Outcasts United Summary

Warren St. John

Outcasts United

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Outcasts United Summary

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Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference is the incredible true story of the Fugees – short for refugees – a soccer team formed by refugees in Clarkston, Georgia. The author of Outcasts United, Warren St. John, was a journalist for the New York Times and has received awards from Sports Illustrated and others for excellence in writing on the subject of athletics. Warren’s achievement in Outcasts United, however, goes beyond providing incisive commentary and analysis about gameplay; it also involves the way he expounds upon the social significance of the athletic activity he describes. In more concrete terms, Warren illustrates how sports, this this case soccer, have the potential to serve as the common ground that unites groups of people from otherwise diverse backgrounds.

Although members of the Fugees are all refugees, they represent a diverse mix of nationalities. The team’s members come from Afghanistan, Sudan, Burundi, Liberia, Bosnia, Congo, and other countries – over a dozen in total. Being a refugee means that one never really feels like one fits in, like one belongs, in the locale where one lives. One faces the twin pressures of staying true to one’s ethnic identity, or roots, while simultaneously assimilating the norms and customs of the native people. On top of that, the refugees in Clarkston were facing the economic burden of being in debt for the plane ride from their war-torn or otherwise intolerable country of origin and of having to quickly find a means of supporting themselves financially – receiving only three months of financial support to cover their expenses upon arrival in the U.S. In short, refugees in Clarkston felt alone and helpless.

In light of what they were going through, it is inspiring to read about how many of the younger refugees in Clarkston were able to find some basis for a community in their shared love of the game of soccer. The players had learned to play the game while still in refugee camps, often making due with a makeshift soccer ball fashioned out of plastic bags and wire and without any of the expensive footwear or other equipment that American players are accustomed to. Arriving in Clarkston, these young refugees used soccer as a way to bond with others there with whom they shared little in common, aside from the difficulties they faced as refugees.

The drama of Warren’s narrative is heightened as he describes the opposition the refugees face from the native residents of Clarkston. Historically, Clarkston had prided itself on preserving its small town identity, refusing to be subsumed within larger city governments, as many other towns in Georgia had. Its population was a mere 7,200 people, distributed over a single square mile. Clarkston was selected as a destination for refugees because the rents there were low and there was ample access to public transportation. As the influx of refugees grew, native residents of Clarkston came to see them as a threat to their way of life, which was largely based on a shared commitment to the Baptist church.

As refugees in Clarkston would gather informally to play soccer, they became a visible sign of what Clarkston natives saw as a threat. Thus the residents banded together to pass an ordinance prohibiting the game of soccer from being played in the public park.

The refugees might have lost one of their only sources of community in their new environment if it was not for the work of Luma Mufleh, who took on the role of soccer coach and organized the Fugees into a competitive soccer team. Mufleh was a Jordanian who had come to the United States to pursue her college studies. After she graduated, Mufleh decided to remain in the United States – a decision that would cause her to be disowned by her parents and lose all of their financial support. Mufleh’s getting involved with the Fugees happened somewhat by accident; while driving, Mufleh happened to notice a group of kids playing soccer in a parking lot and asked if she could play with them. This decision would be the first step in her decision to offer to become their coach, which also meant organizing practices and games – ultimately, Mufleh is the reason that young refugees in Clarkston were able to continue to playing soccer, and thus continue to establish bonds that would give them a sense of home and belonging in their new environment.

Many books about athletics point out the broader life lessons that such activities teach: confidence, dedication, teamwork, etc. While Outcasts United does not deny the importance of such lessons, it differs in its emphasis. Outcasts United highlights the significance of athletic activity as a means of forging social connections and of integrating into a new social environment without having to give up one’s cultural and ethic roots.