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Warren St. John

Photo of Warren St. John

Photo: © Charles Thompson

About the Author

Warren St. John is a reporter for the New York Times and the author of the national bestseller Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.

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Author Essay


On a fall afternoon not quite two years later, Hassan al-Mufleh sat at the dining room table of Luma’s house just outside the Clarkston city limits. His daughter was out back reading on a rare quiet Sunday after a morning game. Inside, Hassan was trying to stifle tears.

I’d asked him if he had any regrets over how things had gone between him and his daughter when she told him she’d be staying in the United States.

“I hate to remember how she felt being alone in the States,” he said, his voice breaking. “It was difficult for me, but it was more difficult for her. She was 21 years-old–”

Hassan became overwhelmed.

“I should have left her alone,” he said finally.

Luma’s grandmother Munawar had always urged her to be patient with her parents. She believed that in time they would come to forgive her for deciding not to return to Jordan, and as with so many things, Munawar was right in her quiet wisdom. There were phone conversations, and eventually Hassan and Sawsan, Luma’s mother, visited the United States to see their daughter and the new home she had created for herself. On one of those visits, Hassan had offered to buy Luma new clothes, but she declined. If you want to spend your money, she told her father, come with me. They got in Luma’s yellow Beetle and went to Target, the department store, with a list of school supplies for the Fugees. Luma put together bags of pens and notebooks and binders, and happily stuck her father with the bill. Hassan began to understand.

There was still hurt. The hardest thing, he said, was living so far from his daughter.

“We’ve had some very bad days when Luma was away from us,” Hassan said of himself and his wife. “But you have to let go. Now it’s easy for me to say. I’m older, I’m more experienced. We have a saying. ‘Everything in the world starts small and then becomes bigger — except bad things. They start big, and then get smaller.’”

In the months following the Fugees’ 2006 season, a number of big things grew smaller, more manageable. Paula Balegamire, Grace’s mother, learned in a cell phone call from Kinshasa that her husband, Joseph, had not been injured in the riot at Makala after all. Some months later, Joseph was free. He promptly left Congo — which recently descended once again into civil war — and hopes to reunite with his family, either in U.S. or in Europe.

Mandela and Luma made up. The rapprochement took place gradually, rather than at any sort of intense heart-to-heart meeting. Jeremiah, Mandela’s younger brother, began to call Luma after the U-15 games to ask about the scores. Jeremiah had never shown much interest in the outcomes of the older boys’ games, so Luma rightly deduced that Mandela was putting his younger brother up to the calls. Mandela wanted to know how his former team and his old teammates were doing. As tough as Luma could be, as absolute as she was in enforcing her own rules, she didn’t hold grudges. That wasn’t her way. She started talking to Mandela again, advising him. She told him she thought it would be a good idea to get away from Clarkston and from Prince and some of his other friends who were dropping out of school. She suggested he apply for Job Corps, a U.S. government program that provides vocational training to people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, and that offered the chance to earn a high school degree. There was a Job Corps program in Kentucky, she said, far away from the bad crowd in Clarkston. Luma dropped off an application at the Ziatys’ apartment and told Mandela that if he wanted to go, he’d have to fill out the application himself. A few weeks passed before Mandela called. He’d filled out the paperwork. He wanted to go. Mandela was accepted, and shipped out soon to Kentucky. He studied construction as his vocation and in November 2008 graduated with his high school diploma.

There were other academic success stories among the 2006 Fugees. Shamsoun, Natnael and Joseph were all accepted at Pfeiffer University, a liberal arts college in North Carolina. Shamsoun received a scholarship to play soccer at Pfeiffer, and since enrolling, he has been working with a pastor from his village in the Nuba Mountains to start a school someday for Moro children. Through family and friends in the Sudanese community, Shamsoun raised $2,000 in order to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama with a student group.

Shahir Anwar, of the Under 13 Fugees, was accepted at Paideia School, a private school in an affluent Atlanta neighborhood, on scholarship. Many of the Fugees have seen their grades improve as they have become more familiar with English and have taken advantage of the program’s tutoring sessions. Luma’s hunch that soccer could serve as a carrot to goad young refugee children into the hard work necessary to succeed in a new country has in many cases proven correct. But there are still enormous challenges. Kids fall away, or get dropped from the program if they don’t meet academic expectations. And the local public schools continue to fail the refugee population — and American students as well. The angriest I think I ever saw Luma was when one of her young players proudly showed her his report card, which revealed an A in English. From tutoring sessions, Luma knew the boy was almost completely illiterate.

There have been departures — from the program and from Clarkston. For many refugee families, Clarkston is just a first stop in America, a place to get a foothold before moving on to secondary migration centers in the United States. Liberians, for example, often moved to Iowa, Somalis to Minneapolis or Lewiston, Maine and Sudanese to Omaha, Nebraska to seek out the support of communities comprised of family, friends and countrymen. In the summer of 2007, Beatrice Ziaty decided to leave left Clarkston for Iowa, taking young Jeremiah with her while Mandela was in Job Corps in Kentucky. Generose decided to move her three boys Alex, Bienvenue and Ive and her little girl, Alyah, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, a place, she had heard, where life was quieter and safer than Atlanta. Kanue Biah decided to try out for the Silverbacks, the elite Atlanta soccer club, and made the team, while Qendrim left the team because he could no longer get rides to and from Clarkston from his family’s apartment outside of town.

At first, these departures wounded Luma. She had poured so much energy into her program and into bettering the lives of her players and their families that a parent’s decision to move or a player’s decision to give up soccer or to join another team felt like a profound rejection. Sometimes Luma was angered by what she believed was the naiveté behind such moves, as when Generose decided to give up the safety net Luma had helped create for her boys in order to move to Indiana, a place with limited employment opportunities for a Burundian refugee who spoke no English and where Generose knew just one person — a woman she’d met in a refugee camp. Luma tried to cope with the departures as best she could. She understood that the refugees were doing the best they could, and that it was difficult to second guess a mother’s instinct to seek a better environment. Clarkston, after all, was neither the safest nor the most comfortable place to raise a family. And moving by choice — as opposed to simply fleeing — could be an act of self-determination.

In their new homes, the families Luma worked with are settling in, once again, to new lives. The moves can be jarring for everyone, but especially so for children who were just getting used to life in Atlanta, though in the case of eight year-old Ive, his family’s move to Indiana wasn’t as difficult as he had feared it might be.

“Hey, guess what?” Ive said excitedly by phone soon after his family had arrived in Fort Wayne.

“I don’t know — what?” I said.

“Indiana,” Ive declared, “is in America.”

“I know — it’s in the Midwest.”

“Well I thought we were moving to a totally different country!” he said.

For weeks after Generose told her boys that they were moving to Indiana, Ive had believed that he would have to learn a new language and new customs when he got there, as he had when he moved to America in the first place. But in Indiana, people spoke English. They ate pizza. You could watch The Simpsons on TV. Ive was relieved.

Generose works as a cleaning attendant at a hospital in Fort Wayne. The boys are doing well in school, and of course playing soccer. Bien broke his middle school scoring record his first year in Indiana, with nineteen goals. Like many of the boys who’ve come and gone through the Fugees, they stay in touch with their old coach, and even took a Greyhound bus to Georgia one summer to spend a week at Luma’s house.

To cope with the difficulty of these separations, Luma has learned to turn her attention to other kids in need in Clarkston. A steady flow of refugees into town — most recently, Burundians and Karen, a persecuted ethnic group from Burma — has meant that there has been no shortage of boys who want to try out for the Fugees.

“The minute some kid leaves our team you have five more kids who want to take his place,” Luma said.
“And they’re all just as beautiful and innocent or messed up as the kid before them. So you can’t stop.”

As for Clarkston, the town has continued to change and, haltingly, to adapt. From time to time incidents occur that underscore the challenges the town continues to face. In March 2007, for example, a National Guardsman named Craig Perkins, just back from a tour of duty in Iraq, got into an argument with two Middle Eastern men in the parking lot of the Kristopher Woods apartment complex, where Perkins had gone to visit his girlfriend. Perkins said the men insulted him for serving in the military. But the men, Tareq Ali Bualsafared, a twenty-six year-old immigrant from the United Arab Emirates, and Saleh Ali, a seventeen year-old refugee from Iraq, claimed to police that Perkins had accosted them because they were Arab. Whatever the cause of the argument, it escalated, and ended when Perkins pulled out a .45 caliber automatic and shot Bualsafared in the leg. Bualsafared survived and denied to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he or his friend had insulted Perkins for his military service — pointing out that neither man knew Perkins was a soldier since he wasn’t in uniform. And for his part, Perkins denied that he shot the men because they were Arab. He wasn’t prejudiced, he said: his girlfriend was white and though he appeared African American, he had white and Native American ancestors. In Clarkston, even your basic parking lot fight was super-diverse.

In November 2008, there was another ugly incident in town, one that confirmed Luma’s suspicions about the crowd of young men who hung out around the basketball court next to the Fugees’ old practice field at Indian Creek Elementary. Angry over a foul committed during a pick-up game there, a group of mostly American players vented their rage on the perceived offender, a 23 year-old Somali refugee named Yusuf Heri. They attacked Heri on the court and literally beat him to death. As of this writing, five suspects, all of them locals, had been arrested in connection with the killing. Police were searching for at least two others.

And there was still more tragedy in the fall of 2008. A few days before Thanksgiving, one of Luma’s former players, a Liberian tenth grader named Florent, was playing with a gun in a bedroom of his family’s apartment in Clarkston when the weapon discharged. The bullet struck and killed a seventeen year-old Burundian refugee named Gerali Kagwa, one of Florent’s best friends. Police, who arrested Florent and charged him with murder, said that photographs on the walls of his bedroom suggested membership in a gang. There’s no way of knowing how the young man’s fate — or Gerali’s life — might have turned out differently if Florent had stayed with the Fugees, but the incident was a painful reminder of what was at stake in Clarkston each day.

In January 2007, The New York Times ran a front-page story I’d written about the Fugees, one of three articles about Clarkston that I wrote for the paper while working on this book. The article, which detailed Mayor Swaney’s soccer ban in the town park, prompted an unexpected and somewhat overwhelming response. Mayor Swaney was deluged with angry phone calls and emails from Times readers who were appalled that he had kicked the Fugees out of the town park after Christmas. The mayor protested his treatment in the article, claiming he had only banned soccer in the park for adults, not kids, and that I had confused the town baseball field — on which no soccer was allowed — with the town’s general use field. A taped interview with Mayor contradicted the first claim. As for confusing fields: there was only one field in question — the one on which both the Fugees and the Lost Boys soccer team had played and from which both teams had been ejected. The mayor also gave shifting explanations for that holiday fax he’d sent notifying the Fugees that they were no longer welcome. He was making way for a youth sports program, he’d said at first — a falsehood — before arguing that the real reason for the move was that he’d seen refugee men playing soccer on the field and had assumed they were affiliated with the Fugees. Never mind of course that as the mayor knew, there were no grown men on the Fugees.

As the mayor scrambled to explain and re-explain himself in the wake of the public outcry, the City Council of Clarkston took up the matter once again, and reaffirmed the Fugees’ right to use the field through the Spring.

The Times article about the Fugees changed things for the team in other ways. The newspaper’s readers donated to the Fugees in amounts large and small, and a deal was made for film rights to the Fugees story. The donations–which included a bus–allowed Luma to end her relationship with the YMCA. Nike stepped in to provide equipment and uniforms. Since then Luma has been free to run her program the way she sees fit, and to fundraise toward her real ambition: building a tutoring center and soccer facility within walking distance of Clarkston.

Already Luma hired two teachers to work with her players. Twelve members of the team now attend classes full-time at the Fugees Academy.

The media attention had other implications. At the tournament in Savannah that the Fugees had raked leaves to attend, for example, locals who’d read about the team came to watch them play and to cheer them on. To his surprise and utter delight, Qendrim was asked to give his first autograph — to a young boy who’d turned out to see the Fugees play. Volunteers have reached out to the program; the Fugees currently have seven interns who help with logistics. The extra help has freed Luma to focus her energies on her real love, coaching.

Relations between the City of Clarkston and the Fugees, for the most part, have improved. There was some resentment about the media attention the Fugees received and over the reports of the movie money; during a discussion of a police department budget shortfall at one city council meeting Luma attended, for example, someone in the gallery proposed that the Fugees pick up the tab. But the city council stuck by the team. Periodically, Luma has had to go back to ask to extend the team’s use of the field in Milam Park, and so far, the Council has always agreed. Luma has even become friendly with Emanuel Ransom, the town curmudgeon, bonding over their shared admiration of Hillary Clinton. As for Mayor Swaney; his term ends in 2009. He recently announced he would not seek reelection.

LUMA, insists that she hasn’t changed since the 2006 season, but to an observer, she seems calmer, more relaxed. Running the program herself, she said, has eliminated the frustration that can come from relying on others, and volunteers have eased some pressure. She stills gives fiery halftime speeches, and admits she had a hard time controlling herself when one of her teams recently blew a 5-1 second half lead. In the months after the Times story about the Fugees, Luma frequently found herself approached by teachers, parents, coaches and volunteers who wanted her advice on how to handle various situations involving difficult children or kids who were struggling with their circumstances. Luma was reluctant to give advice. She doesn’t believe in any single method for dealing with struggling kids, and freely admits that the Fugees hasn’t worked for everyone. Failure and mistakes, she believes, are unavoidable.

“You’re not going to be able to do everything for all the kids,” she said. “There’s not a perfect system. There’s nothing wrong with another way of doing it.”

Like some of those who reached out to Luma for advice, I would sometimes press her to explain her philosophy, to attach words and maxims to the deeds in order to provide a framework for others who hoped to replicate the kind of program she’d created. Luma always resisted, perhaps because there was no great secret to what made the Fugees work, just as there was no great secret to the success of those other clusters of hope and connection within Clarkston. They were powered by simple but enduring ideas: a sense of fairness, love, forgiveness and most of all, a willingness to work — to engage in the process of turning these simple notions into actions that could affect others.

I once asked Tracy Ediger, the Fugees’ team manager and all-around helper to the players and their families, what she thought people most misunderstood about Luma and the Fugees program. She didn’t hesitate with her response: it was the tendency of people to ascribe mystery or some saintly qualities to the simple work they did.
“Putting Luma on a pedestal is counterproductive,” she wrote me once in an email. “Luma is really a normal person doing what she can for the people around her. If people can look at her and see that, that she’s human, not a saint or a super-hero, and that she doesn’t — can’t do everything or effect miracles, then maybe they can say to themselves, ‘I need to look around myself and see my neighborhood, and what is going on here and five streets over, and what I can do in terms of investing myself and my time, to be present for the people around me, and to do something positive for change in my community.’
“No one person can do everything,” she said. “But we can all do something.”

The Fugees are going strong. In fall 2008, Luma coached four teams, from ages twelve to nineteen. On a warm Saturday afternoon in early November, the Under 14 Fugees took the field to play the second best team in their division, from the Rockdale Youth Soccer Association in Conyers, Georgia. The best team in the league was none other than the Fugees themselves, who were undefeated in five games and who had delivered a 9-0 drubbing to one of their hapless rivals a few weeks before. The Fugees had a cheering section. Some of the older players, including Josiah, Mafoday, and Idwar had come out to see the younger team play, and especially to root on Robin and Santino, their much younger former teammates who were now playing in their proper age division. Luma’s father, Hassan, was on the sideline, in the middle of a long visit from Jordan, most of which he’d spent either watching soccer or cooking traditional Jordanian meals, which he served heaped on steaming platters to Luma and her players. Tracy too was on the sideline taking photographs, and volunteers who worked with the Fugees came and went and added to the voices of support.

On the field, Robin, once quiet and shy, was now running the defense with confidence and authority — calling out to his teammates in unaccented English, urging them to move up the field and to mark their men. The stars of the Under 14 offense were a small, agile Eritrean refugee named Ashora, who had been referred to Luma after repeatedly acting out at school, and a tall, muscular center forward from Liberia named Luckie, who had a habit of commenting on the games from the field, in real time, in the manner of an excited television play-by-play announcer. Since joining the Fugees, Ashora had become practically docile at school — Luma had run him into submission — and Luckie had emerged as a good student and a team leader who oversaw calisthenics at practices and held the respect of his teammates the way Kanue once did.
It took the Fugees only a couple of minutes to score their first goal, on a quick attack by Luckie, who, perhaps out of modesty, declined to offer the play-by-play for his own score and instead quietly jogged upfield as his teammates celebrated around him.

The Fugees kept the heat on the Rockdale defense, scoring one, then another, then another. Late in the game, tiny Ashora carved his way through the Rockdale defenders at a downhill pace, arms whirling as he dribbled cleanly past one player then another. Once in the clear, he took a shot. The ball sailed upward, well out of reach of the Rockdale keeper and into the top of the net: score. The older boys on the sideline shouted in delight, and Ashora’s teammates swarmed him on the field. On the Fugees’ bench, Luma was impassive, as usual, pausing only to look at her watch to check the remaining time. The Fugees were ahead 5-1, their unbeaten streak alive. The boys jogged towards their side of the halfway line for the final minutes of play. Luckie leaned his head back and offered his commentary on Ashora’s goal into the blue sky overhead.

“Beautiful!” he called out, his voice echoing across the soccer complex’s terraced array of green fields.

“Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful!”

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