A soccer team of immigrant children unites a tiny Southern town and its many races, backgrounds, and creeds.
CONSIDER THE ODD CASE of Clarkston, Georgia, a typical small Southern town that was involuntarily cast in the role of melting pot. As New York Times writer Warren St. John explains in his new book, Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town (Spiegel & Grau, $25), due to the 1.1-squaremile exurb’s location (13 miles from downtown Atlanta), housing stock, and public transportation, the town became a prime site for refugees emigrating from all over the world in the 1990s. The inundation happened so quickly that by the year 2000, a third of Clarkston’s residents were foreign-born -- an interesting turn for a town that at one time did not have a single nonwhite student enrolled in its high school. Further complicating the situation, the immigrants in Clarkston were of not one single ethnicity but many. In our phone interview, St. John dubs Clarkston “America on fast-forward.”
When native Southerner St. John visited Clarkston on a whim, he had already published a sports book (Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania, about University of Alabama football fans) and had no plans to write another. But while there, he found himself attending a youth soccer game featuring the Fugees -- short for “refugees” -- a team with representatives from more than a dozen different countries. “It sounds slightly naive and pie-in-the-sky,” St. John says, “but I found myself wondering, ‘If kids from 13 different countries can figure out ways to communicate and connect, why are the adults around them having so much difficulty?’ “ In Outcasts United, St. John approaches that question from all sides and takes a hard but generous look at Clarkston through the lens of the team.
The life force at the center of both the Fugees and Outcasts United is tough-love coach Luma Mufleh, a woman who came from Jordan to the United States to attend college. Mufleh’s story could support an entire book of its own: When she decided to remain in the United States after graduation, her well-off parents disapproved so much, they cut off funds and communication. She moved to Atlanta in 1999 and then, while seeking out a Middle Eastern grocery store for flavors of home, stumbled upon a group of barefoot boys playing soccer. After joining their impromptu game and witnessing their unbridled enthusiasm, Mufleh convinced a local YMCA to donate a small amount of money to start a soccer program.
The book also follows the changes brought on the town of Clarkston, its people, and its institutions. A recalcitrant mayor gradually softens to the idea of the Fugees using the baseball field in a well-manicured park instead of the unfenced one where a shooting took place; a supermarket finds success by offering new arrivals 50-pound sacks of rice and cassava powder rather than competing with corporate chains; and the local Baptist church refashions itself into a multiethnic congregation with a universal service for all and other services specifically geared toward Liberians, Ethiopians, French-speaking West Africans, and Sudanese. The church’s pastor is quoted in the book as saying, “Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations, so if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.” It’s this ongoing message of togetherness that makes Outcasts United a triumphant success.