Soccer Team Provides Distraction For Refugees

Renee Montagne talks with reporter Warren St. John of The New York Times and soccer coach Luma Mufleh. St. John's new book, Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, follows the 2006 season of the Fugees, a soccer team for refugee children in a small town just outside Atlanta.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's a new book out on that most beloved of sports heroes, the underdog. "Outcast United" is the tale of a ragtag bunch of soccer players who call themselves the Fugees. That's short for refugees, which they all were refugees who landed in an unlikely place, the small town of Clarkston, Georgia.

Team Fugees didn't have the fancy trappings of youth soccer in suburban America. They also didn't have a proper field to play on after getting caught in tensions over immigrations in their new hometown.

Their story so intrigued reporter Warren St. John, he wrote about it for the New York Times, and followed the Fugees 2006 season. He followed the team along with their coach. Luma Mufleh was herself an immigrant from Jordan who came to the U.S. for an Ivy League education, and stayed on coaching girls' soccer until she came across a group of players in Clarkston quite by accident.

Ms. LUMA MUFLEH (Coach, Fugees): I was on my way back from a Middle Eastern grocery store that I go to a lot to get food from my country, and I took a wrong turn and had to u-turn into this apartment complex and I saw these kids outside in their apartment complex playing soccer. And that's how I grew up playing the game.

And so I sat out there and watched them play, and there was a couple Afghan boys, a couple of Sudanese boys, a Cuban kid, and they were having the time of their life, and they're playing barefoot. It reminded me of home. And the conversation just came up naturally where I told them, you know, I'm a coach and maybe we should start our own team together. They were ecstatic.

MONTAGNE: Give us a portrait of these kids. Who were they? Where did they come from?

Ms. MUFLEH: The kids on our teams, they come from over 24 different countries, countries like Liberia, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq. All of them were forced to leave their countries because of war.

They've witnessed horrible atrocities from watching their moms get raped or their dads get shot in front of them, or having to experience starvation and on the run for several months or years and not knowing where they're going to end up or how they're going to live the next day.

MONTAGNE: Warren St. John, tell us how this sort of sleepy, Southern town outside of Atlanta managed to acquire this huge community of refugees from around the world.

Mr. WARREN ST. JOHN (Reporter, New York Times): Sure. Well, I think there are probably some longtime residents of that town who are still trying to figure that out. The agencies that handle resettling refugees, they look for places with certain criteria. They need affordable housing. Ideally, you'd be close enough to a booming economic center that could offer employment. And Clarkston, Georgia fit this bill perfectly.

And there was another factor, and that was it was a town that was a little bit down on its luck. It didn't have local cohesiveness that could really form together in opposition of resettlement. And by the time opposition really was able to organize and galvanize, over a third of the town were foreigners, mostly refugees.

MONTAGNE: Was there one boy whose story made you realize initially the sort of hardships that these folks had been through in finding their way to Clarkston?

Ms. MUFLEH: There's this - the Afghan boys that I started playing with initially, one day one of them had gotten jumped right before practice and had hurt his head. And I went to talk to the mom about it and the kids, when they were beating him up, they were accusing him of being in the Taliban because that's the only thing they associated with Afghanistan.

And after getting know the family, like, his father was murdered by the Taliban. They had to leave their country because of that. His family had traveled for months through the mountains, got to Pakistan, and as a seven-year-old, he had to sew rugs to help his mom earn money so they could survive there.

And so he comes here, and we want to open up the opportunity for them to do whatever they can. And then we put them in environments where they're not necessarily welcomed.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me ask Warren St. John, because that was part of your original story in the New York Times. There was a clash early on between the town and the team in terms of where it could play. There was a field that wasn't being used, and what, the kids weren't allowed to use it?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Right, and so basically, certain folks in Clarkston decided they were fed up with refugee resettlement, and they had some legitimate gripes. It wasn't as if the town was given any resources to deal with the changes that were required of them because of resettlement.

For example, the police department suddenly had to figure out a way to communicate with people who spoke dozens of languages. So it's fair to say there was eventually a sort of battle over the identity of Clarkston. Was Clarkston a small Southern town, the way it had been since the Baptist Church was built there in 1880, or was it this eclectic international village?

And I think a lot of the long-term residents decided they wanted their old town back, and there were folks trying to play soccer in the town park, and soccer became this visible example of the way Clarkston had changed. And the mayor came out and made a statement to the local paper that as long as he was mayor, there would only be baseball on this field. That was seen by many of the refugees as an effort to marginalize them.

MONTAGNE: And this fight over the town's field led to a frenzy of attention. There were national TV interviews of the Fugees, a sponsorship from Nike, even a Hollywood movie deal. All the while, refugees kept coming to Clarkston, and the kids kept coming to play.

That eagerness can be really touching when you read about it, like the one little boy who came to play the first time and he got nicknamed One Shoe because he pulled out his one cleat and played with one shoe.

Ms. MUFLEH: It wasn't even a cleat. It was just one huge oversize sneaker. He didn't have a pair of sneakers, and that's what he had to play with. But it's like, it didn't matter. It's like, he had that and there was a ball on the field, and there were all these kids and he was going to out there and play.

MONTAGNE: Hum. Well, I'm just going to put another question to you, Warren St. John, and that has to do with the beauty of watching these kids play that game.

Mr. ST. JOHN: Yeah, well, when I first started my reporting, I was really interested in Clarkston. I was really interested in this whole question of how you make such an incredibly diverse community work. And I thought in the back of my head that watching endless youth soccer might get a little tedious.

And that couldn't have been further from the truth, especially once I got to know the players. There was this incredible enthusiasm that takes over and kids who seem incredibly quiet, maybe even just sullen, over and over again would take the field and transform into these incredibly charismatic, gifted, self-confident people, and I could sit and watch the Fugees play soccer all day long.

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MONTAGNE: Warren St. John's book is "Outcasts United." Luma Mufleh is the Fugees's coach, and the Fugees are now back playing on the town field in Clarkston, Georgia.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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