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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Review: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John



I heard about this book when it first came out from Books on the Nightstand, and having loved the author's previous book, I immediately added it to my list. I knew it wouldn't be like his other book, which is very funny, and right off this book's topic doesn't at all lend itself to humor, but I figured I'd still like his reporting style, which I very much did.

Luma Mufleh, a Muslim woman from Jordan, went to college in Massachusetts and never went home. While trying to find her place in America, she ends up in Atlanta owning and running a restaurant, and she finds out that a nearby town, Clarkston, is in need of a youth soccer coach. An avid soccer player and fan her whole life, she saw the need within this community and committed herself, mind, body and soul to this cause. The reason the need was so great? Clarkston had become a town where refugees were resettled. And unlike other refugee resettlement communities in the U.S., in Clarkston the refugees are from all over - it is the melting pot America claims to be, with mixed results.

Luma isn't an easy coach and she isn't always the easiest person to like. She's strident, demanding, and judgmental. But she's also passionate, loyal, and incredibly generous. She buys the families of her players food and coats if they need them. She arranges free, mandatory tutoring for all her students. She lobbies the town council for better playing conditions. The kids who follow her plans succeed.  The ones who don't usually get kicked off the team and cut out of her life, for a while (anyone can get back in her good graces by agreeing to follow her rules), but you can see her heart breaks for them.

The motley crew from Somalia, Iraq, Liberia, and Afghanistan do well under her tutelage. She makes sure the kids don't only mix with other kids of their nationality - which helps their English and helps them pass to the best teammate, not just the one they know. She follows up with kids who miss practice, she checks on their lives outside of soccer, she schleps all over Georgia when she's able to get them into a tournament, she spends all her time and money on these young boys with such great need.

The book is well-written.  What could have been confusing isn't, a large cast of characters is pretty easily distinguished, various ethnic, cultural, and national differences are explained simply, and while the author does mostly keep himself out of the narrative, when absolutely necessary he does acknowledge that he too was there and experienced and saw these things, and even the best reporter can't stay on the outside of the action for so many months, if not years of work.  It was obvious he wasn't trying to insert himself into the story, but only did so when to do otherwise would be silly and/or awkward.

While the book is fairly earnest (normally a kiss of death for me), the flaws of Luma and others are made quite plain, and there were one or two moments of levity that brightened things, and the story wasn't told with reverence or undo seriousness.  I would have preferred more humor of course, but in a story such as this, I'm probably lucky that it wasn't more depressing, given the poverty, danger, and hopelessness these families live with every day. It's tragic that scenes like this play out across America every day, but I hope there are more Lumas out there, ready to step up and give her all to a group of kids who didn't ask to be in their unfortunate situation, but who need a helping hand, a caring heart, and a loving adult to turn to when everyday life might otherwise seem bleak and demoralizing.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

1 comment:

Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Diaries) said...

I shelve this section of books at the library and pause every time I see this on the shelf. I LOVED the author's football memoir Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.