By WARREN ST. JOHN
Published: January 21, 2007
CLARKSTON, Ga., Jan. 20 — Early last summer the mayor of this small town east of Atlanta issued a decree: no more soccer in the town park.
“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.”
Lots of Running, Many Rules
The mayor’s soccer ban has everything to do with why, on a scorching August afternoon, Ms. Mufleh — or Coach Luma, as she is known in the refugee community — is holding tryouts for her under-13 team on a rutted, sand-scarred field behind an elementary school.
The boys at the tryouts wear none of the shiny apparel or expensive cleats common in American youth soccer. One plays in ankle-high hiking boots, some in baggy jeans, another in his socks. On the barren lot, every footfall and pivot produces a puff of chalky dust that hangs in the air like fog.
Across town, the lush field in Milam Park sits empty.
Ms. Mufleh blows her whistle.
“Listen up,” she tells the panting and dusty boys. “I don’t care how well you play. I care how hard you work. Every Monday and Wednesday, I’m going to have you from 5 to 8.” The first half will be for homework and tutoring. Ms. Mufleh has arranged volunteers for that. The second half will be for soccer, and for running. Lots of running.
“If you miss a practice, you miss the next game,” she tells the boys. “If you miss two games, you’re off the team.”
The final roster will be posted on the bulletin board at the public library by 10 Friday morning, she says. Don’t bother to call.
And one more thing. She holds up a stack of paper, contracts she expects her players to sign. “If you can’t live with this,” she says, “I don’t want you on this team.”
Hands — black, brown, white — reach for the paper. As the boys read, eyes widen:
I will have good behavior on and off the field.
I will not smoke.
I will not do drugs.
I will not drink alcohol.
I will not get anyone pregnant.
I will not use bad language.
My hair will be shorter than Coach’s.
I will be on time.
I will listen to Coach.
I will try hard.
I will ask for help.
I want to be part of the Fugees!
A Town Transformed
Until the refugees began arriving, the mayor likes to say, Clarkston “was just a sleepy little town by the railroad tracks.”
Since then, this town of 7,100 has become one of the most diverse communities in America.
Clarkston High School now has students from more than 50 countries. The local mosque draws more than 800 to Friday prayers. There is a Hindu temple, and there are congregations of Vietnamese, Sudanese and Liberian Christians.
At the shopping center, American stores have been displaced by Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants and a halal butcher. The only hamburger joint in town, City Burger, is run by an Iraqi.
The transformation began in the late 1980s, when resettlement agencies, private groups that contract with the federal government, decided Clarkston was perfect for refugees to begin new lives. The town had an abundance of inexpensive apartments, vacated by middle-class whites who left for more affluent suburbs. It had public transportation; the town was the easternmost stop on the Atlanta rail system. And it was within commuting distance of downtown Atlanta’s booming economy, offering new arrivals at least the prospect of employment.
At first the refugees — most from Southeast Asia — arrived so slowly that residents barely noticed. But as word got out about Clarkston’s suitability, more agencies began placing refugees here. From 1996 to 2001, more than 19,000 refugees from around the world resettled in Georgia, many in Clarkston and surrounding DeKalb County, to the dismay of many longtime residents.
Many of those residents simply left. Others stayed but remained resentful, keeping score of the ways they thought the refugees were altering their lives. There were events that reinforced fears that Clarkston was becoming unsafe: a mentally ill Sudanese boy beheaded his 5-year-old cousin in their Clarkston apartment; a fire in a crowded apartment in town claimed the lives of four Liberian refugee children.
At a town meeting in 2003 meant to foster understanding between the refugees and residents, the first question, submitted on an index card, was, “What can we do to keep the refugees from coming to Clarkston?”
A Coach With a Passion
Luma Mufleh, 31, says she was born to coach. She grew up in Amman, Jordan, in a Westernized family, and attended the American Community School, for American and European expatriates and a few well-to-do Jordanians. There, Muslim girls were free to play sports as boys did, and women were permitted to coach.
Her mentor was an American volleyball coach who demanded extreme loyalty and commitment. Ms. Mufleh picked up on a paradox. Though she claimed to dislike her coach, she wanted to play well for her.
“For the majority of the time she coached me, I hated her,” Ms. Mufleh said. “But she had our respect. Until then, I’d always played for me. I’d never played for a coach.”
Ms. Mufleh attended college in the United States, in part because she felt women here had more opportunities. She went to Smith College, and after graduation moved to Atlanta. She soon found her first coaching job, as head of a 12-and-under girls soccer team through the local Y.M.C.A.
On the field, Ms. Mufleh emulated her volleyball coach, an approach that did not always sit well with American parents. When she ordered her players to practice barefoot, to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a player’s mother objected on the grounds that her daughter could injure her toes.
“This is how I run my practice,” Ms. Mufleh told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”
Ms. Mufleh’s first team lost every game. But over time her methods paid off. Her players returned. They got better. In her third season, her team was undefeated.
When Ms. Mufleh learned about the growing refugee community in Clarkston, she floated the idea of starting a soccer program. The Y.M.C.A. offered to back her with uniforms and equipment. So in the summer of 2004, Ms. Mufleh made fliers announcing tryouts in Arabic, English, French and Vietnamese and distributed them around apartment complexes where the refugees lived.
For a coach hoping to build a soccer program in Clarkston, the biggest challenge was not finding talented players. There were plenty of those, boys who had learned the game in refugee camps in Africa and in parking lots around town. The difficulty was finding players who would show up.
Many of the players come from single-parent families, with mothers or fathers who work hours that do not sync with sports schedules. Few refugee families own cars. Players would have to be self-sufficient.
On a June afternoon, 23 boys showed up for the tryouts.
From the beginning, the players were wary. A local church offered a free basketball program for refugee children largely as a cover for missionary work.
Others simply doubted that a woman could coach soccer.
“She’s a girl — she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Ms. Mufleh overheard a Sudanese boy say at an early practice.
She ordered him to stand in the goal. As the team watched, she blasted a shot directly at the boy, who dove out of the way.
“Anybody else?” she asked.
In Brutal Pasts, a Bond
Jeremiah Ziaty, one of those early players, is a typical member of the Fugees.
In 1997, in the midst of Liberia’s 14 years of civil war, rebels led by Charles Taylor showed up one night at the Ziatys’ house in Monrovia. Jeremiah’s father was a low-level worker in a government payroll office. The rebels thought he had money. When they learned he did not, they killed him in the family’s living room.
Beatrice Ziaty, Jeremiah’s mother, grabbed her sons and fled out the back door. The Ziatys trekked through the bush for a week until they reached a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast. There, they lived in a mud hut and scavenged for food. After five years in the camp, Ms. Ziaty learned her family had been accepted for resettlement in Clarkston, a town she had never heard of.
The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Washington estimates that there are now more than 12 million refugees worldwide and more than 20 million people displaced within their own nations’ borders. In 2005, only 80,800 were accepted by other nations for resettlement, according to the United Nations.
The Ziatys’ resettlement followed a familiar script. The family was lent $3,016 for one-way airline tickets to the United States, which they repaid in three years. After a two-day journey from Abidjan, they were greeted in Atlanta by a case worker from the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement organization. She took them to an apartment in Clarkston where the cupboard had been stocked with canned goods.
The case worker helped Ms. Ziaty find a job, as a maid at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the affluent Buckhead section of Atlanta, one that required an hour commute by bus. While walking home from the bus stop after her first day, Ms. Ziaty was mugged and her purse stolen.
Terrified of her new surroundings, Ms. Ziaty told her son Jeremiah never to leave the house. Like any 8-year-old, Jeremiah bristled. He especially wanted to play soccer. Through friends in the neighborhood, he heard about tryouts for the Fugees.
“When he tell me, ‘Mom, I go play soccer,’ I tell him he’s too small, don’t go out of the house,” Ms. Ziaty recalled. “Then he would start crying.”
Ms. Ziaty relaxed her rule when she met Ms. Mufleh, who promised to take care of her son.
That was three years ago. At age 11, Jeremiah is a leader of the 13-and-under Fugees, shifting among sweeper, center midfielder and center forward.
Other members of the Fugees also have harrowing stories. Qendrim Bushi’s Muslim family fled Kosovo when Serbian soldiers torched his father’s grocery store and threatened to kill them. Eldin Subasic’s uncle was shot in Bosnia. And so on.
The Fugees, Ms. Mufleh believed, shared something intense. They knew trauma. They knew the fear and loneliness of the newcomer. This was their bond.
“In order to get a group to work together, to be effective together, you have to find what is common,” she said. “The refugee experience is pretty powerful.”
• • •
Ms. Mufleh made a point never to ask her players about their pasts. On the soccer field, she felt, refugees should leave that behind.
Occasionally, though, a boy would reveal a horrific memory. One reported that he had been a child soldier. When she expressed frustration that a Liberian player tuned out during practice, another Liberian told her she didn’t understand: the boy had been forced by soldiers to shoot his best friend.
“It was learning to not react,” Ms. Mufleh said. “I just wanted to listen. How do you respond when a kid says, ‘I saw my dad shot in front of me’? I didn’t know.”
As a Jordanian in the Deep South, Ms. Mufleh identified in some ways with the refugees. A legal resident awaiting a green card, she often felt an outsider herself, and knew what it was like to be far from home.
She also found she was needed. Her fluent Arabic and conversational French came in handy for players’ mothers who needed to translate a never-ending flow of government paperwork. Teachers learned to call her when her players’ parents could not be located. Families began to invite her to dinner, platters of rice and bowls of leafy African stews. The Ziatys cut back on the peppers when Coach Luma came over; they learned she couldn’t handle them.
Upon hearing of the low wages the refugee women were earning, Ms. Mufleh thought she could do better. She started a house and office cleaning company called Fresh Start, to employ refugee women. The starting salary is $10 an hour, nearly double the minimum wage and more than the women were earning as maids in downtown hotels. She guarantees a 50-cent raise every year, and now employs six refugee women.
Ms. Mufleh said that when she started the soccer program, she was hopelessly naïve about how it would change her life.
“I thought I would coach twice a week and on weekends — like coaching other kids,” she said. “It’s 40 or 60 hours a week — coaching, finding jobs, taking people to the hospital. You start off on your own, and you suddenly have a family of 120.”
Off to a Rough Start
On a Friday morning in August, the boys come one by one to look for their names on the roster at the public library. Many go away disappointed, but six do not.
The new players are:
¶Mohammed Mohammed, 12, a bright-eyed Iraqi Kurd whose family fled Saddam Hussein for Turkey five years ago and who speaks only a few words of English.
¶Idwar and Robin Dikori, two rocket-fast Sudanese brothers, 12 and 10, who lost their mother, sister and two younger brothers in a car crash after arriving in Clarkston.
¶Shahir Anwar, 13, an Afghan whose parents fled the Taliban and whose father suffered a debilitating stroke soon after arriving in this country.
¶Santino Jerke, a shy 11-year-old Sudanese who has just arrived after three years as a refugee in Cairo.
¶Mafoday Jawneh, a heavyset boy of 12 whose family fell out of favor after a coup in Gambia, and who has a sensitive side; his older brother ribs him for tearing up during “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Ms. Mufleh is uncertain of her team’s prospects. She will have to teach the new players the basics of organized soccer. There are no throw-ins or corner kicks in the street game they have been playing.
In her occasional moments of self-doubt, Ms. Mufleh asks herself: Can I really get these boys to play together? Can I really get them to win?
• • •
The Fugees’ first practice this season is on a sultry August afternoon, with thunderclouds looming in the distance. After 90 minutes of studying, the team runs for half an hour and groans through situps, push-ups and leg lifts.
But the Fugees have no soccer goals. The Y.M.C.A., which sponsors the team, did not place the order, despite a $2,000 grant for the purpose. Ms. Mufleh quietly seethes that a team of wealthy children would probably not have to wait for soccer goals. She likens practice to “playing basketball without a hoop.”
The team’s first games portend a long season. The Fugees tie their first game, 4-4. In their next game, they surrender a lead and lose, 3-1. The team isn’t passing well. Players aren’t holding their positions.
On a sweltering afternoon in early September, the Fugees prepare to take the field against the Triumph, a team from nearby Tucker. Even before the game, there is a glaring difference between the Fugees and their competition. The Triumph have brought perhaps 40 parents, siblings and friends, who spread out with folding chairs and picnic blankets and are loaded down with enough energy bars and brightly colored sports drinks for an N.B.A. team.
Though this is technically a home game, no one is on the Fugees’ side. During the course of the season, only one Fugees parent will make a game.
The Fugees lead, 2-0, at halftime. In the second half, they put on a show: firing headers, bicycle kicks and a gorgeous arcing shot from 30 yards out. Even the parents of the Triumph gasp and clap in appreciation. At the final whistle, the Fugees have won, 5-1.
“Not bad,” Ms. Mufleh tells her team. “But next week will be a much better game, O.K.?”
A Call for Change
Ms. Mufleh has a list of complaints about the Fugees’ practice field: little grass, no goals. Neighborhood children regularly wander through the scrimmages, disrupting play.
But after a gang shooting in an apartment complex behind the field in late September, she concludes that the field is not safe. She cancels practice for two days. Fed up, she storms into Mayor Swaney’s office, demanding use of the empty field in Milam Park.
When Lee Swaney first ran for City Council in Clarkston more than 15 years ago, he did so as an unabashed representative of “Old Clarkston” — Clarkston before the refugees. It was certainly the more politically viable stance. Because few of the refugees have been in the country long enough to become citizens and vote, political power resides with longtime residents. The 2005 election that gave Mr. Swaney a second four-year term as mayor of this town of 7,100 was determined by just 390 voters.
As mayor, Mr. Swaney has frequently found himself caught between these voters and the thousands of newcomers. But he has also taken potentially unpopular steps on behalf of the refugees. In 2006 he forced the resignation of the town’s longtime police chief, in part because of complaints from refugees that Clarkston police officers were harassing them. Mr. Swaney gave the new chief a mandate to purge the Police Department of rogue officers.
Within three months, the chief, a black man of Trinidadian descent named Tony J. Scipio, fired or accepted the resignations of one-third of the force.
Soccer is another matter. Mr. Swaney does not relish his reputation as the mayor who banned soccer. But he must please constituents who complain that refugees are overrunning the town’s parks and community center — people like Emanuel Ransom, a black man who moved to Clarkston in the late 1960s.
“A lot of our Clarkston residents are being left out totally,” Mr. Ransom says. “Nobody wants to help,” he says of the refugees. “It’s just, ‘Give me, give me, give me.’ ”
Mr. Swaney encourages Ms. Mufleh to make her case at the next City Council meeting. So in early October she addresses a packed room at City Hall, explaining the team’s origins and purpose and promising to pick up trash in the park after practice.
Mr. Swaney takes the floor. He admits concerns about “grown soccer people” who might tear up the field. But these are kids, he says, and “kids are our future.”
He announces his support of a six-month trial for the Fugees’ use of the field in Milam Park.
The proposal passes unanimously. At least for six months, the Fugees can play on grass.
Getting Back in the Game
Early on the morning of Oct. 14, Jeremiah Ziaty is nowhere to be seen. The Fugees have a 9 a.m. game an hour from Clarkston, against the Bluesprings Liberty Fire, one of the top teams. Ms. Mufleh had told her players to meet at the library by 7.
Ms. Mufleh usually leaves players behind if they aren’t on time. But she knows Jeremiah’s mother is now working nights at a packaging factory; she gets home at 3 a.m. and won’t be up to wake Jeremiah. So the coach orders the bus driver to the Ziatys’ apartment. Jeremiah is sound asleep. Awakened, he grabs his uniform and fumbles toward the bus.
From the outset of the game, the Fugees, and especially Jeremiah, seem groggy. They fall behind, 1-0. But in the second half, they tie the score, fall behind, and tie it again, 2-2. Jeremiah is now playing fearsome defense. With minutes to go, the Fugees score. They win, 3-2.
“We played as a team,” says Qendrim Bushi, the boy from Kosovo. “We didn’t yell at each other. Last game, when they scored, all of us were yelling at each other. And Coach made us do a lot of stuff at practice. That’s why we win. Only because of Coach.”
As the Fugees leave the field, a man on the Bluesprings sideline yells to them, “I’d have paid money to watch that game!”
• • •
The Fugees have a knack for inspiring such strong reactions, both positive and negative. After one game Ms. Mufleh thought for a moment she was being chased by a rival parent.
“We’ve heard about your team,” the man said when he caught up with her. “We want to know what we can do to help.”
The rival team donated cleats, balls and jerseys.
Then there was the game in rural Clarkesville last season at which rival players and even some parents shouted a racial epithet at some of the African players on the Fugees.
After being ejected from a game against the Fugees in November, a rival player made an obscene gesture to nearly every player on the Fugees before heading to his bench. And opponents sometimes mocked the Fugees when they spoke to each other in Swahili, or when Ms. Mufleh shouted instructions in Arabic.
There were even incidents involving referees. Two linesmen were reprimanded by a head referee during a pregame lineup in October for snickering when the name Mohammed Mohammed was called.
Ms. Mufleh tells her players to try their best to ignore these slights. When the other side loses its cool, she tells them, it is a sign of weakness.
Ms. Mufleh is just as fatalistic about bad calls. In her entire coaching career, she tells her players, she has never seen a call reversed because of arguing.
The Fugees are perhaps better equipped to accept this advice than most. Their lives, after all, have been defined by bad calls. On the field, they seem to have a higher threshold for anger than the American players, who often respond to borderline calls as if they are catastrophic injustices. Bad calls, Ms. Mufleh teaches her players, are part of the game. You have to accept them, and move on.
On Oct. 21, Ms. Mufleh is forced to put this theory to the test. The Fugees are on their way to Athens, an hour’s drive, for their biggest game, against the undefeated United Gold Valiants. A win will put them in contention for the top spot in their division. Ms. Mufleh sets out in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle, the back seat crammed with balls and cleats. Her team follows in a white Y.M.C.A. bus.
Just outside Monroe, Ms. Mufleh looks to her left and sees a Georgia State Patrol car parallel to her. She looks at her speedometer. She isn’t speeding.
The brake light, she thinks.
Ms. Mufleh noticed it early in the week, but between practices, work and evenings shuttling among her players’ apartments, she neglected to get it fixed. The trooper turns on his flashing lights. Ms. Mufleh eases to the side and looks at her watch. If this doesn’t take too long, the team will make the field in time to warm up.
It isn’t so simple. Because of a clerical error, a ticket Ms. Mufleh paid a year before appears unpaid. Her license is suspended. The trooper orders her from her car. In full view of her team, he arrests her.
In the bus, the Fugees become unglued. Santino Jerke, in the country only a few months, begins to weep, violating the unwritten team rule that Fugees don’t cry. Several of the Fugees have had family members snatched by uniformed men, just like this. They have been in the United States too little time to understand court dates or bail.
Ms. Mufleh tells the team’s manager and bus driver, Tracy Ediger, to take the team to Athens. They know what to do. They can play without her.
Coachless, though, the Fugees are lost. Athens scores within minutes. And scores again. And again. The final score is 5-0.
After the game, Ms. Ediger drives the team back to Monroe. She puts together the $800 bail for Ms. Mufleh and signs some papers. In a few moments, the coach appears. Later, Ms. Mufleh says she thought at that moment about all the times she had told the Fugees to shake off bad calls, to get back in the game, to take responsibility. She walks straight to the bus and her players.
“This was my fault, and I had no excuse for not being there,” she tells them. “I should have been there and I wasn’t, and the way it happened probably messed you guys up.”
Ms. Mufleh asks about the score.
“It was a really hard team, Coach,” says Idwar Dikori, the Sudanese speedster.
“Were they better than you?”
“No!” the Fugees shout in unison.
“Come on, guys — were they?”
“No, Coach,” Robin Dikori says. “If you were there, we were going to beat them.”
Back in Clarkston that night, Ms. Mufleh takes some sweet rolls to the family of Grace Balegamire, a Congolese player. Grace’s 9-year-old brother has heard about the arrest, but doesn’t believe it.
“If you were in jail,” the boy says, “you wouldn’t be here.”
Ms. Mufleh explains that she gave the people at the jail some money and promised to come back later, so they let her out.
“How much money?” he asks.
“Enough for 500 ice creams.”
“If you pay 500 ice creams you can come out of jail?” he asks.
Ms. Mufleh grasps the boy’s confusion. The boys’ father is a political prisoner, in jail in Kinshasa, under circumstances that have drawn condemnation from Amnesty International and the Red Cross. The government there has issued no word on when, or if, he will be released.
At the Ziatys’ home, the arrest has a similarly jarring effect. Jeremiah locks himself in his room and cries himself to sleep.
Battling to the End
It’s late October, and with just two weeks left in the season, a minor miracle occurs in the arrival of two 10-foot-long cardboard boxes: portable soccer goals for the Fugees. The administrator at the Y.M.C.A. finally put in the order. Ms. Mufleh and Ms. Ediger assemble the goals in Milam Park.
The goals and the new field offer Ms. Mufleh new opportunities to coach. On grass, players can slide-tackle during scrimmages, a danger on the old, gravelly field. A lined field makes it easier to practice throw-ins and corner kicks. And goals: well, they provide a chance for the Fugees to practice shooting.
A disturbing trend has emerged in recent games. The Fugees move the ball down the field at will, but their shots are wild. They tie two games despite dominating play.
Perhaps the Fugees are missing shots for the reason other teams miss shots: because scoring in soccer, under the best conditions, is deceptively difficult. But Ms. Mufleh also wonders if the absence of goals for most of a season doesn’t have something to do with it.
Even so, the Fugees end the regular season on a misty Saturday with a 2-1 victory, to finish third in their division with a record of 5-2-3, behind undefeated Athens and the Dacula Danger, a team the Fugees tied. The season finale will be a tournament called the Tornado Cup. To a player, the Fugees think they can win.
“What makes us work as a team is we all want to win bad — we want to be the best team around,” Qendrim says. “It’s like they’re all from my own country,” he adds of his teammates. “They’re my brothers.”
• • •
The Tornado Cup comes down to a game between the Fugees and the Concorde Fire, perhaps Atlanta’s most elite — and expensive — soccer academy. The Fugees need to win to advance to the finals.
Standing on the sideline in a sweatshirt with “Soccer Mom” on the back, Nancy Daffner, team mother for the Fire, describes her son’s teammates as “overachievers.” One is a cellist who has played with the Atlanta Symphony. Her son wakes up an hour early every day to do a morning radio broadcast at his school.
The Fire are mostly from the well-to-do Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. They have played together under the same coach for five years. They practice twice a week under lights, and have sessions for speed and agility training.
Over the years, the parents have grown close. During practice, Ms. Daffner says, she and the other mothers often meet for margaritas while the fathers watch their sons play. The team has pool parties and players spend weekends at one another’s lake houses. In the summer, most of the players attend soccer camp at Clemson University. Ms. Daffner estimates that the cost of playing for the Fire exceeds $5,000 a year per player, which includes fees, travel to tournaments and, of course, gear. Each player has an Adidas soccer bag embroidered with his jersey number.
There is one other expenditure. The parents of the Fire collectively finance the play of Jorge Pinzon, a Colombian immigrant and the son of a single working mother. He isn’t from Alpharetta, but from East Gwinnett County, a largely Latino area outside Atlanta. Fire parents go to great lengths to get Jorge to games, arranging to meet him at gas stations around his home, landmarks they can find in his out-of-the-way neighborhood. Jorge is the best player on the team.
Ms. Mufleh gathers the Fugees before warm-ups.
“Play to the whistle,” she tells them. “If the ref makes a bad call, you keep playing. O.K.? You focus on the game and how you’re going to win it. Because if you don’t, we’re going to lose your last game of the season, and you’re going home early.”
Just before the opening whistle, some of the Fugees see a strange sight on the sideline. A teacher from the school of Josiah Saydee, a Liberian forward, has come to see him play. Some older refugee children from the complexes in Clarkston have managed rides to the game, an hour from home. Several volunteers from resettlement agencies show up. For the first time all year, the Fugees have fans.
The Fugees come out shooting — and missing — frequently. They lead, 1-0, at the half. In the second half, it’s as if a force field protects the Fire’s goal. After a half-dozen misses, the Fugees score again midway through the second half, to lead by 2-1.
Then, with just minutes to go, Jorge Pinzon of the Fire gets free about 25 yards from the Fugees’ goal. He squares his shoulders and leans into a shot that arcs beautifully over the players’ heads. Eldin Subasic, the Fugees’ Bosnian goalie, leaps. The ball brushes his hands and deflects just under the bar, tying the game.
The final whistle blows moments later. The Fugees’ season is over.
“You had them,” Ms. Mufleh tells her team after the game. “You had them at 2 to 1, and you wouldn’t finish it.”
The Fugees are crushed.
“We lost, I mean, we tied our game,” says Mafoday Jawneh, the sensitive newcomer to the team. “It was so. ...” His voice trails off. “I don’t know what it was.”
An Unpleasant Holiday Gift
The holidays are a festive time in Clarkston. Santa Claus arrives by helicopter at City Hall. The mayor is there to greet him, as are some of the Fugees.
They have other concerns besides Christmas. The Fugees have held two carwashes in town, to raise $1,000 to go to a tournament in Savannah in late January. They have come up $130 short, and Ms. Mufleh tells them that unless they raise the money, they are not going. When one player suggests asking their parents, Ms. Mufleh says that any player who asks a parent for tournament money will be kicked off the team.
She tells them, “You need to ask yourselves what you need to do for your team.”
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“You need to ask yourself what you need to do for your team,” Jeremiah Ziaty says.
He is at home in his kitchen, talking with Prince Tarlue, a teammate from Liberia, making a case for a team project. Some of the boys are to meet at Eldin Subasic’s apartment. They can knock on doors in town and offer to rake leaves to raise the money to get to Savannah. No need telling Coach, unless they raise enough cash. Prince says he is in. Grace is in, too. Some older boys in the refugee community offer to help out as well. Late on a Sunday morning, they set out.
That afternoon, Ms. Mufleh’s cellphone rings. It’s Eldin, who asks if she will pick up Grace and take him home. They have been raking leaves all day, he says, and Grace does not want to walk home in the dark. Oh, Eldin adds, he wants to give her the money.
“What money?” she asks.
“You said we needed $130,” he tells her. “So we got $130.”
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Ms. Mufleh and Ms. Ediger, the team manager, spend the holiday vacation visiting the players’ families. On Dec. 26, Ms. Mufleh receives a fax on Town of Clarkston letterhead.
Effectively immediately, the fax informs her, the Fugees soccer team is no longer welcome to play at Milam Park. The city is handing the field to a youth sports coordinator who plans to run a youth baseball and football program.
Questioned by this reporter, Mayor Swaney says he has forgotten that in October the City Council gave the Fugees six months. A few days later, he tells Ms. Mufleh the team can stay through March.
In early January, Ms. Mufleh logs on to Google Earth, and scans satellite images of Clarkston. There are green patches on the campuses of Georgia Perimeter College, and at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, around the corner from City Hall. She hopes to find the Fugees a permanent home.