Cleats of many nations now rooted in Georgia clay

The ambitious multimedia blog occasionally touches on Bill’s recollections of life in a Tanzania refugee camp, where children made soccer balls out of plastic grocery bags and string. “They played soccer all the time,” Wiltenburg writes (“Kid’s-Eye View of Refugee Camp—‘Kinda Stinky,’ ” 26 Nov 08), “when they weren’t playing hide-and-seek.”

Asking questions of the children—I spoke to about a dozen, but not to young Bill—is delicate. Sometimes they stumble when naming their country of origin, perhaps confused whether they should supply the country of birth or the country where they often spent years in resettlement camps. A lithe 10-year-old boy from Angola, with loping strides and natural ball control, already has had to make home on three continents: he came to Atlanta after first resettling in Russia. (As of Dec 07, Russia hosted 160,000 refugees, most from Afghanistan and Georgia; the United States had 151,000.)

Some say, simply, that they come from Africa. Abdirahmam Osman, 10, was born in Somalia, yet many of his memories originate in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. The camp serves just under 50,000 refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda and has its own government, economy, school and cultural life. Ten thousand children participate in a football project run by the Mathare Youth Sports Association of Nairobi. Fifty thousand more Somalis are scheduled to move there this year.

Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya The entrance to Kakuma. (© 2008 Kakuma News Reflector)

Osman has lived in Clarkston four years with mother and three siblings; his father is still in Kenya. Hints of past stress lie close to the surface. Of the war-torn Somalia of his infancy, he says: “I remember when I was young and when my uncle died and my grandma and my grandpa. I remember that much.” After which it seems inappropriate to ask more.

The Kakuma camp’s own blog includes cartoons and interviews about refugee life and describes the institutions that emerge in confinement. “Living inside the camp is equally prison and exile,” say the blog’s editors. “Inside this small city at the edge of the desert, children age into adulthood and hope fades to resignation. To be quite frank, it’s more or less a kind of hostage life for many refugees.”

Such backgrounds have made the Clarkston children aware of contingency. They are gifted educators with linguistic skills and acquaintance with human good and grief. For those who have been subjects of enterprise media projects by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New York Times, Sports Illustrated (19 Jun 08), ESPN and Christian Science Monitor, they know the stratagems of mass media and perhaps the ways in which their stories might be misheard, misinterpreted or exploited. Be wary of those who take your story from you.

“We know something of these children,” reads a 2007 Observer article on the “lost boys” of Sudan, “but, at the same time, can we ever say that we know them—know what they feel, think, need or want in all their complicated interiority?”

They have a lot to teach. Oscar from Burundi, for example, tells me that the Swahili for football is mpira. A soccer ball is mpira wa soka. I write the names on a pad, double-check the spelling and apologize for my poor handwriting. He looks over my notes and, more benevolently than many teachers I have had, says that the letters look fine to him.


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