Soccer fields of dreams
The residents of Clarkston, Georgia (population: 7,100; 13 miles east of Atlanta), are the involuntary participants in a tricky sociological experiment. Take a small, conservative suburb, resettle refugees from more than 50 trouble-plagued countries in its low-rent apartment complexes, and see what happens. Initial misunderstanding and tension are inevitable. But then what? Regardless of locale, teenage boys want to make friends and play games. If they’re from outside the United States, they’re likely to gravitate to soccer, that most international of sports. So it is in Clarkston, where an energetic young Jordanian woman, Luma Mufleh, has created and coached a somewhat rackety youth team called the Fugees (“re-fugees”).
In Outcasts United, New York Times reporter Warren St. John (Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer) follows Mufleh and her team of Africans, Arabs, Eastern Europeans, etc., through their 2006 season. He uses it as an effective framework for exploring the internal globalization of the United States, as the players learn to live with each other, more affluent teams, and the town’s sometimes-resentful American-born residents.
The Fugees are actually three teams, split by age into under-13s, under-15s and under-17s. The older boys are more self-sufficient, so St. John focuses on the first two groups. During the course of the season, one struggles mightily, while one becomes more cohesive. Mufleh, dedicated, tough, occasionally rigid, has her own stumbles, but overall provides a remarkable degree of support to traumatized boys who have known little but dislocation and discrimination.
St. John interweaves the games with the backstories of several players. Though they start in different countries, their stories seem tragically similar. We learn about the mothers who have brought their families out of ethnic massacres to refugee camps, then to the alleged promised land of the U.S. They find themselves working night shifts in hotels and poultry plants while worrying that their children are losing their traditional values in crime-ridden neighborhoods. One of the book’s strengths is its honesty. The outcome is not all positive. Progress is fitful. Apparent allies renege on promises. Even talented players lose games. Yet, somehow, they persevere. Clarkston adapts.