Book Review: Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, Warren St. John (2009)

May 8th, 2009 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

Sports as a microcosm.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Warren St. John’s OUTCASTS UNITED: A REFUGEE TEAM, AN AMERICAN TOWN is a sweet and inspirational story about newly immigrated families trying to achieve the American Dream (or their interpretation of it) – as reflected through the microcosm of children’s soccer.

The charmingly named Fugees is a soccer team (three, actually, divided by age group) in the small Georgian town of Clarkston. Comprised of immigrant children from Afghanistan,, Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and other war torn nations, they face a number of hurdles, including a lack of funds, xenophobia, petty small town politics, and opposition from the mayor himself. As St. John reported in a series of articles for THE NEW YORK TIMES, Mayor Lee Swaney objected to their use of the baseball fields for soccer thusly: “There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor. Those fields weren’t made for soccer.” He even refers to the immigrant soccer enthusiasts as “the soccer people.” Lessons in Othering, anyone?

The Fugees are led by Luma Mefleh – “Coach Luma” – a woman immigrant born in Jordan and educated in the United States. In a field dominated by men, her coaching position is no small feat. Mefleh tries to instill in the boys a sense of ethics as well as soccer skills, requiring all team members to sign a “contract” which consists of what you might call rules for “good citizenship.” Mefleh, then, makes it her mission to help the boys adjust to their new surroundings, as well as play a good game of soccer.

OUTCASTS UNITED is an engaging read, fun and lighthearted one moment, heartbreaking the next – and perfect for both sports enthusiasts and bleeding hearts alike. I’m not really big on sports (watching, anyway; participation is another matter!), but I quite enjoyed following the Fugees over the course of a season. Along the way, St. John also traces the events which led Mefleh and her players to America, offering us a glimpse of the myriad reasons why some people choose (or are forced) to leave their homelands and start anew in foreign countries. Hint: it’s not for greed, nor to steal your jobs.

If you’d like to learn more, hop on over to THE NEW YORK TIMES’ website and search for ‘ Warren St. John’ – the articles which inspired OUTCASTS UNITED are still available online. According to the intro by Chris Jackson, the movie rights were sold in exchange for a sizable donation to the team – so hopefully the Fugees’ story will soon be coming to a movie screen near you. Let’s hope Hollywood does their story justice.

And, if St. John’s looking to do a follow up, I bet many girls and women would love to see the story of a similar all-girl’s team…I’m sure there are at least several out there. Hint, hint.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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