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Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: "Outcasts United" by Warren St. John

The actual title is "Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference."

The town: Clarkston, Georgia.

The refugee team: Now known as Fugees Family.

The woman: A Smith-educated Jordanian named Luma Mufleh.

Warren St. John tells the great tale of refugees in this Atlanta suburb who emigrated to America from hellholes of lawlessness and violence that 15-second sound bytes once a month on the national news couldn't begin to do justice to. Burundi. Liberia. Rwanda. Ethiopia. Mozambique. Somalia. Kosovo. Serbia. Iraq. Many are from single-parent homes, their fathers imprisoned on flimsy political pretexts or killed. Many fled their countries in harrowing ordeals with no possession or money, spending years in refugee camps in Africa before applying for asylum elsewhere in the world and beating steep odds to get a chance at a better life (because most applications get turned down). The single parents frequently work the night shift in chicken-processing plants, traveling over an hour each way to provide for their families.

The kids were left alone, with teenagers sometimes cooking meals for their siblings and taking care of toddlers.

And yet, they have a great sense of family, while working hard to prevent their kids from falling victim to the violence and despair that can befall kids from poor families in the United States -- dropping out of school, drugs, gang violence. These kids didn't come from bad domestic situations (actually, their families were/are close-knit) -- just countries with deep-seated and disturbing problems and corrupt, immoral and violent leaders. Their families, save the Liberians, who speak English, came to America without knowing the language, and the kids themselves were behind in their education because in war-torn places kids don't simply get up, have a good breakfast, walk to school and learn. What they left wasn't a pretty picture. What they came to was grey, uncertain, and not the most welcoming. The social lifelines only extended only so far and then only for so long.

(Imagine, for a moment, if some calamity such as what happened to some of these kids happened to yours, and you ended up wandering around your continent, living in a refugee camp and then settled into a different country with unfamiliar customs and a language you didn't speak.)

Enter Luma Mufleh, born into a wealthy Jordanian family, athletic, smart, stubborn, curious. Luma went to Hobart College, transferred to Smith, played intramural soccer, and then wondered for a while what she was going to do with her life. She ended up in Atlanta, started a cafe, went bankrupt, and on her drive noticed refugee kids playing soccer in Clarkston. She started coaching a group of them, and then another team of them, and then another. She spoke with the kids at all hours, organized tutoring sessions, brought food to their families and helped the families solve a variety of problems. She also had to deal with the goverment in Clarkston, which wasn't all that willing to provide a field for the Fugees to practice and play on.

In short, Luma Mufleh was indefatigable, determined, unwilling to be defeated, generous, stern, tough, forbidding, kind, helpful, perceptive, protective -- about a group of refugee kids that the world seemed to have forgotten and then put them in a place where one of the most caring societies offered more than anywhere else, but then still seemed willing to forget them rather quickly.

A Jordanian woman, estranged from her parents because she elected not to go back to Jordan, alone in Atlanta, with a former doctor turned helper in a Nebraskan named Tracy Ediger.

Only in America.

This is a most heartening story. It's a story about sadness and loss, about determination, communication, teamwork and making one's own path despite many obstacles. The boys were lucky to have Luma Mufleh, and, I'm sure, Luma Mufleh and Tracy Ediger, among others, are thankful that they have the boys who play on the Fugees.

If you're looking for an inspirational story, this is it.

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