Book Review - Clarkston’s refugee soccer team scores in Outcasts United

New York Times reporter Warren St. John began following Luma Mufleh’s youth soccer team in 2006. A couple of years prior, he’d written his first book about noisy, histrionic University of Alabama football fanatics. This time he was chasing something much different.

Mufleh has an unassuming presence. While coaching, she paces the sideline with a quiet style. A baseball cap on her head, her voice low, she remains keenly aware of her boys on the field. In 2004, Mufleh distributed fliers around Clarkston, announcing soccer tryouts in Arabic, English, French and Vietnamese. The boys that responded became the first of the Fugees, a boys soccer team for refugees relocated from a cross-section of war-torn countries. St. John has penned the Fugees’ story in Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, An American Town, a book that begins in places such as Monrovia, Liberia and Amman, Jordan, but eventually finds a way here, to Georgia.

Some of the boys on the Fugees have witnessed brutal violence. Many have lost family members. Others have spent years in squalid refugee camps. Despite arriving in Clarkston from such vastly different places, they share the experience of being a refugee, of being outsiders stuck in a new place. Outcasts United chronicles how that solidarity has brought them together on the soccer field and, thanks to the program painstakingly organized by Mufleh, become the most allied of teams.

Educated at an American school in Jordan, then later at Smith College, Mufleh’s played soccer, among other sports, all of her life. “A lot of my coaches were former Marines,” she recalls. “That worked for me.” Coach Luma, as she’s known, has a reputation for the strict rules and hard practices picked up from her early mentors. Though she practices restraint with her voice during games, she can deliver loud drills and fiery half-time speeches like a seasoned vet.

“If you’re just a tough coach, though, you’re not going to get the loyalty of the team,” she says. “They have to know you’re going to go to bat for them.” Outcasts United follows Mufleh in her struggle to go to bat for her players — from arranging volunteer tutors to help with homework to starting a well-paying cleaning company to employ refugee parents. She’s also struggled to help them find a place in the Clarkston community, a town that hasn’t always been welcoming to the refugees that call it home.

Clarkston used to be a sleepy Southern railroad town with an all-white high school and a reputation for using goats for lawn maintenance. Relocation caseworkers started moving refugees there in the ’90s, favoring it for its combination of affordability and accessibility to Atlanta by public transportation. That same all-white high school now teaches students from 50 different countries.

St. John’s book chronicles the ways racism and xenophobia have hampered that transition, but Outcasts United isn’t an oversimplified, black-and-white portrait of small-town change. “It’s really impossible to generalize about Clarkston,” St. John is quick to explain. But, he adds, “Southerners are a pretty open and plain-spoken bunch. If you ask them what they think about something, most times they’ll tell you.”

Some of the reactions chronicled in Outcasts United to Clarkston’s growing refugee community are surprisingly positive. Bill Mehlinger, owner of Thriftown, explains how he turned his failing grocery around by responding to international tastes. Clarkston Baptist Church became Clarkston International Bible Church, adopting worship styles from Sudan, Ethiopia and Liberia. The incidents of prejudice, however, have a way of overshadowing everything else. Chike Chime, a Nigerian immigrant, recounts being unjustly beaten with a heavy metal flashlight by a volatile cop. In 2006, Mayor Lee Swaney banned soccer in the town park to appeal to residents who see soccer as a symbol of international change.

The ban on soccer in Milam Park came at a crucial moment for the Fugees, who needed a proper practice field. St. John, who started covering the team around that time, expands his reporting in Outcasts United. He takes the time to tease out the refugees’ long and varied histories and their adjustments to life in an Atlanta suburb. Rather than slow down the pace, such context drives a tense urgency through the games of a soccer season. 

Foremost a sports writer, St. John’s writing shines on the soccer field, evoking the tension of hard-fought games. The book itself is loosely structured as a soccer season, and follows the rituals of tryouts, practices and close matches. The Fugees are a fun team to root for — tough underdogs who happen to play damn good soccer — even if you somehow forget that the Afghani defender is passing to a Liberian forward in a game against some rich kids from Buckhead.

His writing for the New York Times has brought the team a lot of attention, a trend that will inevitably continue with the book. It’ll bring some much needed attention to Clarkston, too, as the town still struggles to establish a sense of identity. Mufleh, though, remains focused on coaching rather than on any spotlights or fame. When asked which kids were the stars this year, who was scoring more goals and playing the hardest, she proudly replies, “They’re all great kids. All 86 of them.”

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, An American Town by Warren St. John. Random House. $24.95. 320 pp. Available Tues., April 21.