St. John's Maryland tour includes a stop near you

Friday, Sept. 24, 2010

Click here to enlarge this photo
Submitted photos
Posing in New York City with his 2004 book "Rammer Jammer Yellow Jammer: A Road Trip into Fan Mania," author and New York Times reporter Warren St. John's most recent book, "Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference" was chosen by the Maryland Humanities Council for this year's "One Maryland, One Book" program.

Click here to enlarge this photo

After the publication of his first book, 2004's "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into Fan Mania," Warren St. John was in Atlanta to give a talk. While there, a man who liked the book shared something which struck the author as a tad strange: He worked at a nearby refugee resettlement.

In Clarkston, Ga.?

This was over dinner, but when St. John, a New York Times reporter who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., heard that the small town of Clarkston had not only a refugee resettlement but a youth soccer team — The Fugees — comprised entirely of refugees, the reporter in him could not help but pepper the man with questions. Having grown up in the South, having visited Atlanta frequently in his teens, St. John found all this hard to believe.

The project that became "Outcasts United" started as a question. How could a small town, so long homogenous, so rapidly transform into one of the most nation's most diverse places, where a public high school, say, has students from 50 countries? How on Earth could that work?

St. John had to check it out. In time, he secured a leave from the Times and moved temporarily to Atlanta. Months later, immersed in the world of Clarkston with a book in the works that has been optioned for a film, St. John published a January 2007 Times article about The Fugees which drew a big response — people sent the team both cash and equipment — and perhaps foreshadowed the strong response the book would receive after its publication in 2009.

In its third season, The Fugees, consisting of three youth teams led by Jordanian-born Luma Mufleh (a strict disciplinarian-slash-dedicated advocate for her athletes, and the backbone of St. John's story), had dealt with everything from an inferior practice facility, not enough gear, a host of personal issues and occasional hostility drummed up by the fans of opposing teams and the town of Clarkston alike.

This is hardly an account of a soccer season. St. John tells the stories of teenagers who have narrowly survived a medley of unimaginable atrocities. He tells the story of a town that, due to its cost of living, public transportation and proximity to a major city (and employment source), had become a sort of de facto location for refugee resettlement — and while some embraced the changes, many, like Mayor Lee Swaney, did not.

Swaney missed his "sleepy little town by the railroad tracks." Referring to a park where Sudanese boys held pickup soccer games, he went as far as to say, "There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as I am mayor. Those fields weren't made for soccer."

St. John arrived in Clarkston at a time when the town's "experiment in getting along" was starting to boil over. En route to Clarkston, he wondered if he might be arriving late, whether he might have to reconstruct what had already happened. Instead, the moment was ripe for him to report in real time.

"Outcasts United," St. John's second book, was chosen by the Maryland Humanities Council for the state's annual statewide reading program, "One Maryland, One Book." On Sunday, St. John will begin a Maryland book tour with a stop at the Baltimore Book Festival and will appear later that day at a library in Columbia. On Monday, at 7 p.m., he will appear at Huntingtown High School.

Reached on the phone last week, St. John said he is excited about the five-day tour. Thus far, St. John explained, he has delivered readings and discussed the book at more colleges than high schools.

"For me," said St. John, "the thing that is most exciting about speaking to students is getting this very complex story in the minds of people who haven't made up their minds."

Post-"Outcasts United," St. John's mantra appears to be this: What is happening in Clarkston is happening everywhere, just at a slower rate. In short, our country is becoming more diverse, he said. So, how do we make it work?

For The Times, St. John has written articles for the Style section, and is known for being among the first to add "metrosexual" to the lexicon. Now, in the aftermath of his sophomore book, it might seem like a big leap to go from probing the psyche of college football fandom to delving deep inside the lives, with soccer as the backdrop, of men, women and children — from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Liberia and Sudan — coming to grips and attempting to navigate and find a place within a foreign world.

Or maybe not. In both books, sport is merely a framework or, as St. John thinks of it, a lens. ("Sports can act as a sort of truth serum," he said. "Around sports people behave in a way that they don't in their ordinary lives … In that environment, people will express what they really think and feel, which as a reporter is great.") What changes, then, is the sociological question, though perhaps on Monday St. John will explain how both questions are in fact the same, or at least related.

Members of The Fugees, prior to their relocation, witnessed firsthand the toll of civil war and reckless dictatorship. Some saw their family members get killed. Others were forced to kill.

There was the journey to merely flee. There was the journey to find a relief agency. There was the journey to attain refugee status and qualify for relocation. Perhaps the shortest journey, though, was the flight to America.

In a matter of days, you open your eyes and see a new world.

You have 90 days of financial support before you're on your own, starting from scratch. Imagine that.

Then again, Clarksburg was never exactly equipped to handle such a drastic shift in demographics. Was the town ever given a choice? Though relief agencies deemed it equipped, was it really?

St. John's reporting was sympathetic toward a rainbow of viewpoints. He interviewed outspoken progressives, loudly prodiversity fundamentalist Christians, tolerant folks who still had reservations about all the changes playing out in the community and even total xenophobes.

In the book, "I am not telling you what you ought to think," he said. "That doesn't mean I don't have my own opinions. So when I talk I am a little more prescriptive than I am in the book." For St. John, it began with a question, and wanting to answer it. In the aftermath, though, the question is one that affects him just as it might affect those who read the book.

Mufleh's project evolves. She is the founder of Fugees Family, a nonprofit organization that works with child survivors of war and aims to provide year-round soccer for youth as well as tutoring and a private academy.

St. John follows what is happening with The Fugees and keeps in touch with some of the players. "With the caveat that I don't necessarily speak for them, I think some things have changed and other things have not changed," he said. Since his article was published in The Times, he added, the economy has plummeted.

"I try to make this point to students without sounding like a hectoring old grandparent telling kids, ‘You don't know how lucky you are,' but when you see struggles that are happening not just on our continent but in our midst," St. John said, trailing off for a second then continuing.

"If you have clean drinking water, you have good educational opportunities and your family is safe, you are living the way that billions of people don't."

As part of Maryland's statewide reading project, "One Maryland, One Book," Warren St. John, the author of this year's chosen book, "Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference," will appear at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at Huntingtown High School, 4125 Solomons Island Road. A book signing will follow the reading and discussion. Call 301-884-0436.