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An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference

Written by Warren St. JohnAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Warren St. John



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The extraordinary tale of a refugee youth soccer team and the transformation of a small American town

Clarkston, Georgia, was a typical Southern town until it was designated a refugee settlement center in the 1990s, becoming the first American home for scores of families in flight from the world’s war zones—from Liberia and Sudan to Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly Clarkston’s streets were filled with women wearing the hijab, the smells of cumin and curry, and kids of all colors playing soccer in any open space they could find. The town also became home to Luma Mufleh, an American-educated Jordanian woman who founded a youth soccer team to unify Clarkston’ s refugee children and keep them off the streets. These kids named themselves the Fugees.

Set against the backdrop of an American town that without its consent had become a vast social experiment, Outcasts United follows a pivotal season in the life of the Fugees and their charismatic coach. Warren St. John documents the lives of a diverse group of young people as they miraculously coalesce into a band of brothers, while also drawing a fascinating portrait of a fading American town struggling to accommodate its new arrivals. At the center of the story is fiery Coach Luma, who relentlessly drives her players to success on the soccer field while holding together their lives—and the lives of their families—in the face of a series of daunting challenges.

This fast-paced chronicle of a single season is a complex and inspiring tale of a small town becoming a global community—and an account of the ingenious and complicated ways we create a home in a changing world.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Luma

The name Luma means “dark lips,” though Hassan and Sawsan al-Mufleh chose it for their first child less because of the shade of her lips than because they liked the sound of the name–short, endearing, and cheerful–in the context of both Arabic and English. The al-Mufl ehs were a wealthy, Westernized family in Amman, Jordan, a teeming city of two million, set among nineteen hills and cooled by a swirl of dry desert breezes. The family made its fortune primarily from making rebar–the metal rods used to strengthen concrete–which it sold across Jordan. Hassan had attended a Quaker school in Lebanon, and then college in the United States at the State University of New York in Oswego–“the same college as Jerry Seinfeld,” he liked to tell people.

Luma’s mother, Sawsan, was emotional and direct, and there was never any doubt about her mood or feelings. Luma, though, took after her father, Hassan, a man who mixed unassailable toughness with a capacity to detach, a combination that seemed designed to keep his emotions hidden for fear of revealing weakness.

“My sister and my dad don’t like people going into them and knowing who they are,” said Inam al-Mufl eh, Luma’s younger sister byeleven years and now a researcher for the Jordanian army in Amman.

“Luma’s very sensitive but she never shows it. She doesn’t want anyone to know where her soft spot is.”

As a child, Luma was doted on by her family, sometimes to an extraordinary degree. At the age of three, Luma idly mentioned to her grandmother that she thought her grandparents’ new Mercedes 450 SL was “beautiful.” The next day, the grandparents’ driver showed up at Hassan and Sawsan al-Mufl eh’s home with a gift: a set of keys to the Mercedes, which, they were told, now belonged to their threeyear-old daughter.

Hassan too doted on his eldest child. He had high expectations for her, and imagined her growing up to fulfi ll the prescribed role of a woman in a prominent Jordanian family. He expected her to marry, to stay close to home, and to honor her family.

From the time Luma was just a young girl, adults around her began to note her quiet confi dence, which was so pronounced that her parents occasionally found themselves at a loss.

“When we would go to the PTA meetings,” Hassan recalled, “they’d ask me, ‘Why are you asking about Luma? She doesn’t need your help.’ ”

Sometimes, Luma’s parents found themselves striving to please their confi dent daughter, rather than the other way around. Hassan recalled that on a family vacation to Spain when Luma was ten or eleven years old, he had ordered a glass of sangria over dinner, in violation of the Muslim prohibition against drinking alcohol. When the drink arrived, Luma began to sob uncontrollably.

“She said, ‘I love my father too much–I don’t want him to go to hell,’ ” Hassan recalled. He asked the waitress to take the sangria away.

“I didn’t drink after that,” he said.

Luma encouraged–or perhaps demanded–that her younger sister, Inam, cultivate self-suffi ciency, often against Inam’s own instincts or wishes.

“She was a tough older sister–very tough love,” Inam said. “She would make me do things that I didn’t want to do. She never wanted me to take the easy way out. And she wouldn’t accept me crying.”

Inam said that she has a particularly vivid memory of her older sister’s tough love in action. The al-Mufl ehs had gathered with their cousins, as they often did on weekends, at the family farm in a rural area called Mahes, half an hour from Amman. Inam, who was just seven or eight at the time, said that Luma took her and a group of young cousins out to a dirt road to get some exercise. The kids set off jogging, with Luma trailing them in the family Range Rover. It was hot and dry and hilly, and one by one, the kids began to complain. But Luma wouldn’t have any of it. She insisted that they keep running.

“She was in the car, and we were running like crazy,” Inam recalled. “Everyone was crying. And if I would cry, she would just look at me.”

That withering look, which Luma would perfect over the years, had the stinging effect of a riding crop. Despite the pain, little Inam kept running.

Luma’s drill-sergeant routine at Mahes became a kind of family legend, recalled to rib Hassan and Sawsan’s firstborn for her tough exterior. The family knew another side of Luma–one that others rarely encountered–that of a sensitive, even sentimental young woman with a deep concern for those she perceived to be weak or defenseless. Luma laughed along with everyone else. She enjoyed a good joke and a well-earned teasing, even at her own expense. But jokes aside, Luma’s tough love had it’s intended effect.

“I wanted to prove to my sister that I could do anything,” she said. “I always remember that my sister pushed me and I found out I was able to do it.”

THE AL-MUFLEHS WERE intent on raising their children with their same cosmopolitan values. They sent Luma to the American Community School in Amman, a school for the children of American expatriates, mostly diplomats and businessmen, and elite Jordanians, including the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor. Luma learned to speak English without an accent–she now speaks like a midwesterner–and met kids from the United States and Europe, as well as the children of diplomats from all over the world.

Luma’s childhood was idyllic by most measures, and certainly by comparison to those of most in Jordan. She went to the best school in Amman and lived at a comfortable distance from the problems of that city, including poverty and the tensions brought on by the infl ux of Palestinian and later Iraqi refugees. But her maternal grandmother, Munawar, made a point of acknowledging and aiding the poor whenever she could. Beggars regularly knocked on her door because they knew that on principle she would always give them alms. And when relatives would tell her she was being taken advantage of because of her generosity, Munawar would brush them off.

“She would say we had an obligation because we were so privileged,” Luma recalled. “And she would say, ‘God judges them, not us.’ ”

Munawar’s home abutted a lot in Amman where young men played soccer in the afternoons. As a kid, Luma would climb a grapevine on the concrete wall behind the house and watch the men play. She eventuallygot the nerve to join in, and she would play until her grandmother saw her and ordered her inside on the grounds that it was improper for a young woman to be around strange men.

“She would have a fi t if she saw me playing soccer with men,” Luma said. “And then she’d say, ‘We are not going to tell your father about this.’ ”

At the American Community School, Luma was free from the strictures of a conservative Muslim society and at liberty to play sports as boys did. She played basketball, volleyball, soccer, and baseball with the same intensity, and stood out to her coaches, particularly an African American woman named Rhonda Brown.

“She was keen to learn,” Brown said. “And no matter what you asked her to do, she did it without questioning why.” Brown, the wife of an American diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Amman, coached volleyball. She had played volleyball in college at Miami University in Ohio and, when she found herself bored in the role of a diplomat’s wife, had volunteered to coach the women’s varsity volleyball team at the ACS. When she showed up to coach, Brown said, she was disappointed at what she found.
“These girls were lazy–incredibly lazy,” she said.

Luma was the notable exception. Though Brown didn’t know much about the Jordanian girl, she noticed her dedication right away and felt she was the kind of player a team could be built around. Coach Brown asked a lot of her players, and especially of Luma. She expected them to be on time to practice, to work hard, to focus, and to improve. She believed in running–lots of running–and drilling to the point of exhaustion. Brown challenged her players by setting an example herself. She was always on time. She was organized. When she asked her players to run fi ve kilometers, she joined them, but with a challenge: “Because you’re younger I expect you to do it better than me,” she told them. “If I beat you, you can expect the worst practices ever.”

“They ran,” Brown said.

Brown’s coaching philosophy was built on the belief that young people craved leadership and structure and at the same time were capable of taking on a tremendous amount of responsibility. She didn’t believe in coddling.

“My feeling is that kids have to have rules,” Brown explained. “They have to know what the boundaries are. And kids want to know what their limits are. It’s important for them to know that people have expectations of them.”

Brown was resigned to the fact that her players might not like her at fi rst. But she took a long view toward their development and their trust in her. She was willing to wait out the hostility until her players broke through.

“I’m stubborn,” Brown said. “I don’t give in a lot. You can come across as mean, and until they see what kind of person you are they might not like you.”

In fact, Luma didn’t like Brown at all. She felt singled out for extra work and didn’t appreciate all the extra running. But she kept her mouth shut and didn’t complain, partly, she said, out of a suspicion that she and her teammates would benefi t from the harsh treatment.

“I knew my teammates were lazy–talented but lazy,” Luma said.

“And part of me was like, Maybe I want the challenge. Maybe these very harsh, very tough practices will work.”

Over time, the practices began to have an effect. The team improved. They were motivated, and even the slackers on the team began working hard. Along the way, Luma started to pick up on a seeming contradiction. Though she told herself she disliked Coach Brown, she wanted desperately to play well for her. “For the majority of the time she coached me, I hated her,” Luma said. “But she had our respect. She didn’t ask us to do anything she wouldn’t do. Until then I’d always played for me. I’d never played for a coach.”

When Luma was in high school and still playing for Coach Brown the junior varsity girls’ soccer team at the American Community School found itself in need of a coach. Luma volunteered. She emulated Brown–putting the team through fi ve days a week of running drills and pushing the young women to work harder and to get better.

Luma loved it. She liked the way the daily problems of the world seemed to recede once she took the field, the subtle psychological strategies one had to employ to get the best out of each player, and most of all the sense of satisfaction that came from forging something new out of disparate elements: an entity with its distinct identity, not a collection of individuals, but a new being, a team. And she wasn’t afraid to admit she also liked being in charge.

But as she got older and accustomed to the liberty she had as a woman at ACS–where she could coach and play sports as she pleased–she began to feel at odds with the Jordanian society in which she had grown up. She wanted to be able to play pickup games of soccer with whoever was around, without regard to gender. She wanted the liberty to be as assertive in her daily life as Coach Brown had taught her to be on the court. Her family’s social status created additional pressure for her to follow a more traditional path. There were obligations, as well as the looming threat that she might be pressured into marrying someone she didn’t love.

“When you come from a family that’s prominent, there are expectations of you,” she said. “And I hated that. It’s a very patriarchal society, and as modern as it is, women are still second-class citizens. I didn’t want to be treated that way.”

Coach Brown picked up on Luma’s yearning. At a team sleepover, the players and coach went around the room predicting where everyone would be in ten years. Coach Brown joked that Luma would be “living illegally in the United States.” Everyone laughed, including Luma. But she disagreed.

“In ten years, I’ll be there legally,” she said.

“I knew from even our brief time together that she wanted something else for her life,” Brown recalled.

Toward the end of Luma’s junior year, she and her parents decided she would attend college in the United States. Hassan and Sawsan wanted their daughter to continue her Western education, a rite of sorts for well-to-do Jordanians. But Luma was more interested in life in the United States than she was in what an education there might do for her in Jordan. “America was the land of opportunity,” she said. “It was a very appealing dream of what you want your life to be like.” Within the family, Luma’s grandmother alone seemed to understand the implications of her going to college in the United States.

“If she moves to America,” Munawar told the family, “there’s a chance she won’t come back.”

Luma’s fi rst trip to the United States came when she enrolled at Hobart and William Smith College, a coed school in the Finger Lakes region of New York, not too far from where her father had gone to college. She played soccer her first fall there, but midway through the season injured a knee, sidelining her for the rest of the year. Luma liked the school well enough, but winter there was colder than anything she had experienced in Amman, and the campus was remote. She wondered if she had made the right choice in going so far from home. Luma decided to look at other schools, and soon visited Smith College, the women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The campus seemed to perfectly embody the setting Luma had envisioned for herself when she left Jordan for America. It was set in a picturesque New England town with a strong sense of community and security. And as a women’s college, Smith was focused on imbuing its students with the very sort of self-reliance and self-confidence Luma felt she had been deprived of at home. Luma fell in love with the place and transferred for her sophomore year.

At Smith, Luma had what she described as a kind of awakening. She was taken by the presence of so many self-confident, achieving women, and also by the social mobility she saw evident in the student body. Her housemate, for example, was the first in her family to go to college, and there she was at one of the preeminent private colleges in the United States. That would never happen in Jordan, Luma remembered thinking to herself at the time.

Luma’s friends at Smith remember her as outgoing and involved–in intramural soccer and in social events sponsored by the college’s house system. Few understood her background; she spoke English so well that other students she met assumed she was American.

“One day we were hanging out talking about our childhoods and she said, ‘I’m from Jordan,’ ” recalled Misty Wyman, a student from Maine who would become Luma’s best friend. “I thought she’d been born to American parents overseas. It had never occurred to me that she was Jordanian.”

On a trip home to Jordan after her junior year at Smith, Luma realized that she could never feel comfortable living there. Jordan, while a modern Middle Eastern state, was not an easy place for a woman used to Western freedoms. Professional opportunities for women were limited. Under Sharia law, which applied to domestic and inheritance matters, the testimony of two women carried the weight of that from a single man. A wife had to obtain permission from her husband simply to apply for a passport. And so-called honor killings were still viewed leniently in Sharia courts. As a member of a well-known family, Luma felt monitored and pressured to follow a prescribed path. A future in Jordan felt limited, lacking suspense, whereas the United States seemed alluringly full of both uncertainty and possibility.

Before she left to return to Smith for her senior year, Luma sought out friends one by one, and paid a visit to her grandmother. She didn’t tell them that she was saying goodbye exactly, but privately, Luma knew that to be the case.

“When I said goodbye I knew I was saying goodbye to some people I’d never see again,” she said. “I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to prove to my parents that I didn’t need their help.”

Luma did let on to some of her friends. Rhonda Brown recalled a softball game she and Luma played with a group of American diplomats and expatriates. When the game had finished, Brown went to pick up the leather softball glove she’d brought with her from the United States, but it was gone–stolen, apparently. Brown was furious. She’d had the glove for years, and it was all but impossible to get a softball glove in Jordan at the time. Luma had a glove that she too had had for years. She took it off her hand and gave it to her coach.

“She said, ‘You take this glove,’ ” Brown recalled. “ ‘I won’t need it. I don’t think I’m coming back.’ ”
Brown–who soon moved to Damascus, and later to Israel with her husband and family–lost touch over the years with her star player, but she kept Luma’s glove from one move to the next, as a memento of the mysteriously self-possessed young woman she had once coached. Fifteen years later, she still has it. “The webbing has rotted and come out,” Brown told me from Israel, where I tracked her down by phone. “That glove was very special to me.”

IN JUNE 1997, a few weeks after graduating from Smith, Luma gave her parents the news by telephone: She was staying in the United States–not for a little while, but forever. She had no intention of returning home to Jordan.

Hassan al-Mufleh was devastated.

“I felt as if the earth swallowed me,” he said.

Hassan’s devastation soon gave way to outrage. He believed he had given every opportunity to his daughter. He had sent her to the best schools and had encouraged her to go to college in the United States. He took her decision to make a home in the States as a slap in the face. Luma tried to explain that she felt it was important for her to see if she could support herself without the social and fi nancial safety net her parents provided at home. Hassan would have none of it. If Luma wanted to see how independent she could be, he told her, he was content to help her find out. He let her know that she would be disinherited absolutely if she didn’t return home. Luma didn’t budge. She didn’t feel that she could be herself there, and she was willing to endure a split with her family to live in a place where she could live the life she pleased. Hassan followed through on his word, by cutting Luma off completely–no more money, no more phone calls. He was finished with his daughter.

For Luma, the change in lifestyle was abrupt. In an instant, she was on her own. “I went from being able to walk into any restaurant and store in the United States and buy whatever I wanted to having nothing,” she said.

Luma’s friends remember that period well. They had watched her painful deliberations over when and how to give her parents the news that she wasn’t coming home. And now that she was cut off, they saw their once outgoing friend grow sullen and seem suddenly lost.

“It was very traumatic,” said Misty Wyman, Luma’s friend from Smith. “She was very stressed and sick a lot because of the stress.

“There was a mourning process,” Wyman added. “She was very close to her grandmother, and her grandmother was getting older. She was close to her sister and wasn’t sure that her parents would ever let her sister come to visit her here. And I kind of had the impression from Luma that she had been her father’s pet. Even though he was hard on her, he expected a lot from her. She was giving up a lot by not going home.”

So Luma made do. After graduation, she went to stay with her friend Misty in Highlands, North Carolina, a small resort town in the mountains where Misty had found work. Luma didn’t yet have a permit to work legally in the United States, so she found herself looking for the sorts of jobs available to illegal immigrants, eventually settling on a position washing dishes and cleaning toilets at a local restaurant called the Mountaineer. Luma enjoyed the relative calm and quiet of the mountains, but there were moments during her stint in Appalachia that only served to reinforce her sense of isolation. Concerned that her foreign-sounding name might draw unwelcome attention from locals, Luma’s colleagues at the Mountaineer gave her an innocuous nickname: Liz. The locals remained oblivious of “Liz’s” real background as a Jordanian Muslim, even as they got to know her. A handyman who was a regular at the Mountaineer even sent Liz flowers, and later, sought to impress her by showing off a prized family heirloom: a robe and hood once worn by his grandfather, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I was so shaken up,” Luma said.

After a summer in Highlands, Luma kicked around aimlessly, moving to Boston then back to North Carolina, with little sense of direction. Her news from home came mostly through her grandmother, who would pass along family gossip, and who encouraged Luma to be strong and patient with her parents. Someday, Munawar said, they would come to forgive her.

But for now, Luma was on her own. In 1999, she decided to move to Atlanta for no other reason than that she liked the weather– eternal-seeming springs and easy autumns, with mercifully short and mild winters–not unlike the weather in Amman. When Luma told her friends of her plan, they were uniformly against it, worried that a Muslim woman from Jordan wouldn’t fi t in down in Dixie.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Misty recalled.

Luma didn’t have much of a retort. She knew next to no one in Atlanta. She had little appreciation for how unusual a Muslim woman with the name Luma Hassan Mufl eh would seem to most southerners, and certainly no inkling of how much more complicated attitudes toward Muslims would become a couple of years into the future, after the attacks on September 11. Luma arrived in Atlanta with little mission or calling. She found a tiny apartment near Decatur, a picturesque and progressive suburb east of Atlanta anchored by an old granite courthouse with grand Corinthian columns. She knew nothing yet about Clarkston, the town just down the road that had been transformed by refugees, people not unlike herself, who had fled certain discontent in one world for uncertain lives in another. But like them, Luma was determined to survive and to make it on her own. Going home wasn’t an option.


From the Hardcover edition.
Warren St. John|Author Q&A

About Warren St. John

Warren St. John - Outcasts United

Photo © Charles Thompson

Warren St. John is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of the national bestseller Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Warren St. John


 
Random House Reader’s Circle: What is Outcasts United about? 

Warren St. John:
In the most literal sense, it’s the story of a soccer team for young refugees, of the remarkable woman who founded that team, and of the town where these people came together. But more broadly I think the book is about dealing with change— large- scale social change—as well as the problem of creating a sense of community in an environment in which people, at least on the surface, don’t seem to have a lot in common. I think the changes that occurred in Clarkston are a hyperspeed version of the sorts of changes that are happening all around the world. So I went to Clarkston to see what lessons there were to be learned. 

RHRC:
Can you explain? 

WSJ:
Well, Clarkston, Georgia, where the Fugees are based, was once a simple southern town. And now between a third and a half of the town are foreign- born, and the high school has students from over fi fty countries. Even the Fugees comprise kids from over a dozen countries, and the coach is from Jordan. And then of course there are people who’ve spent their entire lives in Clarkston. So the question then is, how do you make all this work? It seems like a fairly pressing question because this sort of change is happening all over the United States and Europe as well, though perhaps a bit more slowly than in Clarkston. That’s what attracted me to this story. 

RHRC:
How did you hear about the Fugees? 

WSJ:
I was in Atlanta giving a talk about my fi rst book at a conference of educators, and a reader of the book invited me to join him and his wife for dinner. He worked in refugee resettlement, so over a hamburger, I suppose my reporter’s instinct kicked in and I started grilling him, asking, “Refugees from where? How did they get here? Where do they live and how do they build new lives here? Who helps them?” That sort of thing. He very patiently answered my questions and then casually mentioned that there was a soccer team of young refugees on the eastern side of town, and he encouraged me to check them out. So I called the coach and went to a game. It was a surprisingly powerful experience. Luma was this mysterious, intense presence. The kids themselves were quiet and focused, and they played beautifully. And there was one player in particular who had survived an apartment fi re a few months before that had killed a number of his family members. Luma was tough with him—he didn’t get a break at all. And without giving too much away, his response was remarkable. I came away from that afternoon truly moved, and I knew that day that I’d found my next book. 

In the meantime, I learned more about Clarkston, and I realized that so much of the tension over refugee resettlement was just coming to a head. There had recently been a case of police brutality against a Nigerian immigrant. That summer the mayor had banned soccer from the town park. So it wasn’t only a story about a team—there was this momentous kind of reckoning going on in the community as well. And that’s what made it clear to me that I needed to get there quickly and to start reporting. 

RHRC:
Did being from the South infl uence your interest in the story or how you saw Clarkston in general? 

WSJ: Absolutely. I grew up in Birmingham, just two and a half hours from Atlanta. My mother is from Savannah, and I went to Atlanta countless times when I was younger, so I was familiar with the city. But mainly I think I knew enough about the southern psyche, and life in a small town—my father was from a town in northern Alabama called Cullman, where I spent a lot of time as a kid—to know that the infl ux of a large number of refugees, including many from Africa and the Middle East, a decent number of them Muslim, was going to produce some interesting fall out. 

RHRC:
You did a series of articles about Clarkston and the Fugees for The New York Times—did the book come out of that work? WSJ: It was actually the other way around—the book gave rise to the articles. I knew from the outset that this was a subject I wanted to immerse myself in, and that the scope of it could easily support a book- length treatment, demanded it even. I talked to my editor at Random House, told him what I planned to do, and he was enthusiastic. So I was on my way. When I went to ask for a leave from the Times, my editors there asked what I was writing about, and when I told them, they asked if I’d write pieces along the way, during the process of reporting and writing the book. It seemed like a great way to test and formulate my thoughts about the material. But by then I was already fl ying down to see games in Atlanta on weekends and getting absorbed completely by the story. So I was working on the book a full six months before the fi rst feature ran in the Times

RHRC:
How were you received by the refugee families in Clarkston? 

WSJ:
There is very understandable reticence among many of the refugee families I met. Their experiences make it diffi cult for them to trust strangers, particularly anyone seen as part of an apparatus—the government, the army, the media, even the relief bureaucracy. Refugees have often faced a great deal of betrayal. That said, I had an introduction in most cases from Luma, someone the families knew and trusted, and that was invaluable. And among the refugees, there is also a natural curiosity about locals—they want to meet Americans and get to know them. They live in apartment complexes full of other refugees, many from other countries—people whose language they may not speak. So refugees in Clarkston don’t actually have many opportunities to just sit down and talk to an American. And when they do, they have lots of questions. They want things explained. 

RHRC:
Can you give an example? 

WSJ:
When I was reporting, I’d frequently show up—to soccer practice or games, to people’s apartments—in a rental car. One afternoon one of players on the Fugees said, “You must be a very wealthy man.” I asked, “Why do you say that?” And he said, “Because you have so many cars—you’re always showing up in a new one.” So that became an occasion to explain the mundane but not entirely obvious practice of rental cars, and why one week you might have a mini van and the next week a PT Cruiser. Most refugees are coming from places where owning a car is exceptionally rare, so the notion that you could essentially borrow one for a few days was almost unfathomable. 

RHRC:
Tell me about Coach Luma. 

WSJ:
Luma is a force of nature. She’s a doer. She offers an example of stability in an otherwise fairly chaotic environment. And perhaps more than anything, she does what she says she’s going to do. If Luma tells her players to show up at 8 a.m. to meet the team bus, she’s there by 7:55 a.m. Likewise, when she says the bus is leaving at 8:10, the bus leaves at 8:10. So, yes, by spending time with the Fugees—at practice, at games, at tutoring—that’s less time for boys to get into trouble or to get drawn in by the wrong crowd. But there’s also a powerful learning component to the entire program. The boys learn what it means to be consistent and to follow through, to take responsibility. And while some may fi nd Luma’s rules rigid, they also come to appreciate their predictability. 

RHRC:
Like a lot of people in the book, Luma is searching for a home in a way as well, isn’t she? 

WSJ:
I think that gets back to what the book is really about. So many of the people I met in Clarkston—refugees, Luma, even the long- term residents, and especially a lot of the people who work in refugee resettlement—are looking for something: stability and safety, a sense of belonging to a larger community. And in a way that becomes the one thing that many people—even from very different backgrounds— have in common. The trick is opening enough of a conversation that strangers learn that about each other. And in Clarkston, there are these pockets where that conversation happens—among the Fugees players, at the International Bible Church, at Thriftown, the local grocery store. But it’s hard to realize that you and a neighbor may actually have the same interests if you don’t ever speak to one another. 

RHRC:
And what about the distance between the Fugees and the teams they are playing? Do they ever have an opportunity to connect? 

WSJ:
Yes and no. Fundamentally, when the Fugees take the fi eld against a rival team, both teams want to win. It’s a competition, not an afternoon of group singing and camaraderie. That said, there are many members of the Fugees who have never been outside of Clarkston except to go to away games. Their parents don’t have cars. They take the bus to school each morning. So the simple act of traveling to a game—riding on the interstate past downtown Atlanta or past some of those big beautiful houses in the suburbs with swimming pools and lush green lawns—becomes an act of exploration into another world. And even the competitive banter and ribbing that goes on between kids—while not always entirely polite—is a form of communication and connecting. 

RHRC:
There’s a scene early in the book in which the father of a rival player is watching his son select the proper cleats for his soccer shoes and he says something like, “I paid $200 for those shoes, so you better pick the right ones.” What did you learn from watching the economic disparity between the Fugees and their competitors? 

WSJ:
I think the example of the Fugees might come as a relief to overspent soccer parents everywhere—you don’t have to have $200 cleats or matching team duffel bags with your jersey number embroidered on them to play the game well or to enjoy it. A passion for the game will trump having the best gear every time. I think that’s a shortcoming of the American approach to the game—we tend to emphasize gear and the consumer stuff, and to restrict play to a formal setting like practice and games, whereas most of the world plays the game all the time, more the way Americans play basketball. Watching the Fugees play defi nitely taught me about the value of cultivating that approach to the game and making room for it and encouraging it in a child’s life. 

RHRC:
You seem to avoid making judgments about the people you write about. 

WSJ:
I generally go into most situations assuming that people are doing the best they can, and I challenge myself to try to understand the motivations behind actions that I disagree with or that strike me as wrong or wrongheaded. In the case of Clarkston, I think it’s important not to get caught up in the game of issuing simplistic moral judgments— saying this person is “good” or “bad”—but to acknowledge the complexity of a place and of the people there, and to acknowledge the incredible challenge that resettlement has posed. So that’s what I’ve tried to do in my book. There are no simple answers in Clarkston, which is what makes it so interesting.

Praise

Praise

"Not merely about soccer, St. John's book teaches readers about the social and economic difficulties of adapting to a new culture and the challenges facing a town with a new and disparate population. Despite their cultural and religious differences and the difficulty of adaptation, the Fugees came together to play soccer. This wonderful, poignant book is highly recommended..."
Library Journal, starred review

A "richly detailed, uplifting account of a young Jordanian immigrant who created a soccer program in Georgia for young refugees from war-torn nations . . . educational and enriching."
– Kirkus Reviews

"St. John hits a trifecta . . . A fascinating and fast-moving account of big-picture politics, small-town sports, and some very memorable people."
–Booklist

"Inspiring...richly detailed...Deeply satisfying...a bighearted book."
–Shelf Awareness

"As St. John tells it, the Fugees’ story is something of a radical social experiment: a test case in 21st-century immigration and identity politics. But it’s also a deeply moving example of what men and women of goodwill can do."
–Very Short List

“A brilliant and empathetic depiction of our common quest for meaning and happiness. Warren St. John invites us into the lives of a community of refugees, their bewildered neighbors in a small town, and a Jordanian woman who not only coaches but also mentors, mothers, and inspires some remarkable boys, to create a heartwarming tale about the transformations that occur when our disparate lives connect.”
–Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone

Truly unforgettable, Outcasts United offers a stirring lesson in the power of a single person to transform the lives of many. It’s an incisive window into the world ahead for all of us, where cultural diversity won’t be an ideal or a course requirement or a corporate initiative but a fact of life that has to be wrestled with and reconciled, if never quite resolved.”
–Reza Aslan, author of No God but God
Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

1. When played beautifully, as Coach Luma might say, soccer is one of the world’s most fluid and graceful games. How does the nature of soccer refl ect and influence the ways in which the refugee children respond to the challenges of life in Clarkston? Is there something about the game that might make it particularly compelling for children who have endured war, violence, and displacement?

2. Coach Luma is also a Clarkston “outsider” in terms of her nationality. In what ways does her experience as an immigrant compare with those of her players? How does her “outsider” status affect the bond between the coach and her team? 

3. Chapter 3 describes a study led by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam that states that inhabitants of hyperdiverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life and distrust their neighbors. Are you surprised by Putnam’s findings? Why or why not? How can communities best overcome this unfortunate tendency? 4. How has the history of migration altered the cultural landscape in your community? 

4. The Under 13s managed to develop a warm, familial connection with little regard to their cultural and religious differences, while the Under 15s were less successful in creating such an environment. Why were the younger Fugees able to bond in a way that their older counterparts were unable to achieve? How did that bond, or lack thereof, affect their performance both on and off the fi eld? 

5. The refugee community in Clarkston is composed of a conglomerate of religions, ethnicities, and languages. How do the contrasting experiences of the Under 13 and Under 15 players relate to the complexities that face the refugee community as a whole? 

6. With the arrival of the Somali Bantu in Clarkston, longtime Clarkston residents became alarmed about changes in their community even though refugees had been resettling in Clarkston since the 1980s. Why was the local response suddenly more intense at this point in Clarkston’s history of refugee resettlement? 

7. How does Mandela Ziaty’s struggle with issues of identity differ from that of many American- born teenagers? Are there more similarities than differences? How does his dual identity as a defacto American and a displaced Liberian complicate this struggle? 

8. In chapter 24, Jeremy Cole, a case manager at one of the refugee agencies in Clarkston, challenged his traditional beliefs by converting to Islam. How were he and other Americans working with the refugee communities provoked to re examine their own identities based upon their interactions with different cultures? 

9. Discuss the problems involved in the Fugees’ search for a home field. Did the Clarkston government violate their human rights? What about the situation of the Lost Boys and the use of the soccer field? 

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

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