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A Small Town vs. Refugee Soccer Players: Is That Our Future Too?

Warren St. John, fresh from a book tour and a slew of interviews, might have more to say about the issues he raises in his book. He did. A lot.
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White people under siege --- that's one of the themes of Warren St. John's book about the struggle of mostly African kids and their Jordanian coach to find a soccer field in the small town of Clarkston, Georgia. Like many others, I first heard about the Fugees two years ago, when Warren St. John profiled the team in the New York Times. Now he's produced Outcasts United, a book about the team and its town. At full length, the story is even more compelling.

And, it seems, more relevant, for over the past few weeks "white people under siege" has become part of the national conversation. Spurred by the changes in America's demographics --- by 2050, whites may be a racial minority in the United States --- Larry Wilmore did a terrific, funny interview on The Daily Show featuring white kids who face a future that presents "very different opportunities" than their parents did. Elsewhere, some whites aren't laughing; as the President ponders an appointment to the Supreme Court, we persistently hear that seven white men on the Court might not be enough.

So I thought: Warren St. John, fresh from a book tour and a slew of interviews, might have more to say about the issues he raises in his book. He did. A lot.

Jesse Kornbluth: On the most literal level, your book is about a soccer team of refugees in a small southern town. But it's more than that, right?

Warren St. John: What's happening in this little town on one square mile is just a hyper-speed version of what's happening everywhere. The older residents have watched their town be transformed into something totally unfamiliar. The refugees are transitioning into life in a new country. And the refugee kids in particular are caught between the cultures their families come from and the culture of their American peers at school. Everyone is stuck, and the choice is to figure it out, or to give in to alienation and anger.

JK: For most of the book, I see anger and alienation. The mayor kicks refugee soccer teams out of the town park, then lets them in, then kicks them out again.

WSJ: It's ironic. On December 24, 2006 --- the day I filed my New York Times story --- we heard the mayor had sided with the Fugees in a city council meeting. Two days later, he sent the Fugees a fax, kicking them off the field, immediately. Then he changed his story. The mayor's constituents --- at least a few vocal ones --- didn't like the idea of their park being overrun by refugees. Perhaps some felt genuinely threatened by the presence of large groups of teenagers -- there are gangs in Clarkston, after all. So the mayor's back and forth seemed a reflection of the town's anxiety and ambivalence towards the refugees.

JK: "I'm not going to baby them," Luma Mufleh says about her players. I was a bit shocked at her "tough love" coaching style. These kids were denied a childhood in Africa. It doesn't seem they'll get a second chance in Clarkston.

WSJ: When you are totally impoverished and culturally bereft, the idea that you could have a normal childhood by American standards --- it's unlikely. What Luma does is carve out a safe place for these kids. They have fun, they achieve, they make friends. But that can't happen if they don't get to practice and games. So she has to teach them a sense of responsibility for doing that --- because their parents can't. And look at what she's competing against? Youth gangs that want to recruit. So I can understand her philosophy.

JK: Much has been made of the Fugees' four teams for boys. What about girls?

WSJ: The Fugees' program is for boys only. Luma tried to start a team for girls, but many of the cultures the refugees come from don't have a long history of women in sports. There wasn't enough of a concentration in any one age group to form a team.

JK: Where do the Fugees practice now?

WSJ: On the same field in town park that mayor tried to kick them off of. To me, this shows our collective capacity to work through complicated social problems.

JK: The book has received glowing reviews, you've cross-crossed the country --- is there anything that hasn't thrilled you about the media coverage?

WSJ: Only one thing. Even in some of the favorable reviews, the Fugees are referred to as "misfits" or "scrappy". These terms diminish what these children have been through. They're child survivors of war --- they're not "misfits".

JK: You were in Clarkston for months. How do you think the presence of a New York Times reporter changed what happened?

WSJ: I'm not sure the presence of a reporter changed much, but I do think the stories about Clarkston had an effect --- they were a very public airing of a lot of previously privately held views. There was a lot of anger at first, but lately I've been very pleasantly surprised by the people who've reached out to the refugee community from the town's old guard.

JK: How has all the attention affected the kids?

WSJ: I don't think very much. The kids don't read the New York Times or watch a lot of CNN.

JK: Reverse question: How has this reporting changed you?

WSJ: It's completely changed my worldview. It sounds clichéd, but I don't think I can, with a good conscience, ever complain again.

JK: Reading the book, I kept connecting Luma to that chestnut of a moral: "One person can make a difference." Now that you're on the far side of your reporting, your take on Luma?

WSJ: She doesn't claim to have it all figured out. She doesn't have some grand philanthropic philosophy. She just does her best. She works really hard. She's passionate, occasionally hot-headed, stubborn. A person, in other words. So I hope, reading her story, people think: Why am I not doing something like this?

JK: After all the conflict, your take on Clarkston?

WSJ: In nearly every town I've been to on my book tour, someone has raised a hand and said, "Something similar just started happening here." So Clarkston is a glimpse of our future. The good news is, there are examples there that show what's possible when we live up to the promise of our values.

Cross-posted from HeadButler.com