Outcasts United by Warren St. John

For the better part of a hundred years, Clarkston, Georgia—a community of 7,100 on one square mile of land east of downtown Atlanta—was a mostly white town where little of interest happened. In the early 1990’s, the town was designated as a resettlement center for refugees from around the world, and refugees poured in from Southeast Asia, the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. In less than a decade, little Clarkston, Georgia transformed into one of the most diverse communities in the country.

Outcasts United is the story of this town, told through the lens of a soccer team of refugee boys called the Fugees, a team founded and coached by an American-educated, Jordanian born volunteer named Luma Mufleh. The team and its remarkable coach ultimately provide the rest of us with powerful lessons about how to create community in places where everyone is different.

The Fugees are a paradigm of the modern-day student body. A group of boys from an extraordinary range of backgrounds have come together in a new place and face the challenge of forging alliances and creating a new community. But through lessons taught by the coach and derived from their own experiences, the boys manage to identify common goals that override their significant cultural differences.

A nuanced and realistic approach to discussing diversity. The drama of the Fugees’ soccer season offers a way into a more complex and nuanced discussion about diversity that is not doctrinaire or simplistic. The book does not gloss over the challenges posed by diverse communities, but does offer positive, real-world examples in which people in Clarkston have turned diversity into an asset.

Expands students’ horizons. Though set in Clarkston, Georgia, Outcasts United traces the origins of the conflicts that caused the refugees of Clarkston to flee their homes in the first place, in order to contextualize the refugee experience. Students learn about conflicts in Liberia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Burundi and Congo, among others. In addition, students gain valuable insights into the struggle of other young people to assimilate into a new culture.

The importance and rewards of service. The example of Coach Luma proves the adage that one person can make a difference. With no formal training in social work and with little outside support, she identified a profound local need and single-handedly took the initiative to help meet it. In the process, she found herself with a new family that valued and appreciated her for her efforts and kindness.

Strong female role model. Luma herself offers a powerful role-model for female students. A lone female coach in a league of male coaches, she is determined— sometimes stubborn—clever and, above all, passionate on behalf of her players and their families. And through force-of-will she takes on local prejudices and political intransigence that works against the refugees.

Having already been selected by several schools and communities within just the first year of its publication, Outcasts United has already spoken to thousands of students. I hope to have the opportunity to bring the book’s message to your school as well.

Warren St. John