For those interested in questions of the challenges of immigrant integration, we highly commend Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference. As my colleague, Robert Putnam, wrote in “E Pluribus Unum“, creating a capacious sense of ‘we’ will be critical to ensuring the long-term social success of this political enterprise of ours called the United States of America.
Increased diversity is inevitable (due to continued migration and differential fertility rates), and a source of national strength as David Brooks points out in 4/6/2010 unbridledlly optimistic piece “Relax We’ll be Fine“. Partly related to immigration, this year more than half of all babies born in the U.S. will be non-white and for the U.S., effectively integrating newcomers socially and politically will be a challenging and real issue.
Outcasts United by Warren St. John chronicles a year for an international soccer team of 9-17 year old refugees (hiply called “The Fugees”), outside of Atlanta in Clarkston. Clarkston’s diversity has increased rapidly when it became a designated refugee resettlement area by federal authorities in the late 1980s, in a community unused to curries, hijabs or even street soccer. The feds found the small town size, lack of crime, access to public transportation to reach a downtown area, and cheap housing attractive. By 2007 there were 50 countries represented in the high school of the 7,100 person town.
The book chronicles the Fugees’ interactions with each other — they are refugee children from 24 countries like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Gambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan — and their interactions with the surrounding community. They often were victims of horrible atrocities in their home countries. Their inspiring female coach (Jordanian-American Luma Mufleh) strives to build a united team out of their differences and hold the team together as their members encounter individual obstacles. One team member was nicknamed “One Shoe” since he only had one oversized sneaker to wear. And the adversity was not just individual: town residents called them by racial epithets and the Clarkston Mayor Lee Swaney in Summer 2006 issued a decree outlawing soccer in the town park. Mayor Swaney said, referring to the town park, “There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor.” One Afghan child was beaten up by Clarkston thugs who accused the boy of being a member of the Taliban since that was what the they knew of Afghanistan, when the reality was that the Afghan boy had emigrated when his father had been murdered by the Taliban.
Clarkston, GA, represents the future of American immigration as many immigrants settle in new immigrant destinations — communities with little recent history of immigrant arrivals. [Scholars are starting to study these communities -- see the work of Helen Marrow, Doug Massey, Abby Williamson, or Ben Deufel, among others.]
The book represents a microcosm of the challenges writ large of American immigrants and the surrounding community in building new identities that combine the richness of immigrants’ cultural upbringings but yet still enable community cohesion. The book, in a vivid style, raises many of the larger themes that were discussed in “E Pluribus Unum,” of civic engagement, community solidarity, social identity, we vs. they mentality, issues of distrust and withdrawal.
Coach Mufleh is hardly a pushover. She was inspired by seeing “a group of refugee boys who had survived the unimaginable, strangers now in an unfamiliar land, playing the game with passion, focus, and grace that seemed, for a brief moment anyway, to nullify the effects of whatever misfortune they had experienced in the past.” The refugee children came to tryouts without any uniforms, some wearing hiking boots; she built a team and required that they attend practice twice a week from 5-8, with the first half for homework/tutoring and the second half for soccer. Each boy on the team had to agree to a long list of vigorously enforced rules (as much lessons for life success as success in soccer):
I will have good behavior on and off the field.
I will not smoke.
I will not do drugs.
I will not drink alcohol.
I will not get anyone pregnant.
I will not use bad language.
My hair will be shorter than Coach’s.
I will be on time.
I will listen to Coach.
I will try hard.
I will ask for help.
I want to be part of the Fugees!
The Fugees lost every game of their opening season, but by the third season, thanks to returning players, they went undefeated.
The Fugees are also described in this wonderful 1/21/07 NYT piece entitled “Refugees Find Hostility and Hope on Soccer Field.” A 7 minute NPR interview with author Warren St. John and Coach Luma is available here. At Amazon you can read the Introduction of the book.
We also learned of interesting work happening out of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Office of Citizenship to spur greater civic engagement of immigrants, to help create mechanisms to teach them English more effectively and faster, and to work on immigrant integration.