number over my face
And he sent me running”
-- Graham Nash/David Crosby, “Immigration Man”
“Before tryouts began, the boys seemed puzzled. Where, they wondered, was the coach? Luma was right in front of them, but a woman soccer coach was a strange sight to young Africans, and to the young Muslim boys from Afghanistan and Iraq. During a shooting drill, Luma was teaching the boys how to strike the ball with the tops of their feet when she overheard a Sudanese boy talking to the others.
“’She’s a girl,’ he said. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’
“Luma ordered him to stand in goal. She took off her shoes as the boy waited beneath the crossbar, rocking back and forth and growing more anxious by the moment. She asked for a ball, which she placed on the grass. Then, barefoot, as the team looked on, she blasted a shot directly at the boy, who dove out of the way as the ball rocketed into the net. Luma turned toward her team. ‘Anybody else?’ she asked.”
Jordanian-born Luma Mufleh was educated at the elite American Community School in Amman before traveling to the United States for a higher education and graduating from Smith College. Believing that a permanent life in the U.S. offered her far more possibilities that the second-class citizenship provided to women in her native land – where the civil code is based on patriarchal Islamic law – Luma defied her parents and stayed in America. Having thus been disowned, Luma was living near Atlanta, struggling with a failing eatery, and coaching a girls’ soccer team when she happened upon nearby Clarkston, a town that has been transformed over two decades by an influx of refugees from war zones around the world.
Happening upon an international cast of young men playing soccer in an apartment complex there in Clarkston, Luma was inspired to start and coach a soccer program for them. In OUTCASTS UNITED, an adaptation of his adult book about the Fugee team “family,” New York Times reporter Warren St. John moves back and forth between the individual family stories of the young immigrants who make up the Fugees soccer teams (three different age groups), and the chronicling of their coming together under Coach Luma Mufleh.
“After the trauma of war and relocation, many refugee kids had severe problems. Luma had to keep this in mind. She had learned from experience that she needed about a third of her players to be well-adjusted kids from stable families. They would set an example for the others. Another third of the team would be boys who were for the most part dependable even if they had a few problems at school or with other kids. The last third would be kids with real problems and unstable families. These were the boys who would require most of Luma’s energy and who would most likely cause fighting on the teams. They were also the boys who needed the Fugees the most.”
As we learn from the harrowing true stories in OUTCASTS UNITED, there are still plenty of people coming to America for the same reasons that so many of our ancestors landed here during past generations. And, as we come to see, Luma Mufleh is a bona fide American hero for the work she has done in Clarkston to change these young lives for the better.
Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
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Since I tend to read most books about soccer that I happen to hear about, this much buzzed-about book eventually made it to the top of my pile. Even then I shied away from it for a while, since I'm leery of books that are described as "inspirational." Nonetheless, I eventually cracked the spine, and discovered that it's that rare breed of book that's both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it actually is kind of inspirational and will open the reader's eye to the daunting financial and social issues faced by refugees in the United States. Frustrating because it is neither well constructed nor well written.
The book revolves around the determined efforts of a young Jordanian immigrant woman to build a youth soccer club in a small town about fifteen miles outside of Atlanta. The twist is that her club is comprised of kids (or rather, boys) from the town's large refugee population of Liberians, Albanians, Afghans, etc. This allows the author to explore the many financial and social problems refugees face in trying to resettle in the United States, as well as the interesting effects of such demographic change in some of the areas where aid agencies place them. St. John does a reasonably good journalistic job of tracing the woman's backstory and detailing her efforts to establish the club, and the various administrative and cultural roadblocks she had to overcome.
This story originally appeared as a series of articles in the New York Times, and I'm guessing it was actually better in that shorter format. Here, the clunky writing becomes glaringly obvious, as does his inability to write well about the game of soccer. The book has more redundancies and restatements of information than any I can recall reading in the last several years -- both in the general narrative, but especially when he tries to write about the boys' games. The overall effect is rather like a mediocre high school paper, in which the student is trying desperately to pad his material to meet a ten-page requirement by saying the same thing over and over with only minor variations in word choice.
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of compelling material -- especially the struggle to find a field to play on, the various bureaucratic roadblocks thrown up by xenophobic "old-timers," and the fragile psyches of the boys themselves. Unfortunately, these are undermined by the book's significant narrative problems, as the author skips around quite a bit, diving in and out of the lives of his subjects, never settling long enough on any one to provide any focus. Even his ostensible protagonist, the coach, is left fairly unexplored and unchallenged. Overall, I guess it's worth checking out if you're interested in either refugee issues, immigration, or soccer -- just don't come to it with huge expectations.