By Warren St. John
New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.
There are certain books that make the reader feel like a more complete person, a more enriched individual. Outcasts United was one of those books for me. Even before I had finished reading the introduction, I knew that this book would become one of my favorites. Outcasts United by Warren St. John details the story of the Fugees, a soccer team from tiny Clarkston, Georgia made up of refugee children from around the world. It is not a story about sport in Africa. It is not even a story about what we traditionally call international development. However, it is a story of our global humanity and the power of sport—in this case soccer—to unite communities, overcome adversity, provide hope, and positively change lives. After all, is that not essentially the purpose of development?
There was a player on the Fugees who was plainly less gifted at soccer than his teammates—a tiny defender from Afghanistan named Zubaid…When the soccer ball rolled his way, he would draw his foot back, swing his leg with all his might, and as often as not, miss the ball entirely, with all the awkward, unalloyed zeal of a batter swinging for the fences and whiffing…Every time the ball rolled Zubaid’s way, his teammates, faster and more agile than he was to a player, never interfered or snuck in to take it away from him. Instead, two or three members of the Fugees would drop in five or so yards behind him, just far enough out of the way so as not to seem conspicuous, to form a protective cordon between Zubaid and the goal. When he missed the ball with an ungainly swing of the leg, they were there to cover him, but always subtly, and never in a way that demeaned him or his effort. 
When later in the game Zubaid made an accidental but pivotal tackle, his teammates set upon him “as though he’d scored the winning goal.” Although undeniably touching, this book packs more than sentimental stories. Take the Fugees coach, Luma Mufleh, for example. Born in Amman, Jordan, Luma struggled to find her place in America, ostracized by her parents for leaving Jordan, discriminated against for being “Arab,” and struggling to make ends meet. One day, Luma was driving to the store when she came across a group of boys playing soccer in a parking lot in Clarkston. The boys were from varied backgrounds and ethnicities. Luma recalled, “I stayed there for over an hour. They were barefoot but they were having such a good time.” This sort of soccer was the only opportunity for the refugee children to play, so Luma decided to start a free soccer program for them.
The town of Clarkston, Georgia is one of the major players in this story. Clarkston, a few miles outside of Atlanta and with a population of only 7,200 could be described as, “just a sleepy little town by the railroad tracks.” However, all that began to change in the 1980s. Reflecting trends across the country, white residents began to evacuate suburbs and move closer to the urban centers. Clarkston experienced increased residential vacancies, rises in rents, surges in crime, and cutbacks on apartment upkeep. International refugee resettlement organizations took notice of Clarkston because of its close location to downtown Atlanta which was in need of manual laborers, efficient public transportation, and excess, inexpensive housing. Nonprofit organizations began sending large numbers of refugees to the sleepy town, and almost overnight, Clarkston completely changed. St. John writes,
“Women walked down the street in hijabs and even in full burkas, or jalabib. The shopping center transformed: while Thriftown, the grocery store, remained, restaurants such as Hungry Harry’s pizza joint were replaced by Vietnamese and Eritrean restaurants, a Halal butcher, and a ‘global pharmacy’ that catered to the refugee community by selling, among other things, international phone cards.”
Tensions mounted between the established white community and the new refugees. Safety became a major issue. Discrimination against the international community was prevalent, even from the government and the police force. The land of freedom and peace that many refugees had dreamed of was a far cry from what they found in their new home in Georgia.
In the midst of this, for Luma to start a refugee soccer team might seem risky or even dangerous. But, she saw that the young refugee boys needed community, care, and safety. She saw their common humanity and their passion for soccer. She saw that bringing them together on the soccer pitch could change their lives and their prospects for the future. So, she held try-outs. The boys who she welcomed onto her team that day had diverse backgrounds and stories.
For example, there is the story of Bienvenue, Alex, and Ive, brothers from Burundi. The family had been singled out for their fair skin and labeled Tutsi during the killings by Hutu rebels. They fled to Mozambique, where they were separated into two camps for four years. They were finally granted resettlement by the United Nations, and landed exhausted in a small, empty apartment in Clarkson. On the first day that Bienvenue wandered out of the apartment, he was astounded to find a fellow young boy in the parking lot who could also speak Kiswahili. While this improved Bien’s view of America, Clarkston could be a dangerous and inhospitable place for refugee boys from Africa who were still learning English. “We just stayed at home,” Bien said, describing his summer. “We didn’t do nothing. Without soccer, life was boring.” The boys didn’t have cable television, a pool, bikes, or summer camps that other children in the United States might expect during their months out of school. The Fugees were a welcome outlet for Bien, Alex, and Ive.
Or, there is the story of Beatrice Ziaty and her Fugee sons Jeremiah and Mandela from Monrovia, Liberia. They endured years of fighting, siege, famine, and disease. The Ziaty’s house was attacked, and Beatrice managed to escape out the back door with her sons while her husband was being killed inside. The family fled to Cote d’Ivoire and a refugee camp, where they stayed for five years before being granted resettlement in the United States in Clarkston. In Georgia, the family moved into a dingy apartment and Beatrice found work an hour away as a maid in a hotel. Because she didn’t get home until after dark, Beatrice made the boys go directly home after school and lock themselves inside. Jeremiah defied his mother’s orders, though, to try out for the refugee soccer team he had seen advertised around town. Jeremiah tried out for the team wearing one shoe, because that was all he had.
Other players on the Fugees came from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, and the Gambia. The boys’ experiences, often in war-torn, violent, impoverished countries, left them with physical and emotional scars. They sometimes had trouble concentrating or behaving: “Once, in an early practice, Luma expressed frustration that a young Liberian player seemed to suddenly zone out during play. Another Liberian who knew the boy told her she didn’t understand: the boy had been forced by soldiers to shoot a close friend.” Not surprisingly, the boys, with limited command of English, broken homes—many had lost one or both parents—and having to adjust to all aspects of American life, struggled in the overwhelmed Clarkston schools. So, Luma and other volunteers started a tutoring service for the boys. Luma would help refugee parents with translations, set up appointments, navigate immigration/judicial/civic systems, and even help to disentangle them from marketing scams. Eventually, she started a cleaning business to employ refugee mothers.
But, what Luma really wanted to do for these families was coach soccer. The Fugees were growing in players; she now had three teams for U-13s, U-15s, and U-17s. But the teams faced turmoil, both internal and external. Internally, the Fugees had to figure out how to come together as a team, despite ethnic and language barriers. Initially, whenever Luma would ask the boys to break up into groups, they would self-divide based on ethnic backgrounds or common languages. Luma began to divide them up herself, putting Afghanis, Sudanese, and Iraqi players together in one group. The players were also susceptible to the lure of gangs in the run-down apartment complexes. One of the older players was even involved in a gang gunfight and shot in the face. Luma had battles with boys not wanting to adhere to her rules, like keeping short hair, and tensions would mount on the teams whenever they were not winning.
Externally, Luma battled the Clarkston mayor, as well as the City Council, for a place for her teams to play. Access to the best fields were denied to them, and the teams were forced to play on fields that were little more than gravel pits in unsafe neighborhoods and with no goals. The first time they were allowed to play on a grass field, the boys felt like they were in the Garden of Eden. There was very little money for gear and equipment:
“For a time they wore jerseys Luma had made out of t-shirts she bought in bulk at a local discount store. The Fugees’ numbers had been written on the shirts in water-soluble ink, so as the game progressed, the numbers ran into blurry clouds on their sweat-soaked backs. The Fugees often played in mismatched socks, and they didn’t have any of the fancy accessories.”
The teams faced discrimination, often hearing racist comments directed at the players or sexist comments leveled at their female coach. Referees would laugh at the players’ names as they tried to check in the teams before a game. Most of the teams they played had all-white players, coaches, and fans.
The Fugees were the only free soccer program in Clarkston, however, and membership on the team gave the boys benefits they often could not get elsewhere: friendship, recreation, a sense of family, a chance to travel and get out of Clarkston, and the opportunity to play soccer. Additionally, “as important to the boys, their parents understood that soccer with Luma was safe, unlike games in the parking lots of the apartment complexes, which often took place in the menacing presence of drug dealers and young men with too much time on their hands.”
Therefore, regardless of background, nationality, experience, or talent, the Fugees came together as teammates and forged bonds that allowed them to have success on and off the field. St. John writes of the bonding taking place on the U-13 team. During their warm-up jogging, the players usually all ran at their own pace and ended up quite spread out. One day, though, the faster players slowed down, and the slower players sped up so that everyone was warming up together. They started a call and response chant, and when someone told a joke, they all collapsed in fits of laughter: “Boys from thirteen different countries and a wide range of ethnicities, religions, and languages were creating their own inside jokes.” Before a game, the team prayed together, offering up one Muslim prayer and one Christian prayer, one in Bosnian and one in Kiswahili. The teams began to experience great success on the field, winning games against all odds, even against some of the best teams in the state.
Ultimately, Outcasts United is a story of how soccer can hold together families and lives; how it can bridge ethnic, language, and religious divides and speak to the heart of diverse communities; and how giving kids a chance to play and have fun can prevent them from joining a gang or ending up in prison. Soccer cannot solve all of the world’s problems. It cannot provide life-saving medicines, prevent drought or famine, or save rainforests. However, it can knock down racial and gender barriers. It can bring hope and a sense of community. The Fugees demonstrate that “development” is not an abstract term that must be thought of in terms of “out there.” When we look into our own backyards, we see children and families who need the attention and care that development practitioners can offer. Perhaps most importantly, we see that these teenagers from all over the world have a lot they can teach us about humanity, community, and changing the world.