Warren St. John came to Clarkston in 2006 on the advice of stranger, a man who worked in refugee resettlement and told him to check out a refugee soccer team in town called The Fugees. St. John, a well-known New York Times reporter always in search of a good story said sure. That simple. What started as a curious reporter watching a boys soccer game on an off day turned into a three-year project. First, a series of stories in The Times and then a book, “Outcasts United,” which was released to bookstores April 21.
It chronicles The Fugees, an organization of several teams of refugee players from distressed countries like Sudan, Iraq and Serbia. They play in a Georgia youth soccer league. While the book investigates many players’ backgrounds and their harrowing journeys to Georgia, it also examines Clarkston, a town struggling with rapid change, racial and otherwise. Federal resettlement agencies have moved thousands of refugees into the small town, and some residents fear the influx.
St. John followed the team as its players struggled to manage their soccer season while adapting to American culture. They also struggled with residents and city officials, including Mayor Lee Swaney, who resisted their efforts to assimilate and, particularly, play soccer. The newspaper stories also sparked a bidding war in Hollywood for the rights. Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio, Columbia Pictures and The Weinstein Co., among others, pushed the final deal to $2 million against $3 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Who knows how much St. John received. Universal Pictures finally won the rights.
St. John came to Borders bookstore in Buckhead on May 20. I sat down with him in the upstairs café for a few minutes before he spoke and signed copies of his book. “Outcast United” is his second book after “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania,” published in 2005.
When did you decide you had a book and not just a series of newspaper stories, and how is the book different from what you thought it might be when you started?
I thought it was going to be a book before I thought it was going to be articles. In the summer of 2006, I’d come down here, I’d learned about Clarkston, about The Fugees, and at that point I went back to my book editor and said – after my first book – here’s what I’d like to do next. I went back to The New York Times, and an editor said, “What are you working on? What’s your book about?” And he said, “Well, that would be interesting to do some features here along with.” And I thought at the time, “OK, that could be a really useful way to get to know the material, be challenged by editors, make it better, synthesize my ideas,” and I just didn’t anticipate the first story getting the reactions that it got. Stories come and go in The New York Times every day, but it ended up getting this kind of unexpected reaction. At that point I was very happy I’d been reporting a book from the beginning because it would have been very hard to go back and try to re-report if I had decided at that point, “Oh, I’d like to write a book.” In terms of how it’s different, I really didn’t have any preconceptions. I was just going to let the material tell me what the story was, so it wasn’t different or not different from what I thought at the beginning. If there’s one thing that was different, there was a lot more drama than I expected. The mayor’s statement about the park, banning soccer in the park and then letting them in and then, in fact, kicking them out again. I thought a lot of the drama would be on the field or in the stories people told me about where they’d come from.
How does a New York Times reporter find out about refugee children playing soccer in Clarkston?
People ask me that question all the time like it’s weird. Like how does a reporter find out about that? That’s what we do all day. The best stories come when you’re not looking. I was down here giving a talk about my first book and went out to dinner with a couple. I’d never met them before. The gentleman worked in refugee resettlement, and being from Birmingham, I had a lot of questions about how that works. How did you help a family from Burundi fit into life here? How do you make that work? And he mentioned this soccer team, and I thought, “Oh, that’s cool. Maybe I’ll go check them out.” I think I had a down day before I went to my next assignment, and they happened to be playing, and I went to a game, and that’s when I saw a lot of really fascinating stuff. Then I started learning about Clarkston and what was going on there. And I thought, “This is like a microcosm of America.”
How long did it take The Fugees and their parents and relatives to get comfortable with your presence – to get to the point where they opened up to you and spoke about their traumatic backstories and struggles here in the United States?
It took quite a while. I started reporting in August, and it took until the middle of October before I felt some release of tension. I was around constantly. I guess that meant something. I’d come to practice. They saw me at games. They had questions for me. Then, I think, this other instinct took over where the people, especially the adults, wanted other people to know what they were dealing with, especially the ones who’d been here a little while. They see a lot of the very inefficient things about the way their situation is handled, and I think they have a lot of frustration.
What do you think the U.S. government doesn’t understand or gets wrong about refugee resettlement and immigration?
Number one: I don’t think the government takes into account how long the process is. Refugees get about 90 days of [financial assistance] when they arrive, and then they’re kind of dependent on any patchwork state assistance they may or may not qualify for. Ninety days for someone who has been running for their lives for years when dropped off in a completely alien culture – it’s hard enough to learn a few English phrases and learn your way around. There are these cultural things they need to understand and learn as well to even enter the work environment. And a lot of them just need a break. They need some calm time with their families. Also, the budget that the volunteer agencies get for refugee families, when you break it down, is ridiculous. It’s in the hundreds of dollars. People who work in resettlement get paid very low wages. They have extremely limited resources, and then they have a very large caseload servicing tons of families. So, like everything, like every social problem, it needs more resources. The government may feel like, “Look. We’re letting these people in, and that’s all we can do right now.” But I think it’s worth also keeping in mind that a lot of these refugees come here straight from conflicts that the U.S. had a hand in. Afghans. There are a lot of Iraqi refugees coming to the U.S. A lot of them helped the U.S. and can’t go back to their towns because of that association, and they don’t get much in the way of help.
You write a little bit about the refugees’ different brand of soccer – the street-ball approach to the game. How did that compare to Atlanta area teams they played that probably had mostly white, middle class kids on the teams? How large a factor was wealth in that difference as well?
You need to be a little bit careful generalizing because a lot of Americans grow up to be really technical soccer players. Speaking about the kind of bell curve of soccer talent – the middle of the curve – most American soccer players play the game in a pretty regimented format. You know, they put cleats on their feet, they put on shin guards and their mom or dad drives them practice or drives them to a game. So, they’re usually playing on very nice fields with goals and nets and everything. Whereas most of the world plays soccer like inner-city American kids play basketball. It’s kind of always ongoing, you know. They don’t need a fancy court, a net, you know. They don’t need a fancy field. They just need a space, and they play there. It’s a way of playing that’s a little bit freer. It’s more conducive to developing, I think, individual creativity and a personality and an individual style of play. Whereas the rigid drilling that Americans do comes from a British boarding school method.
What was going through your head when you met Mayor Swaney? You had to have an opinion. He’s a very polarizing character in the book. He actions border on villainy. What were his motivating factors?
I kind of avoid in the book trying to guess because I don’t really know. I did get the sense of a man who was, in some sense, a perfect reflection of the ambivalence of the town about this issue. If you can think of Clarkston as a person, there’s a part of the Clarkston mind that wanted to live up to the town motto, “Small Town, Big Heart” – be a generous place, Southern hospitality. But then there was a part of the Clarkston mind that was fearful and afraid, overwhelmed by change and uncertain about the future. And Swaney kind of toggled between these two points of view. I think he was putting his finger in the air, listening to people. He heard people saying, “Let’s help these kids out. This program is helping kids, keeping them off the street. Let’s support that.” And then he would do that, and then he would hear from other people, “Oh, these refugee kids are in the park. They’re screaming and yelling, and they’re all hanging out together. It makes me nervous when I walk by. I don’t know what they’re up to.” And he would listen to that and swing 180 degrees in the other direction. I think it’s clear Swaney was not a strong leader with a particular vision. I think if he’d been a strong leader with a particular vision one way or the other we would have seen some strident progress in one direction. Instead we saw a guy who was kind of a windsock. And in the process he kind of annoyed everybody – people on both sides – by trying to please everybody.
Swaney’s term is up this year, and according to you book he doesn’t intend to run for mayor again. Do you think all the hoopla surrounding how he dealt with The Fugees was a factor in that decision?
I tried to call Swaney back in the last few months of my reporting, and he didn’t talk to me. I thought it was a good opportunity just to say, “Hey, I screwed up. I really do support these kids. I made a mistake.” He didn’t want to talk anymore. He maybe felt stunned by the Times article, but I don’t know. He’s an older gentleman. He’s served two terms. It’s a high-stress job that doesn’t pay very much, so he might feel, “Hey, I’ve done what I can here. If I can enjoy myself without having to deal with the town’s complicated [issues].” I can certainly understand that.
How have the kids reacted to the Times stories and the book?
I think for most of them it seems to have been a very far-away kind of thing. They’re not all reading The New York Times every day. They’re not watching CNN or listening to [NPR’s] Morning Edition. I’m not even sure that they encounter that much. My sense is that they way the encounter it is that they hear about it from teachers or they get asked about it from kids whose parents said something or saw them on The Today Show. They don’t grasp that out of 300 million Americans, 20 percent of them are watching The Today Show.
You could make a lot of different movies out of the book. Are you concerned about how Hollywood will handle the material? You could really simplify it and make it a basic, uncomplicated sports movie. Do you worry that some of the complexity might be lost?
Yeah, sure. It’s definitely a concern. I think the good thing is because the story got so much attention that sort of ups the ante if they end up making the film. I don’t understand how Hollywood works. But I think a lot of the reviewers and a lot of people who commented on the book have suggested the complexity is exactly what makes it interesting. So, if you render it some basic tale, first of all, I don’t think people will find it all that interesting. What’s interesting about Clarkston is how complicated it is and how there aren’t a whole lot of easy answers. Some things are simple. People should be treated with dignity and hard work pays off. There are some very timeless values on exhibit in Clarkston. But the value to the average American who doesn’t live in or near Clarkston is understanding how people are trying to cope with this overly complex situation. I wouldn’t see value in dumbing it down.