Book: Outcasts United
Author: Warren St. John
Reviewed by: Paul Varian, a senior editor, executive producer and writer at CNN for nearly 30 years before his retirement in late 2013
“Outcasts United” is the inspiring story of refugee boys from countries ravaged by war and the enterprising Jordanian woman who made them a soccer team and called them the Fugees.
It is also the story of Clarkston, Ga., a stagnating Atlanta suburb until it was designated as a refugee resettlement site and evolved into one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse communities with a population that is one-third foreign born.
The book is a reporting gem by Warren St. John, a New York Times writer who embedded himself in Clarkston and spent a year watching the Fugees perform to growing acclaim and befriending their families, the coach and her players at a tumultuous time.
“He still checks up with us,” one of the former players, Liberian-born Kanu Bartuah, told me by phone more than a decade later. “I keep in touch with him on Facebook.”
I started reading the book after I signed up as a volunteer tutor for refugee girls enrolled at the Decatur-based Global Village Project, an experience that has put a poignant human face on an issue that too often is coldly distorted in our political discourse.
The Fugees founder and coach is Luma Mufleh, a onetime waitress who ventured into Clarkston by chance on a leisurely weekend drive, discovered a grocery that specialized in Middle Eastern food and became a regular patron.
On a later trip there she spotted some refugee boys playing soccer on a patch of asphalt. She stopped to watch and, before long, she was playing with them.
This gave her the idea to start a small team and she got the YMCA in nearby Decatur to underwrite it. She became coach and it wasn’t long until the Fugees became her life.
She fought resistance from city fathers, up to and including the mayor, to get a field for the team, used tough love to teach her players the basics and worked to recruit often unsupervised youngsters whose parents worked long hours in a chicken factory.
She formed three squads for different age groups — a total of about 50 players from a dozen countries in Africa, the Mideast and Eastern Europe — and later was able to get them a bus.
Today there are nearly twice as many players, a girls team, three buses and an educational academy with a current enrollment of 86 students in grades 6 through 12. It graduated its first high school seniors 2016.
“Outcasts United” follows the teams’ exciting exploits for a season and beyond, but the individual human stories are the most riveting.
Little Jeremiah Ziatys showed up the first day of practice wearing a single oversized shoe and was immediately nicknamed “One Shoe” by his coach, who learned later that he had been at his home in the Liberian capital of Monrovia the day his father was shot dead there.
“Oh, what do you do?” his mother remembers her husband crying. “They are killing me. Oh, they are killing me.”
Kanu Bartuah was just 2 when he was spirited out of Liberia, and has not seen his mother since. She’s still there but “I don’t know her,” he says.
On the Fugees, he was credited with leading an effort to dissuade the coach from dissolving the “Under 15s” squad because some of the players ignored her rules and guidance.
He said he told her, “Why don’t you take the people who don’t want to listen off the team and keep those who do listen?” Then he persuaded the remaining players to live up to his promises.
Now 25, Kanu became the first member of his family to graduate from high school. He majored in aerospace management at Middle Georgia State University and is working to get a commercial pilot’s license in hopes of becoming an airline pilot.
He hasn’t given up on soccer by a long shot, though. He says he plans to try out for Atlanta’s new professional soccer team.
Kanu said he often was teased in high school over the way he dressed and talked but when he took the practice field with his fellow Fugees, “Everybody is equal.”
“Soccer is fun,” he said. So was reading this book.
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