Refugees Find Hope, Film Deal on Soccer Field In suburban Atlanta, a soccer team made up of young refugees from global hot spots fought city hall for a place to play. Now they've won more than that: a book and movie deal.
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Refugees Find Hope, Film Deal on Soccer Field

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Refugees Find Hope, Film Deal on Soccer Field

Refugees Find Hope, Film Deal on Soccer Field

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. Imagine fleeing war and famine in Sudan, Bosnia and Burundi and ending up on a soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia. Well, that's what the Fugees did, short for refugees.


Unidentified Woman: Bring it in, let's go. Verbati(ph), Ashura(ph), let's go.

BLOCK: The team's coach, a Jordanian woman, brought the kids together through soccer, but the coach and the kids have come to rely on each other for much more. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Armistead Field in Clarkston, Georgia, just east of Atlanta, is the place the Fugees call home for now. Coach Luma Mufleh gathers them together for practice. Here she is, and here's what some of the kids have to say about her.

LUMA MUFLEH: Jog in place. Left leg, let's go.

KWANDRUM BUSHI: My name is Kwandrum Bushi. I come from Kosovo. I like to go on the bus. My favorite place is Savannah so far. The coach is great. Most of the time she's tough on us.

MUFLEH: Edward(ph), you've got to be kidding me. Come on. If they get six more passes on you, you're going for 20 laps. That's one, that's two.

YUSEV RABANNI: My name is Yusev Rabanni. I come from Afghanistan. The coach, I just like the coach very much. She's very nice.

MUFLEH: Nice passing. Good job, guys.

SHAHIR MOHAMMED ANWER: She not just a coach. She's like a mom to us. My name is Shahir Mohammed Anwer and I'm from Afghanistan. This is my second season.

MUFLEH: (Unintelligible), get in line.

MOHAMMED MOHAMMED: My name is Mohammed Mohammed. I'm from Iraq. I always think how to become a soccer player. I love (unintelligible).

LOHR: On the field, Coach Luma, as she's known, is tough. She makes the players sign a contract that they will not do drugs, wear saggy pants or use bad language. They pledge to try hard and to listen. Off the field, the coach is gentle and soft-spoken. She thinks a lot about what the kids go through every day.

MUFLEH: It's the only part of their day where they're not criticized, where they're not made fun of, where they don't feel like they don't belong. You know, it's like you come and you've got an hour and a half of practice where you are the best at what you do. And, you know, they need that hour and a half every day.

LOHR: It's not been easy for the Fugees. They've moved from field to field since Coach Luma started the team three years ago. Last fall, the city of Clarkston said they could use Armistead Field, but in December the coach got a letter from the city suspending practice there. That led to a public outcry after the New York Times ran a front-page story about the team and its problems with the city.

LEE SWANEY: Anybody to say that I wasn't for the refugees or anybody in this city, they don't know what they're talking about.

LOHR: Mayor of Clarkston, Lee Swaney, says the city has been completely transformed over the past two and a half decades from a small, Southern town to a diverse place as refugees from all over the world were resettled here. In 1980, the population was 90 percent white. Now one in every three residents is foreign-born, representing more than 50 countries. Mayor Swaney says the city temporarily suspended the practice because a group of older immigrants not related to the Fugees was using the field, and they had not received permission to play there.

SWANEY: Those fields are made for young people, not grown men. When I say grown men, these were grown men from other countries wanting to take over the field to play soccer, and that's not what our fields are for. It's for youth, youth only.

LOHR: There has been tension over the years as so many different people moved into Clarkston. At Thriftown, a shopping center that caters to immigrants, there is a Middle East market, an Abyssinian café and an Eritrean restaurant owned by Fesseha Sebhatu.

FESSEHA SEBHATU: Everywhere this difference is not easy. To mix people is not like just milk and water. It's just like oil and water because they are two different things.

LOHR: Sebhatu has owned the restaurant for a year and a half. He says he's receiving support from the city now, but it didn't happen right away.

SEBHATU: It will take time. It takes time to understand each other and to live together.

LOHR: What is in the pot?

PAULA BELEGAMIRE: Cabbage, and I put pork.

LOHR: Pork.

BELEGAMIRE: Pork, yes.

LOHR: Paula Belegamire cooks supper in a large pot for her six children. She's from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2001, the family fled to escape the violence of a civil war.

BELEGAMIRE: It was too big a problem. Many people died, and we ran to Brazzaville.

LOHR: But in Brazzaville, Paula's husband, Joseph Belegamire, was arrested as a political prisoner, so Paula ended up alone trying to care for her family. Their lives were threatened as well. They lived on the streets and eventually in one room of a home with many other families. For two years, the children could not go to school.

BELEGAMIRE: Sometimes they are sad, and sometimes they dance in the house because they're not doing nothing. No go to school.


BELEGAMIRE: Only stay in the house all day, sleeping. And tomorrow if you have something to eat, we eat, and sometimes nothing to eat. They cry. It was so sad.

LOHR: Paula and her six children made it to the United States, but her husband is still in Africa. The last time Paula's son, Grace Belegamire, saw his father, Grace was 5 years old.

GRACE BELEGAMIRE: Right now, I'm about to turn 13 in May.

LOHR: What do you remember about your dad?

BELEGAMIRE: I just remember his face, like some of the small memories and stuff. I don't know what I remember, like, it's hard to say.

LOHR: Grace plays right midfield on Coach Luma's team.

MUFLEH: You know, they're all refugees. The entire team is all refugees, and that's a very powerful experience. You've left your country, usually because of war, so they've all experienced war, and they've all been - they are all children of war. So it probably makes them a stronger team because they share that experience.

TRACY EDDIGER: Okay, raise your hand if you have homework. (Unintelligible) do you have homework?

LOHR: After practice, the team stays together and heads to a local elementary school to study. Tracy Eddiger(ph) organizes all of this and works with some of the kids.

EDDIGER: So on this side you're subtracting, right? You've got minus 14. So on this side you need to have minus 14 also.

LOHR: Since the recent news coverage more people are volunteering to help out. Coach Luma is rummaging up equipment wherever she can find it. Other soccer clubs in Atlanta have donated used cleats and balls. The coach's alma mater, Smith College, provided uniforms. But the biggest surprise was a $3 million book and movie deal with Universal to create the Fugee story on the big screen. The coach gathered everyone together and told them the big news.

MUFLEH: And, you know, one of the kids was like now we're going to get to go to college, and that was one of the older kids who said that. And I'm like okay, he gets it.

LOHR: But these days the focus has been on more pressing issues: getting one of the moms to see a doctor and on finding a place to play this weekend's first games of the season.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.


BLOCK: You can hear some of the youngest Fugees tell their stories at

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