Cleats of many nations now rooted in Georgia clay

Released from apartments in this refugee resettlement zone outside Atlanta, some 75 children participated in the Jan 19 tournament on a recently resodded field. Go to more images » (© 2009 Maggie Lee | Clarkston Community Center)

Clarkston, Georgia | The Martin Luther King Day soccer tournament at Clarkston Community Center afforded easy parking—a privilege rarely possible at suburban soccer confabs once idling fleets of vans and four-wheel drives have set up base camp.

The streets of Clarkston, 11 miles outside Atlanta along a commercial railway spur, are blissfully quiet on the Jan 19 holiday. Yet even on this federally authorized day off, groups of dark faces stand at bus stops, staring forlornly at the horizon on their way to jobs around the metro area.

Atlanta, largely through efforts of a suburban YMCA and the evangelism of a North American Soccer League team, the Atlanta Chiefs (see 4 Oct 08), in the 1960s played a leading role developing soccer as American suburbia’s sport of choice. The region now offers hundreds of ethnically based leagues, primarily of Latino players, but also a melding of nationalities as in Clarkston (25 Jul 07). As recently as 30 years ago, white people accounted for 90 percent of Clarkston’s population; as of the 2000 census, the figure was 19 percent (25 Jan 07).

The change is evident when walking with community center executive director John O’Kelley through a beautifully refurbished high school that served as rallying point when the center began as a grassroots movement in 1994. Once scheduled for demolition, the building, constructed in the 1920s, features a renovated auditorium with cathedral ceiling, decorated in mid-January for the upcoming Chinese New Year.

On video loop in the entry hallway are black-and-white scans from old high school yearbooks, including white gridiron football players in flattop haircuts looking as if they might be considering a bottle of pop at the corner store after the game. Down the hall sit two women—O’Kelley is not sure if they are from Burma or Bhutan—knitting in dull winter light. In a nearby sewing room a volunteer works amid splashes of fabric with several refugee women from Africa.

Abdirahmam Osman of Somalia touts the benefits of pre-tournament Frosted Flakes™ and demonstrates that he is plugged in to developments in public relations. The sugar-saturated Kellogg’s product the following week announced a field-renovation project; nominations of soccer and other facilities are accepted through Mar 31. (8:39)

Despite claims on the center’s website, this is not America’s most densely populated square mile—the honor likely goes to a section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with an estimated figure of 150,000. Yet small flats with extended families—we met one boy who is living with 11 family members—create densities well above the American norm. The town is among the nation’s most diverse. The influx of refugees since the 1980s has remade Clarkston’s housing, schools, businesses, foodways and places of worship (see Warren St. John, “The World Comes to Georgia, and an Old Church Adapts,” New York Times, 22 Sept 07).

Which brings us back to soccer.

Organizers of the MLK event said hundreds of schoolchildren were still isolated within apartments, even with the flush of publicity and cash for the locally based Fugees program—which, with corporate support, provides tutoring and manages four boys’ select refugee teams and a girls’ side. The Clarkston center aims its programming at both “long-standing residents and newcomers” to acknowledge the resentment that O’Kelley says refugees face from non-refugee residents in Clarkston. It has partnered with Decatur-DeKalb YMCA—historically an advocate for girls’ and minority soccer—the nearby International Community School and Atlanta-based Soccer in the Streets (10 Jul 07) to create and supervise a soccer park, where gridiron footballers once attacked the blocking sleds. O’Kelley says:

We’ve all been concerned about so many kids with so little to do in the community. I’ve got a soccer field. We’re all interested in promoting soccer—it’s an international sport. So the question has been, How can we make it happen? How can we make it so that it’s sustainable? You’ve got a low-income community. We don’t have a lot of soccer moms to make it happen so we need each other to try to figure this thing out.

Community tensions and language barriers add to cultural isolation. Kids who love soccer also encounter the bane of pickup soccer players across America: lack of open, non-dedicated play space and resistance in some quarters to creating and maintaining public pitches. The cultural barrier to soccer can come across in subtle ways. A newspaper article in 2007 poignantly described recently arrived families from Burma trying to juggle American footballs included in their resettlement packages (“Myanmar Refugees Find Freedom in Atlanta,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 24 Oct 07; not available online).

With manpower from nonprofit playground builder KaBoom!, the Clarkston center’s field in November was sodded with Bermuda grass. This followed years of the pitch being underused due to shortage of adult leadership—the would-be “soccer moms” in the area are all working. Although the grass was brown and the seams had not joined, kids on MLK Day raced about in a series of five-on-five matches and scrimmages.

Community celebrity Bill Clinton Hadam was playing, too. A 20-person team of Christian Science Monitor journalists, photographers, videographers, designers, researchers, translators and sub-editors, but mainly reporter Mary Wiltenburg, has been charting his school life and cultural adjustment since May 08. Born in the Congo not long after the U.S. Senate voted articles of impeachment against President Clinton in Feb 1999, Bill Clinton was named by his father, Hassan. According to the Monitor microsite, the name is to “remind him that even a big man can have big problems.”

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.


Mark Bixler, The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005); Jason Cowley, “Why We Have Fallen for Africa’s Lost Boys,” Observer, 29 Apr 07.

Cowley discusses recent books on the child soldiers of Africa: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, What Is the What by Dave Eggers in collaboration with Valentino Achak Deng (who spent a decade at the Kakuma camp), and Child Soldier by China Keitetsi.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] of The Global Game, a superb site examing the cultural effects of soccer around the world, has this roundup of the Fugees [...]

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