Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Building New Lives, Building a Team

I savor my newspaper reading on Sunday mornings along with sleeping late, steaming cups of French roast, music streaming through the house, and generally luxurious laziness. After living in Manhattan for almost 15 years before moving to the Oakland Hills in the Bay Area, my Sunday paper of choice is still the New York Times.

Early in 2007, I picked up the Sunday paper from the front lawn in my pyjamas and bare feet and ran back in the house before the neighbors noticed. My eyes opened wide to see that the town--Clarkston, GA--in the center front-page story was my town, where I went to high school and my parents lived for 40 years. Clarkston is a small town about 15 miles from Atlanta that has experienced enormous changes in the last few years. Its apartment complexes built in the 70s and 80s have become the first homes for large numbers of refugees, processed in Atlanta and resettled to Clarkson, from all over the world. These refugees represent every continent, dozens of languages, and a vast array of skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and histories of horrible occurrences--persecution and death, for example.

All of this, of course, is in great contrast to the conservative, previously all or mostly all-white Clarkston residents who have lived there for decades, well before the apartments complexes were built and before the refugees began arriving in large numbers. As the author, Warren St John, pointed out, Clarkston is right next door to Stone Mountain, the home for many years of the Ku Klux Klan.The Times' article detailed this recipe for turmoil, both between refugees and town residents and among the many refugees themselves from so many vastly different areas of the world.

I know Clarkston well. I went to high school on North Indian Creek Drive in Clarkston. Our house was located about three miles south (and an hour on the circuitous school bus route) on Indian Creek Drive on several acres of land bounded on one side by Indian Creek and Snapfinger Creek on the other with trees, birds, a pond, enough lawn for playing softball and croquet and to hate the chore of mowing it all by myself. It was rural and idyllic. I left the Clarkston area to attend college and graduate school and to see the world as a Peace Corps Volunteer in North Africa. My siblings moved to more rural suburbs and our house was sold a few years ago but not before we noticed all the changes in the area. And I, given my Peace Corps background, became a dedicated traveler and proponent of global understanding. Little did I realize that I could have just stayed in Clarkston and learned as much or more about our new and diverse world.

The amazing Times article told the fascinating story of a female soccer coach from Jordan who put together a team of teen boys from multiple countries speaking multiple languages to play league soccer--their person trials and town clashes. Warren St. John has now expanded that story into a fascinating book--Outcasts United-- that uses the Clarkston story to examine what's happening in our world, well beyond the Clarkston city limits. We really do live in a global society now but can we cope with all the differences among people in our communities? Can we emphasize the similarities and begin to work together in meaningful ways? How can we even begin to communicate and find and nurture the best in our young people? How can we learn to respect each other so that we can find and enjoy the richness of this diversity?

I just finished reading Outcasts United, A Refugee Team, An American Town. In fact, I couldn't put it down. Bravo! This riveting story combines touching personal narratives with thoughtful observations that serve as a catalyst to some deep thinking about our current and future world. And it's all happening right now in my little, sleepy home town of Clarkston, GA, as it probably is in small towns all over America. For a look at Clarkston's new soccer team members, check out their site.