Friday, February 2, 2007

Refugees Find Hostility and Hope on Soccer Field

Refugees Find Hostility and Hope on Soccer Field
Published: January 21, 2007

CLARKSTON, Ga., Jan. 20 - Early last summer the mayor of this small town east of Atlanta issued a decree: no more soccer in the town park.

"There will be nothing but baseball and football down there as long as I am mayor," Lee Swaney, a retired owner of a heating and air-conditioning business, told the local paper. "Those fields weren't made for soccer."

In Clarkston, soccer means something different than in most places. As many as half the residents are refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Placed by resettlement agencies in a once mostly white town, they receive 90 days of assistance from the government and then are left to fend for themselves. Soccer is their game.

But to many longtime residents, soccer is a sign of unwanted change, as unfamiliar and threatening as the hijabs worn by the Muslim women in town. It's not football. It's not baseball. The fields weren't made for it. Mayor Swaney even has a name for the sort of folks who play the game: the soccer people.

Caught in the middle is a boys soccer program called the Fugees - short for refugees, though most opponents guess the name refers to the hip-hop band.

The Fugees are indeed all refugees, from the most troubled corners - Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Gambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan. Some have endured unimaginable hardship to get here: squalor in refugee camps, separation from siblings and parents. One saw his father killed in their home.

The Fugees, 9 to 17 years old, play on three teams divided by age. Their story is about children with miserable pasts trying to make good with strangers in a very different and sometimes hostile place. But as a season with the youngest of the three teams revealed, it is also a story about the challenges facing resettled refugees in this country. More than 900,000 have been admitted to the United States since 1993, and their presence seems to bring out the best in some people and the worst in others.

The Fugees' coach exemplifies the best. A woman volunteering in a league where all the other coaches are men, some of them paid former professionals from Europe, she spends as much time helping her players' families make new lives here as coaching soccer.

At the other extreme are some town residents, opposing players and even the parents of those players, at their worst hurling racial epithets and making it clear they resent the mostly African team. In a region where passions run high on the subject of illegal immigration, many are unaware or unconcerned that, as refugees, the Fugees are here legally.

"There are no gray areas with the Fugees," said the coach, Luma Mufleh. "They trigger people's reactions on class, on race. They speak with accents and don't seem American. A lot of people get shaken up by that."

Lots of Running, Many Rules

The mayor's soccer ban has everything to do with why, on a scorching August afternoon, Ms. Mufleh - or Coach Luma, as she is known in the refugee community - is holding tryouts for her under-13 team on a rutted, sand-scarred field behind an elementary school.

The boys at the tryouts wear none of the shiny apparel or expensive cleats common in American youth soccer. One plays in ankle-high hiking boots, some in baggy jeans, another in his socks. On the barren lot, every footfall and pivot produces a puff of chalky dust that hangs in the air like fog.

Across town, the lush field in Milam Park sits empty.

Ms. Mufleh blows her whistle.

"Listen up," she tells the panting and dusty boys. "I don't care how well you play. I care how hard you work. Every Monday and Wednesday, I'm going to have you from 5 to 8." The first half will be for homework and tutoring. Ms. Mufleh has arranged volunteers for that. The second half will be for soccer, and for running. Lots of running.

"If you miss a practice, you miss the next game," she tells the boys. "If you miss two games, you're off the team."

The final roster will be posted on the bulletin board at the public library by 10 Friday morning, she says. Don't bother to call.

And one more thing. She holds up a stack of paper, contracts she expects her players to sign. "If you can't live with this," she says, "I don't want you on this team."

Hands - black, brown, white - reach for the paper. As the boys read, eyes widen:

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!

A Town Transformed

Until the refugees began arriving, the mayor likes to say, Clarkston "was just a sleepy little town by the railroad tracks."

Since then, this town of 7,100 has become one of the most diverse communities in America.