As I slowly get to know the RISSE soccer team players – they are not all that easy to get to know – I am patient and slow-moving. It is not really for me to get close to them, it is for me to support them in any way I can. I am getting to know them, and they are beginning to talk to me.
You can't badger kids into opening up, it has to happen naturally or not at all. I am not their mother or father, I am not Ali. But I do want to help if I can.
Their lives are not simple. They miss their home countries, there are language and cultural and financial and political obstacles for them. Most of their families are split, their fathers are often not living with them, or couldn't make the journey with them to America. They have very little money to spend on things like soccer uniforms or movie tickets or winter clothes.
Right now, America no longer sees itself as a welcoming nation for refugees, and the children who go to school with them have picked up on that change. These kids are insulted all the time.
They suffer from isolation, from poverty (many wore flip-flops with socks for the upstate New York winter) and increasingly, cruelty and bigotry from their American peers and classmates. Last year,
the RISSE office was burned to the ground by arsonists. They are routinely taunted and ridiculed by other boys their age. They do not have the money to wear the latest clothes or walk in the hottest sneakers or buy the newest e-gadgets.
They cling to one another in a fiercely protective community, they watch out for one another in a way no one else can watch out for them, except for Ali, who watches over all of them, a fiercely protective Mother Hen all his own. When they hike, they sing "we stand together or die together," and they believe that is true.
Ali tells them all the time that what they are seeing is not the true America, but a temporary one, the real America will reappear. They adore him.
I've talked with Ali about talking with them about the challenges in their lives, seeing what can be done to support them, giving them a chance to vent with someone outside of their circle. He thinks it is a wonderful idea.
They are all coming to Pompanuck Farm next week (not this weekend, as originally planned), and i seem to be in charge of the retreat.
It will probably be cold, there will be sledding and snowball battles and hikes in the cold woods (Maria and Fate's job) and Ali and I will be doing much of the cooking. This week, I've been searching online for a book to get all of them, something we can read together and talk about.
I think I found the right one this morning,
The book is called "Outcasts United," it was published in 2009 by a New York Times reporter named Warren St. John and it is about a the Fugees, a team of soccer-playing addicts from a dozen war-and disaster ravaged countries who found themselves living in the small town of Clarkson, Georgia.
The original article in the Times had a huge impact, it brought a lot of money and equipment, plus a book contract for St. John and a movie deal that financed a team bus and a new school, the Fugees Academy. There are a lot of Americans, I always tell the kids, who were once refugees themselves and very much want to welcome them and help them. The Army Of Good is showing them this is true. Their new soccer shirts bear the name "Bedlam Farm Warriors," their way of saying thanks.
The book captures the emotional damage of the horrors of the refugee experience and the challenge of assimilating into a community that is alien in almost every way. It also portrays the struggle of Luma Mufleh. A refugee herself, when she decided to stay in America after graduating from Smith College, her father cut her off completely. She moved to Atlanta and started shopping in Clarkson. One day she saw a group of refugee boys playing soccer in a parking lot. She watched them for a while, and found her calling.
She realized that soccer was the answer to the boys isolation from the new world around them and their desire to connect with their new home. Goal and grit, energy an effort, are the same words in Albanian and Swahili. And English.
Luma became a coach and surrogate parent, and she and her soccer kids transformed their lives and the community they were in.
Reading this book, I could hardly think of anything but Ali, and the almost identical role he plays in the lives of these sometimes disconnected young boys, cut off from their own world, and struggling to live in an alien and sometimes hostile place.
This morning, i ordered 16 copies of this book for the 14 members of the RISSE soccer team, and for Ali and me. We will give them to the kids to read and we'll all sit down and talk about the book when we get together at Pompanuck.
They are not, of course, the same as the Fugee Boys, every experience is different. But the plot is pretty similar, and I believe it will benefit them to see that they are not alone, and to also see how dedication and grit goes a long way in their new home.
The book is uplifting, it is about a group of soccer-loving misfits from all over the world and how they made it.
The perfect book to read together at our retreat in the midst of a cold winter.