Title:  Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town

Author:  Warren St. John

Published:  April 21, 2009

Page Count:  320

Genre:  Nonfiction

My Rating:  4.5/5

The extraordinary tale of a refugee youth soccer team and the transformation of a small American town.

Clarkston, Georgia, was a typical Southern town until it was designated a refugee settlement center in the 1990s, becoming the first American home for scores of families in flight from the world’s war zones—from Liberia and Sudan to Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly Clarkston’s streets were filled with women wearing the hijab, the smells of cumin and curry, and kids of all colors playing soccer in any open space they could find. The town also became home to Luma Mufleh, an American-educated Jordanian woman who founded a youth soccer team to unify Clarkston’s refugee children and keep them off the streets. These kids named themselves the Fugees.

Set against the backdrop of an American town that without its consent had become a vast social experiment, Outcasts United follows a pivotal season in the life of the Fugees and their charismatic coach. Warren St. John documents the lives of a diverse group of young people as they miraculously coalesce into a band of brothers, while also drawing a fascinating portrait of a fading American town struggling to accommodate its new arrivals. At the center of the story is fiery Coach Luma, who relentlessly drives her players to success on the soccer field while holding together their lives—and the lives of their families—in the face of a series of daunting challenges.

This fast-paced chronicle of a single season is a complex and inspiring tale of a small town becoming a global community—and an account of the ingenious and complicated ways we create a home in a changing world. 

I received this book from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, and when I received it in the mail I truly wasn’t sure why I requested it in the first place – I am not a sports person.  Not even a little bit.  So I was a little nervous to pick it up, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it, and I started to feel guilty for requesting it at all.  That all changed after reading the first couple of pages – I really, really liked the book.  St. John drew me in right away with his great storytelling, and I started to care about the people in this book from the beginning.  

Outcasts United is not really a book about soccer.  Sure, soccer is the backdrop upon which the story is told, but the book is really about the refugee kids, their families, the town of Clarkston, and Coach Luma.  It is about how a bunch of kids who spoke ten plus different languages formed a tight bond and great friendships because of their common love of soccer.  It is about how Luma Mufleh came to the United States against the will of her wealthy Jordanian parents to do what was best for her, despite how difficult she would find that to be.  It is about how so many families, from so many different war-torn or poverty-stricken countries all came to live in the same town, how these families dealt with the extreme culture shock and adapted to life in the United States, and how Luma’s amazing strength and generosity helped so many of these families adjust.  It is about how the residents of Clarkston, Georgia dealt with all these new faces, languages, and cultures in their small (mostly white) town – and for some residents, how they simply weren’t able to deal with these changes.

So much about this book fascinated me.  I loved learning about the different circumstances that brought these families together in the United States, I loved learning about how they handled the huge changes they were forced into when they came to the U.S., and I loved reading about the camaraderie that developed between the boys on the team.  Some of the boys had been taught from birth to hate people of certain nationalities, only to be faced with boys of these exact nationalities playing on their soccer team – and they had to find a way to get along, and more than that, think and behave as teammates.  The story is ultimately a heartwarming one – nothing about these kids’ lives was easy, yet they were so successful in many ways (not JUST with soccer, although that’s definitely one of the ways).  

Again, I really liked Outcasts United.  Highly recommended.