Review 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
You can read this book or wait for the movie, but the book is worth the effort. This story is too textured, too filled with layers of light and dark, for Hollywood to capture its complexity.
In January of 2007, New York Times reporter Warren St. John wrote about the Fugees, a team of soccer-playing misfits from a dozen war-ravaged countries transplanted to the small Georgia town of Clarkston. The article 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.
The film will undoubtedly portray the Fugees' extraordinary coach, Luma Mufleh, a native of Jordan, as a tough-but-tender soul who forges an adorable group of multi-colored 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 the book also conveys the larger context in which these kids play games and say prayers. Clarkston became a dumping group 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 like 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.
No movie could 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, while her husband was being murdered in the front room. Most immigrants to America come eagerly, after years of saving and dreaming; they stay in touch with kinfolk back home through cell phones and e-mail and retain a sense of connection and community. The refugees of Clarkston were uprooted and their families ripped apart 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."
Luma 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 completely, 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, energy and effort, are the same in Albanian and Swahili. And English.
Luma 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 over-worked and undermanned social service agencies. "You start off on your own," she says, "and you suddenly have a family of a hundred and twenty." 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 announced "you deserved to lose." "Control freak" is the same in any language, too.
Those are quibbles, however. This is an uplifting tale celebrating the most old-fashioned of virtues: hard work, 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." Cue the credits.
Steven V. Roberts's new book, "From Every End of This Earth," profiles recent immigrants to America and will be published next fall.