Steven V. Roberts -- Lost in America, Found on a Field

By Steven V. Roberts
Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Refugee Soccer Team, an American Town
By Warren St. John
Spiegel & Grau. 307 pp. $24.95

My grandfather, Avram Rogowsky, was not a man of small dreams. Born in Bialystok, a town that's now in eastern Poland, he moved to Palestine as a teenager and worked on the first roads ever built in Tel Aviv. After returning home, falling in love and getting drafted, he decided that life in the czar's army was not a good career move. He jumped off the troop train and bribed his way onto a ship headed to the Holy Land. After realizing that the Ottoman-ruled region was no place for a young bride, he sent a message to my grandmother back in Bialystok: Change of plan, meet me in Brooklyn.

Grandpa Abe reached America on April 7, 1914, because he was confident and conniving, ambitious and ornery -- just the sort of immigrant Barack Obama had in mind when he said in his inaugural address that this country was built by "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things." My grandfather, and millions like him, represented the great genius of the New World. They survived a Darwinian process that rewarded drive and a touch of deviousness. The tired and the timorous stayed behind in Bialystok, Blarney and Bologna.

I thought of Abe when I picked up "Outcasts United" by New York Times writer Warren St. John. It centers on the Fugees, a team of soccer-playing misfits from a dozen war-ravaged countries transplanted to Clarkston, Georgia, and their dynamic coach, Luma Mufleh, an immigrant from Jordan. Almost 100 years after my grandfather's arrival, America is still renewed by fresh transfusions of foreign blood.

The book started as a newspaper article, published in January 2007, that prompted a huge response -- tons of donated cash and equipment, plus a book contract for St. John and a movie deal that financed a team bus and a new school, the Fugees Academy. You can read the book or wait for the movie, but the book is worth the effort. This story is too textured for Hollywood. The film will undoubtedly portray Coach Mufleh as a tough-but-tender soul who forges an adorable group of multicolored young athletes into a cohesive unit and teaches them the Meaning of Life and the Joys of Diversity. And it's all true. Watch for the scene when two players say pre-game prayers in their own languages (the Christian speaks Swahili, the Muslim Albanian). But only the book can convey the context in which these kids play and pray.

Clarkston became a dumping ground for relief agencies looking to relocate refugees from Burundi and Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. There was good public transportation and plenty of affordable housing, but throwing kids from 50 different countries into an all-white high school was crazy, "and the result was a raw and exceptionally charged experiment in getting along." Some locals reacted badly, especially Mayor Lee Swaney, who decreed that only American sports such as baseball could be played on city fields, not soccer. Others emulated Bill Mehlinger, who turned a local grocery store into a booming bazaar selling fish sauce to the Vietnamese, cassava powder to the Africans and whole lambs to the Middle Easterners.

Mehlinger understood the future, one the Lee Swaneys had better get used to. Clarkston is an unusual case but not an isolated one. The foreign-born population of the United States stood at 12.6 percent in 2007, up from 7.9 percent in 1990. One in four Californians and one in five New Yorkers come from other countries. Immigration is closely related to race, and today four states (Hawaii, New Mexico, California and Texas) are majority non-white, and six others -- including Swaney's Georgia -- are close behind. As Jon Huntsman Jr., the Republican governor of Utah put it, "We're fundamentally staring down a demographic shift that we've never seen before in America."

That shift is not just about cassava powder; it's about political power. The entire electorate last year was 74 percent white, down from 88 percent in 1980. John McCain handily won white guys, 57 to 41, but three in five Asians and two in three Hispanics backed Obama. No wonder Karl Rove calls the Republican Party's anti-immigrant attitude "suicidal."

That death wish is not just political, it's economic. The xenophobes and protectionists who argue that immigrants cost jobs have it exactly wrong. Newcomers create jobs and they always have. A report by the Center for an Urban Future recently described immigrants as "entrepreneurial sparkplugs," and the reason is obvious. If they weren't risk-takers, they wouldn't be here. The single stupidest measure enacted since Obama became president was a provision in the stimulus package that makes it harder for companies that receive federal funds to hire employees holding temporary work permits called H-1B visas. One-third of Microsoft's patent applications last year were filed by immigrant innovators, and general counsel Brad Smith is right when he writes, "The future success of Microsoft and every other U.S. technology company depends on our ability to recruit the world's best talents."

But no statistic can convey the human dimension of immigration, and no movie can fully evoke the emotional damage inflicted on families driven from their homelands by boundless brutality. Beatrice Ziaty and her children (three sons played for the Fugees) fled out the back door of their house in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, as her husband was being killed in the front room. Most immigrants to America come eagerly, after years of saving and scheming; they stay in touch with kinfolk back home via cellphones and e-mail and retain a sense of connection and community. The refugees of Clarkston were uprooted against their will. "There's no point in thinking about where to go back to," said Paula Balegamire, whose husband languished in a Congolese prison, "because there's nowhere to go back to."

Coach Mufleh didn't have anywhere to go back to, either. When she decided to stay in America after graduating from Smith College, her father cut her off, so she moved to Atlanta because she liked the weather and found work washing dishes. She started shopping in Clarkston for familiar foods -- yogurt, hummus, pita bread -- and one day saw a group of refugee boys playing soccer in a parking lot. She watched for an hour and discovered a calling. She realized that soccer was the answer to "the boys' isolation from the new world around them and their desire to connect." Goal and grit are the same in Albanian and Swahili. And English.

Mufleh became much more than a coach. She tutored the kids in their lessons, found jobs and food for their families and filled the gap left by overworked and undermanned social service agencies. "You start off on your own," she says, "and you suddenly have a family of 120." In truth, she can overdo the "tough" part of "tough love." I cringed when she banished Mandela Ziaty for insubordination, called her players "a pathetic excuse for a soccer team" and told them that they "deserved to lose." "Control freak" is the same in any language, too.

Those are quibbles, though. This is an uplifting tale celebrating the most old-fashioned of virtues: diligence, self-discipline, regard for others. Phil Kitchin, pastor of a church that caters to the refugee community, put it this way: "Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations. So if you don't like Clarkston, you won't like heaven." As the Christian players said after their pre-game prayer, "Amen." And as the Muslims added, "Amin."

Steven V. Roberts is the author of the forthcoming "From Every End of This Earth," which profiles recent immigrants to America.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company