Outcasts United

Shamsoun Dikori remembered the first time he saw aeroplanes high above the Nuba Mountains in Central Sudan. He thought they were birds at first, until the bombs came raining down. Jihad followed the bombings so that within two years approximately 200,000 people (twenty percent of the area’s population) had been killed and the survivors of the fifty or so ethnic groups that inhabited this fertile region had been displaced.

A tortuous journey ensued for Shamsoun’s family, his parents and his two brothers and three sisters: makeshift villages in the mountains, peace camps, Khartoum and then Cairo until finally the United Nations refugee office there informed them that they had been accepted for relocation to America where they ended up in Clarkston County, Georgia.

The children enrolled in school, their father got a job, saved enough to buy a Mazda van and shortly before Thanksgiving in 2002, two years after they had settled in America, they took off on a trip to Tennessee to visit other Sudanese refugees. Shamsoun’s family never made it to Tennessee, crashing somewhere on the Interstate 24, and when Shamsoun came to he was minus a Mum and three sisters.

What helped Shamsoun, and his younger brothers, Robin and Idwar, keep their sanity in the months and years following this traumatic episode was football, more precisely football for a team called the Fugees (as in refugees, not the pop group) run by a remarkable pair of women called Luma Mufleh, the coach, and Tracey Ediger, the manager cum general factotum. ‘It kept our minds from thinking what happened,’ said Shamsoun, ‘we made friends,… it broadened our minds and we realised we weren’t the only ones going through hard times. That is why the team is so close. It became our family’

The remarkable story of this football family has now been told by Warren St. John, a reporter from the New York Times who immersed himself in the immigrant footballing community of Clarkston. Like all good books about sport, this is about much more than sport. It is about how the inhabitants of Clarkston came to terms, or did not come to terms, with a decade during which their town changed unrecognisably; about how immigrants coped with the kind of upheaval most people cannot imagine, and about how sport helped, to a small extent greater or lesser degree*, ameliorate the process for both.

Until the last two decades of the twentieth century, not much happened in Clarkston. It was typical town in the American South, mainly white and conservative and, if its proximity to Stone Mountain, for many years the head-quarters of the Klu Klux Klan and scene of cross burnings as late as the 1980s was anything to go by, happily so. Things changed when various refugee settlement programs identified the town as a suitable place for dumping.

In the latest census nine years ago, just 20 percent of the town’s population is described as white, the rest being made up of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Somalis and a variety of refugee groups. The inside flap of Outcasts United has a picture of the under 13s squad. There are four players from Sudan (two are Shamsoun’s younger brothers), three from Liberia, two from the Congo, and one each from Kosovo, Gambia, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

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Sport has always been a friend to minority and disadvantaged groups because, for the most part, pure ability and talent smashes falsely-erected barriers. Jesse Owens did not do much for Hitler’s theory of Aryan racial superiority with his haul of gold medals in the 1936 Berlin games, nor did Joe Louis’s right hand in his 1938 re-match against Max Schmeling. Mohammad Ali’s story was an inspiration to countless African Americans and the spread of cricket in former colonies can only be understood against a backdrop of the fight against imperialism.

But it is only relatively recently that the power of sport has been harnessed in a more productive, organised and official way. Bodies such as UNICEF recognise that sport is a ‘vital element in the health, happiness and well being of children.’ For United Nations 2005 was their International Year of Sport and Physical Education, before which Kofi Annan endorsed its importance: ‘Sport is a universal language which can bring people together no matter what their origin, background, religious belief or economic status,’ he said.

There are countless NGOs and charities using sport now to help bring about positive change. Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, believes passionately in the ability of cricket to help with social cohesion and is President of the Chance to Shine appeal, which is helping to reintroduce cricket into state schools and inner-city communities. Cricket for Change is working in Palestine, trying to bring Jews and Arabs together by playing a game that has absolutely no historical baggage for either.

In Clarkston, the catalyst for this process was not a powerful figure like Annan or King, nor even a charitable foundation- it was an immigrant with no money, no job and few prospects. Lumah Mufleh was from a relatively prosperous Jordanian family until she decided to move to America and was subsequently cut off by her family. She then followed a well-trodden immigrant path, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, odd jobs, dead ends and bankruptcy. Then, one day she saw a group of refugees playing ball on a piece of scrub land and she had found her vocation.

She became more than a football coach for these shattered lives. She became a surrogate mother, friend, hairdresser, teacher, social worker, nurse, disciplinarian, fund-raiser and politician, fighting as she had to every step of the way against the mayor of Clarkston, Lee Swaney, who refused to let immigrants or football spoil the town’s one lush green field. It was as a coach, though, that her special qualities clearly lay: irascible, intractable, sure of her methods and not prepared to bend her rules for anyone, no matter how good they were or how needy their situation. Alex Ferguson in a skirt.

Gradually, through the friendships, kinship, healthy competition and feelings of self-worth that playing and occasionally winning with the Fugees brought, these immigrant children came to realise that they could forge a new life in America. The majority in Clarkston found it harder to accept the new realities, but odd things began to happen. Thriftown, the local supermarket run by Bill Mehlinger, was on the verge of bankruptcy when one of his workers, a Vietnamese, suggested he started to stock more exotic foods, especially since the nearest outlet for Vietnamese food was half an hour’s drive away. The supermarket began to thrive again. ‘If you don’t change, you’re gone,’ said Mehlinger.

The Clarkston Baptist Church, whose numbers had begun to drop away, renamed itself the Clarkston International Bible Church and began to hum again on Sundays. ‘I tell them “America is changing”,’ said the pastor Phil Kitchin, ‘”get over it.”’ The Clarkston police force took on a black man as chief of police and the relationships between the immigrant community and the police immediately improved after he insisted that all residents of Clarkston be treated with courtesy, respect and professionalism.

St. John quotes the work of a British academic called Stephen Vertovec who has written about the interaction between new inhabitants and old in towns that are affected by what he calls ‘super-diversity.’ In essence, his thesis is that re-categorisation of a town’s population is needed, not along simple racial lines, but by all the affiliations that people might have, whether that is to a love of sport, the arts or whatever. Gradually, these affiliations or enthusiasms will overlap and individuality rather than broad categorisation emerges. This book would seem to bare this analysis out, and would be helpfully placed in the library of every British town where mass immigration is translating into votes for the British National Party.

This is a marvellous story, clearly written and all the more moving for being written straight by a talented reporter. There are no fairy-tale endings, no neat tie-ups: the team doesn’t win the big tournament at the end of the book, players come and go and occasionally fall out with the coach and don’t return. The Fugees occasionally let themselves down; they win some, they lose some. Coach Mufleh, a saintly heroic presence for much of the book, also has an ego the size of Texas.

Clarkston doesn’t become a beacon of racial tolerance overnight: in November 2008 a twenty-three year old Somali refugee was beaten to death during an innocent game of basketball. Equally, St. John tries hard to understand the difficulties faced by inhabitants of a town that has changed utterly. Mayor Swaney is not portrayed simply as a red-necked racist.

Despite this (and don’t hold your breath that Universal Studios, who have bought the rights won’t make a complex situation more Manichaean) it is clear that something remarkable has happened, is happening, and it is clear that sport has played its part in this. George Orwell was disparaging of sport’s ability to change things for the better, it being nothing more than ‘war minus the shooting,’ he wrote.

‘What makes people join a gang?’ coach Lumah asked the Fugees one day.  ‘Race,’ said one.  ‘Money,’ said another.  ‘Protection,’ said another.  ‘To be cool,’ said another. ‘To be men,’ said another. ‘So what makes a gang different from the Fugees?’ she asked. ‘They fight,’ ‘they shoot each other,’ were the replies.  Being ‘war minus the shooting’ is, and always has been, sport’s greatest justification: for once you take the shooting out of war, you no longer have war.