Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Refugees United

When I'm beginning a new book I usually don't talk about it. Those early months, as I'm figuring out what the story might be and getting to know the characters, is fragile as a bubble. Blow too hard, whisper too loudly, and it will burst.

Eventually, though, there are enough words on the page and the thing seems real, and I'll tell a few trusted souls about my new imaginary friends. This is good, because The Circle of Trust usually makes useful suggestions. Which, when I was writing Out of Nowhere, came in the form of this book: Outcasts United.

After hearing I was writing a novel about refugee kids in Maine playing high school soccer, a friend told me the college where she worked had just done an all-freshmen read which sounded remarkably similar. I picked up a copy of that book and was stunned: writer Warren St. John had written about the very kids I was interviewing in Lewiston, Maine! Except he'd met them and their families when they first arrived to the U.S. and landed in Clarkston, Georgia.

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference (non-fiction) is the story of a youth soccer team made up of diverse refugee kids. They are coached by an amazing young woman, herself a first-gen American, Luma Mufleh. All of these kids and their families were relocated by the U.S. and the United Nations to Clarkston, a typical sleepy southern town, after it was designated a refugee resettlement center. St. John's book is about the kids and their families, about Mufleh, and also about Clarkston and its residents. There are two versions of this book, one for adults, and another for students (cover featured here).

Lewiston, Maine, the setting for my book, is an example of "secondary migration." In other words, after an initial placement in an American city, refugee families often seek new homes in communities which are a better fit for them, might have better job opportunities, etc. Many of the kids I met in Lewiston had started out in Clarkston.

When Out of Nowhere came out I was thrilled to learn that my publisher (then Random House, but nowadays I think of it as Random Penguin) had created resource materials linking it with Outcasts, one of those Common Core non-fiction/fiction pairings. Regardless of what you think of the Common Core, RH did a terrific job creating discussion questions and resources for schools using both books: Resource Guide for Out of Nowhere and Outcasts United.

Warren St. John has written a book which goes far toward building bridges between communities. Particularly for students who like sports, this one might make a good summer read.

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