Warren St. John at the Roswell Reads 2010 Literary Fest
5 p.m. Sat., March 20. $10-$15 (includes meal). Roswell Recreation Center, 830 Roswell Road, Roswell. 770-641-3950, www.forl.net.
By Adrianne Murchison
Luma Mufleh saw little community interest in her cause before New York Times reporter Warren St. John wrote about her refugee soccer teams, known as the Fugees.
The Clarkston soccer coach just needed to give it a little time. On Dec. 31, Fugees Family Inc. — her organized athletic and academic program, which helps children from war-torn countries — bought 18.6 acres that will be home to the Fugees’ own soccer field and school.
In 2005, the AJC introduced Atlanta to Mufleh and her team. In 2007, St. John’s story brought them national attention.
“I didn’t think it would resonate because I had been doing that work for three years, and it didn’t resonate with anyone,” Mufleh said. “So it was kind of overwhelming to see the reaction of people all over the world.”
The Fugees Family raised $300,000 to buy the nearly $700,000 property — a foreclosed stretch taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. It will take $10 million to develop the land and school in phases, Mufleh said. “This is huge. We finally have a home where kids can have a safe place to study, a place to play, a place to be given the quality education that kids deserve.”
St. John has remained connected to the Fugees. He has visited Atlanta several times to discuss his book, “Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, An American Town.”
On Saturday, he will appear at Roswell’s Literary Fest at the Roswell Adult Recreation Center. It’s the final event of the Roswell Reads 2010 series. Refugee Family Services will honor St. John with its first “Raising Our Voices” award for bringing attention to metro Atlanta refugee groups. This week, he spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by phone.
Q: You’ve seen a lot of these kids grow into young men. How homesick are they at first?
A: The last time I saw a lot of them they were these little boys running out on the field. Now they are taller than I am. I think so many of the young people I met in my reporting were caught between two worlds. All the kids at school would tease them for having accents or treat them as outsiders. And when they would try to adapt and go home, their parents would say: “Wait a minute, we don’t dress like that. We don’t wear our hair like that. We don’t talk like that.” So they were kind of stuck between these two worlds that wouldn’t fully accept them.
Q: Does your interest in the South stem from you being born in Birmingham?
A: I think so. As a reporter, it’s an interesting place to be. There is still a lot of change happening. In particular with immigration in the South, it is reaching new levels in the last 15 years, and I think it serves to make it a much more diverse place. I had a great-uncle in Albertville, Ala., which now has a significant Latino population. And when I would go there as a kid it was almost an entirely white, homogeneous town.
Q: Are there other subjects set in the South that you have in mind to write about?
A: Yes, definitely. I find that one requirement for a New York-based reporter is you have to get out of New York. [What] was neat to me about Clarkston was that it was this town that was literally slightly over one square mile, so it was a place where you could get to know everybody. I felt like I could get my head around what was happening in a way that would be much more difficult than if it was happening in a bigger place.