THE BLOG
01/24/2007 02:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

You Start on Your Own; You Suddenly Have a Family of 120

Last Sunday, The New York Times gave a chunk of the front page and two full pages inside to Warren St. John's article about the Fugees, a soccer club in Clarkston, Georgia.

Clarkston is just outside Atlanta, where a great many kids play soccer in nice uniforms, watched by beaming parents. Not the Fugees. The name --- short for "refugee" --- signifies that its players are immigrants, mostly from Africa. Many have survived the unthinkable: soldiers murdering a father in his living room, soldiers forcing a boy to kill his best friend. Now, thanks to the efforts of Luma Mufleh, their founder and volunteer coach, they have a common activity that builds pride, character and, not least, roots in the new community.

There's just one problem.

Clarkston (population: 7,200) is not universally thrilled that, in just a few years, immigrants from Somalia make up half the population. The Fugees are thus a flashpoint for hostility, even racism.

Consider: "There will be nothing but baseball and football down there [on municipal parks and playing fields] as long as I am mayor," says Lee Swaney. "Those fields weren't made for soccer."

Consider: The Fugees were not only forced to practice on dry, rutted fields, they went without goals until two weeks before the end of their season --- the administrator at the Y.M.C.A. was slow to put in the order.

Consider: Last fall, Mayor Swaney arranged for the Fugees to use a town field for six months. The day after Christmas, he rescinded that promise. (Reminded of his pledge by the Times reporter, he reversed that decision.)

It is easy to get agitated and reduce the Fugees/Clarkston story to a blanket denunciation of old-fashioned racism. And it is very tempting to define the issue in simple terms: Powerful people who should know better went out of their way to brutalize kids who have already been horribly brutalized.

Not so fast.

There is no heartless villain here. Immigration experts thought that refugees could find jobs in Atlanta and cheap housing in a county that had lots of empty apartments, and so, in just five years --- from 1996 to 2001 --- 19,000 refugees washed into DeKalb County. The experts did not anticipate that the newcomers would transform small-town life. And they could not know that 9/11 was coming, and, with it, newfound resentment of Muslims.

There is, however, definitely a heroine in this story --- Luma Mufleh, the 31-year-old Jordanian and Smith graduate who founded the Fugees in 2004. She is one tough coach; no kid gets to play out of pity. Miss a practice, you sit for a game; miss two, you're history. Her first obligation is to build a winning team.

But you can't build a team when players are hungry and anxious. So what seemed as a small project has turned into a large commitment. In addition to coaching, Luma has become a second mother to many of its players. And the cleaning service she launched has been a blessing to many of their mothers, who now earn considerably more than the minimum wage.

Luma Mufleh is no fool. When Warren St. John decided to spend the fall following her team, she filed for non-profit status and built a web site that tells you all about the team and makes it easy for you to donate. I featured the Fugees on my smallish web site --- in 24 hours, 500 readers contributed to the Fugees. I won't be surprised if, in short order, we see Luma and her players on "Today" or "Oprah."

We don't see enough success stories like this. Three cheers for Luma Mufleh --- who would, I bet, be the first to suggest that instead of lionizing her, you find your own local opportunity.

--- adapted from HeadButler.com