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Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free


Photo by Nicole Bengiveno for the New York Times

(Note from Pach:  Please go read the whole NYT story before they bury it under the toll booth in two weeks.  Read it before someone sells the movie rights and they pretty the story up for general audiences.  You won't believe what these kids have been through, and the coach seems like an amazing, strong heroine.  UPDATE: Uh oh:  does the NYT story harbor inaccuracies?)

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

"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."

This came to me via e-mail

I wasn't going to write about this, I hadn't even read the story. Then I kicked it around in my head.

The town of Clarkson likes immigrant money, but doesn't want them to be the part of the community. I hope the Times story shames them into realizing their cruelty.
The team is made up of survivors of the worst the world has to offer and the town turns their back on them, not everyone, but enough people for it to be shameful.

The hostility to "soccer" is a joke. They play in a league where their opponents are white suburbanites. They would have lost their field if the Times reporter hadn't shamed the mayor. I think, with the comming local press, they will get a new one. How could a field take football, with cleats and not soccer, which doesn't have kids in pads running around.

Without immigration, these would be ghost towns. There are only so many northern blacks who will move south. Without the changes from immigrants, these towns would be like those on the prairie, counting those who leave.

I posted a story on a small town black mayor who woke up to gunfire on my site. All he had done was won by 56 percent in a small southern town.

Some people don't like change.

But the conflict between the locals and immigrants around Atlanta has been an ongoing story. Most of the blowhardism about immigrants in other parts of the country comes from O'Reilly and Fox and the radio. They don't live near them. In California and the Northeast, they seemlessly join established communities. But in places like Atlanta, they are building their community before the local residents.

And people resent it. Blacks resent it because it seems whites will have one more group to place above them and ignore their concerns. Whites resent them because they may have to live with blacks, they don't have to live with Muslims and Mexicans. Who their radio hosts have informed them are vermin.

The other thing to note is the way soccer is now so popular that even in football-centric Georgia, there is a massive league structure.

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Steve Gilliard

Steve Gilliard