IN THE NEWS: Warren St. John featured in The Times London

How football helped refugees in a US town

In a rural Georgia community, home to refugees from across the world, football is a healing force

by Mike Atherton

Shamsoun Dikori remembered the first time that he saw aircraft high above the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. He thought that they were birds – until the bombs came raining down. Jihad followed the bombings; within two years about 200,000 people (20 per cent of the local population) had been killed and the survivors of the 50 or so ethnic groups that inhabited this fertile region had been displaced.

A tortuous journey ensued for Dikori’s family, his parents and his two brothers and three sisters: makeshift villages in the mountains, peace camps, Khartoum and then Cairo until, finally, the UN refugee office there told them that they had been accepted for relocation to the US, where they ended up in Clarkston, Georgia.

The children enrolled in school, their father got a job, saved enough to buy a Mazda van and shortly before Thanksgiving in 2002, two years after they had settled in America, they took off on a trip to Tennessee to visit other Sudanese refugees. But Dikori’s family never made it. The van crashed on Interstate 24 and Dikari’s mother and three sisters were killed.

What helped Dikari and his younger brothers, Robin and Idwar, to keep their sanity in the months and years after this traumatic episode was football – more precisely, football for a team called the Fugees (as in refugees – the same source as for the hip-hop group of that name), run by a remarkable pair of women: Luma Mufleh, the coach, and Tracey Ediger, who is the manager-cum-general factotum. “It kept our minds from thinking what happened,” Dikari says. “We made friends … it broadened our minds and we realised we weren’t the only ones going through hard times. That is why the team is so close. It became our family.”

The remarkable story of this football family has now been told by Warren St John, a reporter from The New York Times who immersed himself in the immigrant footballing community of Clarkston. Like all good books about sport, this is about much more than sport. It is about how the inhabitants of Clarkston came to terms, or did not come to terms, with a decade during which their town changed beyond recognition; about how immigrants coped with the kind of upheaval most people cannot imagine, and about how sport helped, to a small extent, to ameliorate the process for both.

Until the last two decades of the 20th century not much happened in Clarkston. It was a typical town in the American South, mainly white and conservative and happily so, if its proximity to Stone Mountain, for many years the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and scene of cross burnings as late as the 1980s, was anything to go by. Things changed when various refugee settlement programmes identified the town as a suitable place for relocation.

In the previous census, nine years ago, only 20 per cent of the town’s population was described as white, the rest being African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Somalis and a variety of refugee groups. The inside flap of Outcasts United has a picture of the under-13 squad. There are four players from Sudan (two of whom are Dikari’s younger brothers), three from Liberia, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo and one each from Kosovo, The Gambia, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Sport has always been a friend to minority and disadvantaged groups because, for the most part, pure ability and talent smash falsely erected barriers. Jesse Owens did not do much for Hitler’s theory of Aryan racial superiority with his haul of gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Games, nor did the right hand of Joe Louis in his 1938 rematch against Max Schmeling. Muhammad Ali’s story was an inspiration to countless African-Americans and the spread of cricket in former British colonies can be understood only against a backdrop of the fight against imperialism. But it is only relatively recently that the power of sport has been harnessed in a more productive, organised and official way. Bodies such as Unicef recognise that sport is a “vital element in the health, happiness and wellbeing of children”. For the United Nations, 2005 was the International Year of Sport and Physical Education, before which Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, endorsed its importance. “Sport is a universal language which can bring people together no matter what their origin, background, religious belief or economic status,” he said.

There are countless NGOs and charities using sport now to help to bring about positive change. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, believes passionately in the ability of cricket to help to promote social cohesion and is president of the Chance to Shine appeal, which is helping to reintroduce cricket into state schools and inner-city communities. Cricket for Change is working in the West Bank, trying to bring Jews and Arabs together by playing a game that has no historical baggage for either.

In Clarkston the catalyst for this process was not a powerful figure such as Annan or King, nor even a charitable foundation – it was an immigrant with no money, no job and few prospects. Lumah Mufleh was from a relatively prosperous Jordanian family until she decided to move to the US and was cut off by her relatives. She then followed a well-trodden immigrant path, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, doing odd jobs, hitting dead ends and enduring bankruptcy. Then one day she saw a group of refugees playing ball on a piece of scrub land and she found her vocation.

She became more than a football coach for these shattered lives. She became a surrogate mother, friend, hairdresser, teacher, social worker, nurse, disciplinarian, fundraiser and politician, fighting as she had to every step of the way against the Mayor of Clarkston, Lee Swaney, who refused to let immigrants or football spoil the town’s one lush green field. It was as a coach, though, that her special qualities clearly lay: irascible, intractable, sure of her methods and not prepared to bend her rules for anyone. Sir Alex Ferguson in a skirt.

Gradually, through the friendships, kinship, healthy competition and feelings of self-worth that playing and occasionally winning with the Fugees brought, these immigrant children came to realise that they could forge a new life in America.

The majority in Clarkston found it harder to accept the new realities, but odd things began to happen. Thriftown, the local supermarket run by Bill Mehlinger, was about to go broke when one of his workers, who was Vietnamese, suggested that he started to stock more exotic foods, especially since the nearest outlet for Vietnamese food was a half-hour drive away. The supermarket began to thrive again. “If you don’t change, you’re gone,” Mehlinger says.

The Clarkston Baptist Church, whose numbers had begun to drop, renamed itself the Clarkston International Bible Church and began to hum again on Sundays. “I tell them, ‘America is changing’,” says the pastor, Phil Kitchin, “‘Get over it.‘” The Clarkston police force took on a black man as chief of police and the relationships between the immigrant community and the police quickly improved after he insisted that all residents of Clarkston be treated with courtesy, respect and professionalism.

St John quotes the work of a British academic, Steven Vertovec, who has written about the interaction between new inhabitants and old in towns that are affected by what he calls “super-diversity”. In essence, his thesis is that re-categorisation of a town’s population is needed, not along racial lines, but by all the affiliations that people might have, whether that is a love of sport, the arts or whatever. Gradually these affiliations or enthusiasms will overlap and individuality, rather than broad categorisation, emerges. This book would seem to bear this analysis out, and would be helpfully placed in the library of every British town where mass immigration is translating into votes for the British National Party.

This is a marvellous story, all the more moving for being written straight by a talented reporter. There are no fairytale endings, no neat tie-ups: players come and go and occasionally fall out with the coach and don’t return. The Fugees occasionally let themselves down; they win some, they lose some. Mufleh the coach, a saintly heroic presence for much of the book, also has an ego the size of Texas.

Clarkston doesn’t become a beacon of racial tolerance overnight: in 2008 a 23-year-old Somali refugee was beaten to death during a basketball game. Equally, St John tries hard to understand the difficulties faced by inhabitants of a town that has changed utterly. Mayor Swaney is not portrayed simply as a rednecked racist.

Despite this (and don’t hold your breath that Universal Studios, which has bought the rights, won’t simplify a complex situation) it is clear that something remarkable has happened and it is clear that sport has played its part in this. George Orwell was disparaging of sport’s ability to change things for the better, it being nothing more, he wrote, than “war minus the shooting”.

“What makes people join a gang?” Mufleh asked the Fugees one day.

“Race,” one said.

“Money,” another said.

“Protection,” another said.

“To be cool,” another said.

“To be men,” yet another said.

“So what makes a gang different from the Fugees?” she asked.

“They fight,” and “They shoot each other,” were the replies.

Being “war minus the shooting” is, and always has been, sport’s greatest justification: for once you take the shooting out of war you no longer have war.

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St John; Fourth Estate, £14.99; 320pp Buy the book.