Titles about sports hold an irresistible appeal to readers, particularly reluctant ones; thrilling victories that come seemingly out of left field, soul-crushing defeats, and, most of all, unlikely heroes who rise up against everyone’s expectations to overcome the odds are all tropes that make for exhilarating reads. Tackling the subject of refugees from war-ravaged nations who find an outlet in playing soccer, Maria Padian’s Out of Nowhere (Knopf, 2013; Gr 9 Up) and Warren St. John’s Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Delacorte, 2012; Gr 7 Up) address these themes through both a fiction and nonfiction lens, and far more; they explore the devastating pasts and impoverished situations of these athletes, as well as the bigotry they encounter in their new homes. Students eager for a sports story will find themselves exposed to thought-provoking questions they may not have considered as they read about new and unfamiliar experiences.
Confident and self-assured, high school senior Tom Bouchard rarely questions his place in the world. The academically gifted narrator of Out of Nowhere is captain of the soccer team, dates the most beautiful girl in school, and comes from a family whose roots in Enniston, Maine go back generations. But Tom’s myopic views are forever shattered as Enniston becomes home to a small community of Somali refugees, resulting in a cultural clash between many of the townspeople and the new arrivals. The teenager becomes inadvertently involved when he befriends several Somali boys who join his soccer team. He is immersed even further when a punishment for an act of vandalism results in his fulfilling community service hours at a local center that provides services to the immigrants. Soon he becomes close to Saeed, a newcomer with a tenuous grasp on English but an unparalleled talent for the sport, and his protective sister Samira, who still views Tom with some wariness.
Though Tom is initially somewhat uninformed about the refugees’ experiences (the Somali boys’ Muslim traditions puzzle him, and his reaction to learning that Saeed was separated from his family for a year when they were relocated to the United States is to compare it to “an African nightmare version of Home Alone”), his informal, conversational voice make him a relatable protagonist. Readers with similarly limited perspectives will readily identify with the adolescent’s transformation as he slowly grows aware of the hostility that many in his town feel toward the refugee community.
Fast-paced descriptions of Tom and Saeed’s athletic prowess will easily draw in sports fans and Padian brings that same sense of urgency and energy to scenes that take place off the field, from tense, racially charged moments to Tom’s budding romance with a girl he meets at the center. The fervor that Saeed and the other refugees bring to the game despite their difficult circumstances—many of the teens share soccer cleats and few can afford warm jackets even during bitter Maine winters—forces Tom to reflect on his own relatively privileged existence (“We think we’re all playing the same game, but we’re not. Saeed and the guys? They try things we don’t try.”) However, this rich and nuanced title will spark plenty of discussion beyond soccer, and teens primarily attracted to the novel for the sports angle will come away with a greater understanding of issues such as racism and social justice.
“‘It broadened our minds, and we weren’t the only ones going through hard times. That’s why the team is so close. It became our family.’” Whereas Out of Nowhere examined the lives of refugees from an outsider’s perspective, the author of the nonfiction Outcasts United spoke with refugees, tracing the trajectories that brought them to the United States and allowing them to voice the ways in which their dedication to soccer helps them to cope with their daily struggles. Like the fictional Enniston, Clarkston, Georgia became a designated refugee center for immigrants from a variety of Arab and African nations in the 1980s and 90s. When Luma Mufleh, a determined young Jordanian woman, happened to watch a group of teenage refugees playing soccer, their passion and drive so impressed her that she gave up a comfortable position coaching the girls at her local YMCA to form a team that later came to be known as the Fugees (as in refugees).
For the Fugees, everything is an uphill battle. Unlike typical teen athletes whose goals include beating rival teams, these players must contend with obstacles such as traumatic memories and antagonism from locals who have responded to the burgeoning immigrant community with fear and resentment. Although the town bars them from the field they’ve been using, sending them to an out-of-the way location littered with broken glass, Luma continues to hold practices, arranges for her players to receive afterschool tutoring, and in many cases becomes intimately involved in their family lives. In spite of—or perhaps because of—these barriers, the Fugees become more than a sports team; in an unstable world, it represents community, family, and togetherness.
Suspenseful depictions of the games alternate with portrayals of the players’ challenging home lives (one boy, Alex, must watch over his brothers and infant sister after long hours of soccer practice while his mother works nights; another regularly falls asleep to the sound of gun shots from gang warfare in his neighborhood), imbuing the competitions with weight and meaning and heightening readers’ desire for the boys to succeed. Though the boys’ commitment to the team in spite of the hardships they’ve known is admirable, well-rounded characterizations that include their flaws in addition to their triumphs make them relatable: Luma kicks Mandela, one of her best players, off the team for his arrogance on the field, but a description of him continuing to display his team uniform on his bedroom wall reflects the boy’s regret, yearning, and loyalty and will resonate with readers. Brief explanations of the conflicts in the boys’ home countries that resulted in their fleeing to Clarkston, such as civil war in Burundi or the Nuba genocide in the Sudan, personalize potentially confusing or inaccessible topics for readers and may inspire them to seek out more information.
Despite its exploration of a difficult and painful topic, Outcasts United is ultimately infused with hope and optimism. This compelling narrative treats its subjects with respect and empathy, and even students with no interest in sports will find themselves caught up in these boys’ backgrounds and deeply invested in their futures.
Using either or both of these titles in a classroom is sure to spark discussion. Those seeking to introduce point-of-view may wish to ask students how Out of Nowhere would differ if characters such as Saeed and Samira had the opportunity to voice their opinions and views much like the members of the Fugees did in Outcasts United. A variety of questions might arise from such a conversation: how does a story change depending on who’s telling it? Is it possible to be truly objective, even when writing a nonfiction work such as Outcasts United? Students who have read both titles can address how their understanding of refugee life in the United States changed after reading each title. Both books also provide the opportunity to research the countries of origins of these refugees and other refugee communities in the United States, giving students a perspective on world events.
The activities suggested above reference the following CCSStandards:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3 Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text
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