Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review: Outcasts United--A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John

"Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

(from "The New Colosus" by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883; engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty, 1903.) 

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, is the compelling story of a diverse hodge-podge of some of the world's most "tired, poor, tempest-tost" youngsters ever to start new lives in the United States. Relocated from their violence-ruined homelands to a small, quiet suburb of Atlanta, the self-named "Fugees" find unexpected succor in the discipline and dedication of soccer training and competition. 

Before reading it, I was a little afraid that Outcasts United would be another namby-pamby story of misfits who find society's recognition and peers' appreciation by their performance as a sports team, a là Disney. I am so glad to be wrong! 

Author Warren St. John weaves the complicated stories of the refugees, their families, their phenomenal coach, and the town of Clarkston, Georgia into a compelling and thought-provoking narrative. Skillfully backtracking from present day problems of adaptation and assimilation, we are given the harrowing personal stories of the team members and their families. 

Almost every boy is a survivor of tribal warfare or outright genocide. Their stories are similar to the horrifying accounts in Daoud Hari's The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur and Alphonsion Deng's They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan and Dave Eggers's What is the What. In Outcasts, the author's journalistic style assembles some very powerful synopses of modern African history and current events. For me, this was one of the most useful and informative parts of the book. 

There would have been no Fugees team, and likely no organized soccer at all for the refugees, were it not for the trajectory that brought their incredible coach from Jordan, via Smith College—a woman of Muslim heritage and western education who was determined to create an independent life. Her personal story could be a book in itself. Her dedication and tough love approach to coaching, her perseverance and hard work, her intelligence and humanity, show us that real heroism is made more of hard work than anything else. 

Recommended heartily to all readers, but especially to educators and community leaders.

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