Allison's Book Bag

The Most Diverse Square Mile in America

Posted on: March 15, 2013

More than half the people who live in Clarkston, Georgia, are refugees, mostly women and children, from more than fifteen countries. Twenty years ago, Clarkston was sparsely populated by working-class families. Then the federal government designated the town a refugee center. Almost overnight, Clarkston changed its countless ways.

The above description comes from the inside flap of Outcasts United, a nonfiction book adapted for young people by Warren St. John. Here is the book’s trailer:

AUTHOR

Warren St. John was born in Birmingham, Alabama. In an interview with Sportsletter, he credits this background with informing the book. “If I was from New York, I don’t think that I would’ve picked up so quickly how unusual it was that there was this substantial refugee community from 50-plus nations around the world in a small Southern town. I immediately understood that was going to be interesting because I spent a lot of time in small Southern towns.”

According to Warren St. John, his ability to tell this story was also helped by his being able to speak the cultural language. “I’ve been going to Atlanta my whole life. I have a familiarity with the layout of the town. And, Atlanta and Birmingham had a lot in common, in terms of their histories, until Atlanta got the international airport. The two cities diverged radically at that point. In the next three-four decades, Birmingham remained stagnant and xenophobic and Atlanta became this boomtown, the economic engine of the South and a place where black Americans were able to assert themselves. The airport changed the whole story. It opened Atlanta to the world and was one of the reasons why the Olympics came to Atlanta and not some other Southern city.”

At the New York Times, St. John is principally a feature writer. He writes most often about the impact of technology on social behavior and has written articles for many notable newspapers. St. John is also the author of the national bestseller Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania, which explores the phenomenon of sports fandom and chronicles the Alabama Crimson Tide’s 1999 season. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer was named one of Sports Illustrated’s best books of the year in 2004, ranked number one on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of the best books ever written about collegiate athletics. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer was optioned for film in 2009 by the Los Angeles-based production company Half Shell Entertainment.

CULTURAL SETTING

Outcasts United was both an easy and impossible book to research. For starters, the refugee soccer team featured in Outcasts United have their own website. The Fugees Family website describes themselves has “a non-profit organization devoted to working with child survivors of war”. Five years ago, Coach Luma Mufleh started a Fugees team to provide refugee boys with free access to organized soccer. Since then, their programming has grown to include year-round soccer, after-school tutoring and soccer, a private academy, and an academic enrichment summer camp. Wow!

Reading further into the team’s description, one also learns: “The players might begin by regarding one another with distrust or even hostility. By conducting drills with various players grouped together and enforcing an English-only policy at all times, the kids learn to cooperate. Africans and Asians, Northern and Southern Sudanese, Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims–they all play on the same team, finding their commonalities instead of focusing on their differences. Their bonds make them more secure in their own identity and more capable of acclimating to the mainstream.”

A lot of nationalities are represented in Outcasts United which I nothing about, nor could I begin to think that I could by some cursory research. At this point, I have to listen to what St. John says in interviews about diversity and to rely on my own gut reactions to whether or not he has resorted to biased portrayals of the refugee soccer team.

In a Frequently Asked Questions page, St. John responds this way when asked about how he first heard of The Fugees: “I suppose my reporter’s instinct kicked in and I started grilling him, asking, ‘Refugees from where? How did they get here? Where do they live and how do they build new lives here? Who helps them?’ That sort of thing. He very patiently answered my questions, and then casually mentioned that there was a soccer team of young refugees on the eastern side of town, and he encouraged me to check them out. So I called the coach, and went to a game … And there was one player in particular who had survived an apartment fire a few months before that had killed a number of his family members. Luma was tough with him–he didn’t get a break at all. And without giving too much away, his response was remarkable. I came away from that afternoon truly moved, and I knew that day that I’d found my next book.”

If you’re into YouTube, you can also listen to St. John about diversity here:

ONLINE RESOURCES

The Fugees aren’t the only organization that was set up to help the Clarkston refugees. In December of 1995, Pat Maddox came across an ad in a newsletter asking for volunteers to help meet the needs of a couple of newly arrived Bosnian refugee families. Pat’s connection with these families inspired her founding of the organizationFriends of Refugees.

On the Friends of Refugees website, they provide background to the situation in Clarkston, stating that in the early 1990’s the process of resettling refugees began in the community of Clarkston, Georgia. Since then, approximately 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Clarkston. With over 150 different ethnic groups represented within and around the city, Clarkston has been named “the most diverse square mile in America” by the New York Times.

For educators, an exhaustive Teacher’s Guide exists on Outcasts United.

Oh, and there’s also the book’s website: Outcasts United

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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