x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Refuge on the field

When a large group of refugees moved into Clarkston, Georgia, the small town became an experiment in diversity. A new book chronicles the impact.

The story of the Fugees children's football team - made up of refugees from war-torn countries all over the world - is set to be made into a feature film.
The story of the Fugees children's football team - made up of refugees from war-torn countries all over the world - is set to be made into a feature film.

Warren St John is remembering the time a refugee child obsessed with football came up to him after the game. "I used to hire a car to watch the matches. So this kid says to me: 'Mr Warren, you must be a man of great, great wealth.' And I was baffled by this. I was in jeans and a T-shirt - I didn't really look like anyone's description of a wealthy man. So I asked him why he said that. And he beamed: 'Because you have so many cars. Every time you come to see us, it's in a different one.' That seemed to sum up the refugee experience. These people are living in America, going to school in America, working in America? and yet they're living in such a strange landscape to them that they can't imagine that people are trusted to borrow cars and bring them back. Incredible."

In his new book, The New York Times journalist documents the fascinating non-fiction story of The Fugees, a children's football team made up entirely of refugees from 17 war-torn countries, founded and coached by Luma Mufleh, a 31-year-old force of nature from Jordan. But it is so much more than a simple account of a season of struggle against the odds. It's about Clarkston, Georgia, itself: the kind of sleepy town in the American South that everyone has an image of in their mind - all baseball diamonds and people sitting on front porches. It was totally changed by an influx of dispossessed refugees from all over the world. There's fear and resentment but there's also hope and joy. Little wonder, then, that Universal Studios bought the rights to Outcasts United for $2 million (Dh7.34m) - the highest ever fee for a non-fiction film in cinema history.

"Immediately, I knew something really powerful was going on emotionally with the team itself," says St John of his impressions of the team in 2004 when he went to cover the story. "And of course, a refugee football team is a good feature for a newspaper. But what I soon learnt about Clarkston was the deeper story, this bizarre laboratory for whether diversity could work or not." Initially at least, it seems that it cannot. In the book, as The Fugees are being formed, the Mayor of Clarkston bans football in the town's public parks. The argument is that the sport is "hard on the grass", but of course, it actually represents something else; a conspicuous symbol of cultural change. Meetings are held. People are accused of being racist. It's impossible, initially, to see how Mufleh's grand plan will ever get off the ground. Some of that is down to St John's skill as a storyteller, but he is quite clear that from the start he never embellished anything. And he certainly didn't take sides.

"Clarkston was a boiling pot of different emotions, but it was so important to me to capture the complexity of what was happening there," he says. "Simply describing the townsfolk as a bunch of xenophobes would have been simplistic and it wouldn't have advanced any understanding of what was happening." Such an even-handed approach must have been hard when he was seeing kids having to pick up broken glass before they could find somewhere to play.

"Yes, but look at it this way. The Clarkston residents who were already there were refugees themselves in a strange way. OK, so they might not have gone anywhere but everything that was familiar to them had disappeared and they were now in this alien landscape too. When you look at it from that point of view then you actually see their reactions as being much more fear-based than hateful. And on the other side of that is the hope, because you also soon realise that if these people can have these fears assuaged somehow, then amazing things can happen."

And amazing things do happen. Because, in the end, this isn't a story about football so much as a story about people: about Beatrice Ziaty, who grabbed her children under her arm in Liberia and ran for her life as her husband was beaten to death in front of her, eventually spending five years in a refugee camp, coming to the United States and being mugged on her first day at work; about Paula Belagamire, who escaped being burnt alive in the Congo; and, about the coach, Mufleh. She may not have been a refugee herself, but as someone who was escaping from the expectations of her father (she refused to go back to Jordan after her studies to live the life prescribed for her, and was immediately disinherited), Mufleh had her own reasons for wanting to give these people a break.

"All those experiences feed into who she is: a person who has something to prove, who, when she made the decision to stay in the United States, was simply not going to fail," says St John. "But it's the same with all the refugees. Only when you spend some time with them and build a trustful relationship with them can you truly understand them. And with Mufleh, The Fugees was her way of trying to build a zone of security and safety around herself. She wanted to create an environment where she was in control, where she had eliminated the variables, where order remained."

That trust, though, took time to build with people who are naturally wary of the world. "If it had been a single story in a newspaper the question would have been: 'Hi, how are you? Tell me your horrible story,' and the conversation would probably have lasted a minute after that," he jokes. The paradox in Outcasts United is that by involving himself so deeply in a specific situation, St John actually makes a wider, more general point on the treatment of refugees. Some of the tales of what happens to these people when they actually escape squalid camps or life-threatening situations are extremely distressing. I wonder if the allure of the US is still as strong for these people.

"You're asking if they have better lives than before or just different ones, and it's genuinely impossible to generalise. Some people are unequivocally happier in the States. They're usually the ones that left behind something so horrible: they've been on the run for so long and being stable in one place where they're not going to have to worry about soldiers killing them, blinding them or whatever is such a relief. One conversation I had with a boy from Kosovo said it all. He was comparing his two lives here and there, and here if he wanted to go to the store, he could go to the store. And that was something he had never experienced in his life.

"Then there are other people like Paula from the Congo. I asked her a similar sort of question and she said she couldn't even contemplate it, let alone begin to answer it, because there was literally no home to go back to. She was in the States and that was that. "But for me, Beatrice's situation, where she locked her kids up in her apartment block because she was so frightened, was really sad. That kind of terror is unfathomably awful, and the poignancy of that in the book comes from their realisation that life in the States is going to be a lot more complex than they'd imagined. Within days they realise that to survive they're probably going to have to travel 90-minutes each way to work, fold bed sheets for 16 hours a day, that their kids are going to live in a neighbourhood where young men are running around with guns and you could easily get mugged coming home from the bus station. That was something they didn't see coming."

Lucky, then, that they had football. In a time where Cristiano Ronaldo is sold for £80m (Dh485m) to Real Madrid, one of the many successes of Outcasts United is the way it reinforces football as a force for good and not just money. Perhaps its real soul isn't in 75,000 people watching Barcelona beat Manchester United, but at a grass roots level. St John, curiously, is worried that because he is American, somehow a book based around a football team won't have the same power elsewhere in the world because of the common perception that Americans just don't "get" the sport. He's wrong of course, and indeed perhaps writing it from a perspective of someone who doesn't go to see a top team every week actually makes him perfectly placed to speak about the power of the game.

"I don't want to denigrate what football might mean to people who watch it," he says. But he's being too careful, and it takes some minutes to encourage him to say what he really thinks. "OK," he starts again. "There is definitely a purity to the game in this context. There's something about this community and its connection with football which is incredible. It's not just a magical potion which allows people to connect with each other, it's the only magical potion. Some of these apartment complexes they live in have 20 or more languages ringing out around them, they can't speak English very well? but after school in the car park the one thing all the kids wanted to do, the language they spoke in a way, was football. The next thought from that is a really big question. What if the game didn't exist? What would they do?"

The answer to that is unknowable, but St John admits to wrestling with it. His worries came from an evangelical zeal about this team, this town and its people - Outcasts United became more than just another book he could finish and move on from. Naturally, he's bashful about taking the credit - he believes that Mufleh, the refugees and the people of Clarkston are the real stars and he just told their story. But eventually he admits to some successes of his own.

"The publication of my smaller articles about The Fugees in The New York Times and the subsequent media coverage has driven conversations which were mostly private into the public realm. The result of that, I think, is a better understanding and perspective of what the 'other side' is going through. But what's truly inspiring for me is watching the amazing human capacity to improvise from what are incredibly complicated personal situations. You know, people make mistakes, there's emotional trauma, but at the end of the day it does feel like there's been a kind of a small victory there. There's hope but without any of the magical hocus-pocus stuff you might associate with that world. Hope that's real and believable and credible."

And to get all that down in a book that educates but never preaches, that thrills but never resorts to cliché, that genuinely asks questions about who we are and what home and community means, is St John's own small victory. Outcasts United (Fourth Estate) is out now.