Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference

Just last year, the University where I am (gratefully) employed started a First Year Reading Experience (FYRE).  This year has already shown improvement, including giving each incoming student a copy of the book rather than expecting them to buy an optional text (something I felt VERY strongly about).  They've also chosen a book that might have broader appeal: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference.  Written by NYT journalist Warren St. John, the book follows coach Luma Mufleh as she somewhat stumbles into founding a powerful youth soccer program for refugees in Clarkston, GA just outside of Atlanta.

The book taught me a lot that I probably should have already known: that the UN and the US Office of Refugee Resettlement funds and coordinates refugee relocation to places like Clarkston at startling numbers (the population of Clarkston went from a mostly homogeneous middle-class white community to one-third of the town now being foreign-born); that communities like Clarkston are chosen because of their proximity to large, urban centers with good public transportation and lots of low-wage jobs; that most refugees move on to another location after a stint in their original resettlement home.

It also reminded me of a few things I either knew or had suspected (see corresponding quotes):  that forced diversity is not always a cure-all (1); that soccer is a uniquely team-oriented and unifying sport (2); and that merely getting to know people can change the world or at least some small corner of it (3).
1.  "Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life," the authors [of a 2007 study] wrote, "to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television." (40)
2. Unlike basketball, baseball, or football, games that reset after each play, soccer unfolds fluidly and continuously.  To understand how a goal was scored, you have to work back through the action - the sequences of passes and decisions, the movement of the players away from the action who reappear unexpectedly in empty space to create or wast opportunities - all the way back to the first touch. (8)
3.  Luma decided that the kids really needed a free soccer program of their own.  She didn't have the foggiest idea of how to start or run such a program.  She certainly couldn't fund it, and with a restaurant to run and a team of her own to coach, she hardly had time to spare.  But the more she played soccer in the parking lots around Clarkston and the more she learned about the kids there, the more she felt a nagging urge to engage, and to do something. (51)
The book is not without flaw, and I suspect many of my students will be turned off by the attention to minute detail, the slow-moving passages without much action, and (like me) the repetition of material that seems to indicate a lack of editing.  It should spark some good conversations though, not the least of which will be how my students (decidedly lower-middle to middle class themselves, if not actually working class) will relate to the struggles of the refugees or how they might use the Fugees' experience as a mirror on their own sense of entitlement and privilege.  On that note, The New Yorker has an excellent article on spoiled American children.  Even if you haven't read Outcasts United, check out the article.  It is definitely food for thought, especially with passages like this:
“Most parents today were brought up in a culture that put a strong emphasis on being special,” [Levine] observes. “Being special takes hard work and can’t be trusted to children. Hence the exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight.”


  1. I find it interesting that soccer is the one that unites all of these people of the world in the country where soccer is one of the least popular sports. It's intriguing how when people leave their home land, they tend to bring certain customs with them. The title really fits "Outcasters United", because these refugees, had to risk their lives to leave their homeland for various reasons, that as Americans, we can barely begin to comprehend, yet when they get here, most of them will struggle for rest of their lives just to make ends meat. This soccer team that That Luma started, has manifested itself into a sort of redemption for not just the players and Luma, but the whole refugee community. Why is it that a group of people speaking in different languages, coming from 100s of kinds of broken homes in different war torn countries, can find such unification in a soprt? Its almost as if Sports instills a universal feeling of joy in playing soccer, that transcends all differences. But where does that come from and why do all of these people seem to be affected by it?

  2. I am truly touched by Luma's sacrifice that provides for the children refugees. Most of the time, it's hard to process such great sacrifices because I'm so accustomed to essentially, having a perfect lifestyle. Luma leads by example, and that is why she is so successful. Gandhi said that we should be the change we wish to see in the world. Not only is Luma being the change, but she is setting a brilliant example of how to be an authentic leader and caretaker. I look up to Luma because of her assiduous attitude, constructive and raw criticism, and drilling expectations that are entirely out of amity. Many Americans lack her sense of love. Luma takes it up to a whole new level.

  3. As a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student, I read Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference as my first year reading experience. From this, I was not only told an inspiring story that reiterated what all parents tell their children: anyone can make a difference despite their differences whether that be race, age, language spoken, or social status, but I also was made aware of new things that I, a citizen of the United States, had no idea of such as the resettlement process. I honestly was not aware that the U.S. offered such an amazing program for those in need, and now, I am even prouder to be a part of such a great country that goes out of its’ way to help on an international level. I was in awe when Luma made so many sacrifices for those that she had no responsibility for or even knew well. Another astonishing thing that was brought to my attention was how reluctant the citizens of Clarkston were to accept the refugees and their programs and even attempt to even thwart Luma’s outstanding process. Not only did she bring the refugees together through soccer, but she bettered their lives in everywhere possible for her genuine love of the game of soccer, her players, and their well-being and education. Although the book was written well, I did feel as if some parts were dull with no action during some of its parts while just telling back stories. Overall, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference was a great book, allowing me to see into others’ lives, the struggles they face, and learn more about both other nations and my own.

  4. Luma is so inspiring. She uses discipline and consistency to teach the kids life lessons. She expects the best they can do on and off the feild and she gets that. I believe for these kids Luma was more than just a coach. Most of the kids probably had a lack of parental guidence, Luma being the disciplinary kind of person she is fit that role perfectly. All kids need guidence, they use that guidence in different ways and that is what makes each person unique. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, whether it be divorce, abuse, gangs, drugs, or a "normal" life, the kids can come together and connect through sports. Sports, especially soccer is such a team sport. You have to work together in order to win. When the kids are on the field all of there backgrounds do not matter anymore. Its just the ball and their teammates. Luma did an amazing job instilling good morals and attidudes in the kids. She is so sefless to devote her time and the little money she had to help others. I come from a "normal" family. My parents are still married. My grandparents are active in my life and I have an amazing support system. Outcasts United showed me how lucky I actually was. My parents have given me everything I wanted and more. Some kids never hear their parents say, "I love you", yet I hear it mulyiple times a day. Their love is never questioned. Outcasts united makes me want to make a difference in someones life. During rush we have talked about the sorority's philanthropys. They all are dedicated to making a possitive difference in someones life. From telling someone they are beautiful to raising money for terminally sick children, they all make someone feel important and loved and that's the great thing.

  5. It takes people like Luma to truly make a difference in the world. I'm sure she, nor her parents, had any idea what an impact she would make in the lives of a few "outcasts," which eventually cumulated with time. "Outcasts United" is an engaging read, as well as motivating and inspiring. Surprisingly, it was very emotional as the reader begins to realize how the opportunity that Luma gives these refugee children to play soccer allows them to escape their past and present afflictions. She provides a safe haven for her soccer players to really enjoy being a part of a team, and ultimately a feeling of unity at the end of the day. Luma was by no means a "softie," rather one who taught by discipline and honesty that built character in the young boys' lives. Anyone who feels compelled to make a change in the world would find this biography as a motivating start toward that goal.

  6. This is a truly inspiring story of hardships and racism and cultures being brought up to discriminate against other ethnicities, but in the end it comes down to finding that one thing they have in common; the love for the game. As a former soccer, basketball, and football player I understand this relationship. It doesn't matter if you hate a player, have never talked to them, or just been guilty of stereotyping a team mate before you get to know them, all that matters is when you step on that field they are your teammate. You are a family that works together as a unit. Luma did a very good job of uniting this team and despite what they are taught to think of the other races, she teaches them to overcome it. She shows one of the most brilliant examples of leadership I have ever seen, while she is overcoming her on hardships. This story reminds me a whole lot of Remember the Titans, which is one of my favorite movies, so I believe this is why the story appeals to me to the extent that it did. it is a great story, and i would definitely recommend it. As far as the writing of the story, and the way it is told, I happened to love it. I thought it was very to the point, blunt, and I liked this. Not the best writing displayed in this book, but still a very real, and inspiring story. It really makes you think how good you have when hearing the accounts of the Fugees!!!!

  7. Though I agree the book is slow moving, it is very relatable to the people my community. It was outstanding for me to read about about an outsider coming and making a difference in a community were most community members would rather not acknowledge the less fortunate or those that are unlike them. Where I come from there is not much diversity but their are the less forunate and there are those people that are rude, unkind, and somethimes only misguided. I have seen people being ostracized for the clothes they wear and the food they eat. I found the idea of an outsider coming to the aid of those she did not know an act to motivate others to do the same. Luma was someone I hoped inspired many others to find kids in a community to help. Her story is powerful.

  8. I was required to read this book as first year reading book, and I also agree that Outcasts United was a slow moving book, but I think it is very inspiring. We get to see how big of a difference one person can make in someones life. Luma a foreigner herself, shows us how one person can feel a lack of meaning in his or her life and while searching manage to also help others. Luma finally finds her passion in coaching soccer. As the reader I found her story touching. She set an example for me, she went to great measures just to help the boys she coached when she all she had to do was simply coach their soccer team. Luma for me is a powerful example of how I would like to be.

  9. Great comments, guys! Thanks for adding something new to the conversation.

  10. As a freshman going into orientation, I was shocked but not upset to learn that we were being assigned summer reading. I was how ever a little disappointed to see that it was about low-socioeconomic, refugee boys, living in a tiny town, playing soccer. I never played sports, I'm a girl, I've lived in the same city my whole life and have never experienced poverty. I was surprised to find that as read I began to relate to the book in other ways. I use to volunteer at a children's home for kids who had some pretty rough backgrounds. I could relate to the way Luma felt from helping out these kids. Although the book was a little slow and something wasn't always happening, I appreciated the little bits of history that was added between chapters. Over all, I thought it was a good book. The ending was not as good as I had hoped, but then again, it's a true story so it's not really the author's fault.

    Caroline Siniard

  11. the story never ends
    there are always more kids.\
    No harrassed but folks who see them as the same type folk responsble for the Boston Bombing
    I love Luma and all she stands for