Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Warren St. John's Outcasts United

A feel good story about refugees coming together while playing soccer sounds trite, but in Outcasts United Warren St. John manages to show enough of everyone's rough edges to bring out a great story.*  A Jordanian woman, Luma Mufleh, came to Clarkston, Georgia and created soccer teams for boys composed of the rapidly growing refugee population there in the small town South.  The story avoids sappiness or oversimplification.

There is no climax per se, but rather a constant fight against poverty, exclusion, and fear.  Insert your "against all odds" cliche here.  Nonetheless, it is very well-written and avoids black-and-white descriptions of the reactions to the refugees.  St. John talks to everyone, and many of the people (some of the local politicians, community leaders, parents from other soccer teams, etc.) are more sympathetic than you might first think.

From a policy perspective, the book raises the point that immigration agencies do not bother coordinating with local government.  They find communities with available cheap housing and ready public transportation access to metro areas (in this case Atlanta).  They then bring in large numbers of people and say nothing to local officials, who find themselves in a sink or swim situation that raises tensions.  When St. John attended the single meeting set up between local elected officials and immigration agencies, he actually portrayed the latter in a negative light, as they became defensive and implied everyone was discriminatory.

One point St. John does not explore is the question of soccer itself.  Clarkston's mayor kept rejecting requests to play on a city field, saying that only baseball could be played there.  An undertone of the first part of the book is the idea that soccer is foreign.  Yet the second half of the book gives all sorts of examples of how wealthy Americans love soccer and support it.  Do people dislike soccer, or just immigrants playing soccer?  If a group of Spanish-speaking kids wanted to play baseball, would baseball also be banned?  This is relevant in the context of the World Cup--media commentators discuss how foreign soccer is, it is slow, we're not used to ties, etc., yet millions of kids play it all the time, even in the deep South.

*Almost exactly a year ago I reviewed Paul Cuadros' A Home on the Field, which deals with Latino immigrants playing soccer in North Carolina.


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