A bus came over a rise the other day and halted at a busy intersection. It was a funny sort of bus, splashed with happy colors and throbbing with noise. Inside were children of every human color, brown and black and white and yellow. Maybe it was you it pulled up alongside, but you were distracted, thinking of all you had to do that day, and didn't even notice it.
It's a shame you missed it, because those were the Fugees, a team that's much more than a team—a family cobbled from what was left after the latest decade of men tearing each other apart. A shame because you don't really learn everything you need to know in kindergarten, as some people claim. But you just might've learned it from that bus.
Qendrim is the runt midfielder from Kosovo. The one whose town and home went up in flames when the Serbs came 10 years ago, and whose father crossed mountains and forests to avoid the butchery and find his family in a United Nations refugee camp.
When the Fugees arrived at their first out-of-state summer camp in America, Qendrim was astounded to find that each boy was assigned his own room. By curfew that night all their mattresses had been dragged and jammed into just a few rooms, and the boys were sleeping shoulder to shoulder. "One in a room," said Qendrim, "is just too lonely."
June 22, 2008
Too bad your windows were up. The boys on the bus were singing their favorite song in the most astonishing assortment of accents. "Don't you want me, baby?" they crooned. "Don't you want me—ohhhhhh!" It's the title verse from an '80s song, one you've probably heard, not a question you were expected to answer. Or was it?
They're war refugees from 24 countries, every nightmare on earth. Most had spoken no English when they arrived in America. They'd been placed in classrooms according to their age rather than their reading level and left to wither. Most of their families had been shattered, their fathers killed, imprisoned or divorced because a single mother had a better chance to get a visa out of hell ... and God knows what marauding armies had done to some of those mothers. Several Fugees had fought as child soldiers in Liberia. One had seen his father gunned down by soldiers, another had seen his dad's fingers sliced off. One had watched rebels give his brother a gun and a choice: Kill yourself or your best friend. Then he'd watched his brother blow the friend away.
Resettlement agencies had covered their parents' rent and utilities during their first three months in America, along with providing some furniture, canned goods and food stamps. Then they'd been left, with no car or education or language skills, to support families of five or six while earning the minimum wage as maids or just a little more as laborers in a chicken factory.
It wasn't paradise for their children, either. Some were confined to their apartments, forbidden to go outside when their parents discovered that gang members and drug users sometimes made their new hometown—Clarkston, Ga., on the outskirts of Atlanta—nearly as unsettling as their old one.
Until a woman holding a soccer ball stepped out of a little yellow car.
Munda is the squirt from Sierra Leone. It's one of the poorest countries on earth, a place where armies descended upon villages, chopped off the leaders' heads and displayed them on stakes. But here, among the Fugees, one country and abomination blurred into the next, and at first the coach couldn't remember from which Munda hailed.
"I'm from South Africa," the 10-year-old boy declared. "Somalia," he told someone else. "Nigeria," he said when asked again. After all, Munda was a Fugee now, the tribe that was all tribes, and why did people have to cling to just one? Finally, when he admitted to the coach that he couldn't pronounce Sierra Leone, they settled on the word that sounded something like the one that stumbled from his mouth when he tried. It's a homeland that makes him smile each morning when he enters the kitchen. Cereal, he tells people now. He's Munda, from Cereal.
The driver of that bus you missed, the woman wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a Smith College cap tugged over her short hair, leading the sing-along?
I was working as a waitress
in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I'd find
a much better place
Either with or without you.
It's true, she was working as a waitress, in a Cheesecake Factory in Atlanta. Imagine doing that while fasting for Ramadan! You see, no one or nothing on the funny bus is what you'd have guessed. She looks like the shortstop on your office softball team, Kathy from Erie, Pa.—but no, she's Luma Mufleh from Amman, Jordan, a Muslim who grew up in a mansion as the daughter of a steel magnate named Hassan. She's the coach and founder of the Fugees, but she's a refugee too. A woman fleeing Cartier watches, Armani pantsuits, three maids, a chauffeur, a nanny and a butler.
Luma was looking for a home just as hard as every one of those lost boys on the spring day in 2004 when the Fugees, by accident, began. She was depressed, to be honest, and running out of ways to justify to her large and wealthy extended family why she hadn't gone home for eight years, not for births or deaths or marriages. Her latest venture—a café just outside Atlanta into which she'd poured so much money, heart and soul—had given her so little revenue or joy in return. She'd moved from western Massachusetts to Boston to North Carolina to Atlanta, been a waitress, a cook, a grocery stock clerk, an office worker for a charity and a freelance website designer, none of it justifying her expensive Smith College degree, her anthropology major or her father's big expectations of his gifted eldest daughter. Maybe a little comfort food, the kind that had nurtured her as a child in Amman, would help.
She followed directions she'd received to Talar's International Foods of the World in nearby Clarkston, made her purchases and headed back toward her apartment. But in her fog of sadness she missed a turn, blinked a moment later and found herself passing ... Al-Momineen mosque? ... a Buddhist temple? ... black men in robes? ... caramel-colored women in kaftans and burkas? ... people on foot instead of in cars? Luma had a funny feeling she wasn't in Georgia anymore.
She took a left into an apartment complex, The Lakes, to turn around, and noticed 10 children, all foreign-looking, playing soccer in the parking lot. Bare feet on asphalt, tattered ball bouncing off cars, two rocks for a goal, no adults in sight.
It was as if she were seeing exactly what her heart yearned for but her stubborn, lonely quest had forbidden her: home. All those days of playing pickup soccer with her siblings, cousins and neighbors back in Jordan, laughing and arguing over every shot that hissed near their two-rock goal. She watched those ragtag kids from her yellow Volkswagen Beetle for an hour, then departed with a pang. She returned at the same time a few days later with a lovely white ball, stepped out of her car and asked a bunch of kids, roughly a third her age, if she could play too.
They stared at her ball. That's what they really wanted. They conferred and turned to Luma. O.K. She was in.
She had a blast. She discovered that they were from Afghanistan and Sudan and were just a handful among several thousand war refugees who had been placed by relief agencies in Clarkston—a township that had been chosen because of its warm climate, its proximity to job opportunities in Atlanta and a glut of underpopulated apartment complexes. Luma returned two days later at the same time, the mob of excited playmates larger, and soon it became a habit, the proprietor fleeing her oppressive café without telling her workers where or why she went.
It occurred to her one day: Why not turn these refugee kids into a team ... and become their coach? She had just resigned after four years as coach of a girls' YMCA team, weary of players and parents so fixated on playing time, winning and scholarships that she barely recognized her childhood game.
She approached Roohullah, Zabiullah and Noorullah, the three Afghan brothers whom she'd gotten to know best. "A team?" said Noorullah. "So we're going to be professionals and play on TV?"
Uhhhh ... not exactly. And first she'd need their help rounding up enough kids. The three boys went to work, and Luma began trolling the neighborhood as well, posting flyers in English, Arabic, French and Vietnamese, pulling up to bewildered refugee boys in her yellow Beetle and asking if they wanted in.
Twenty-three kids showed up for that first practice, none in cleats or soccer garb. They began pinballing across the field in bare feet or socks, in flip-flops, sandals or old hiking boots, in blue jeans or tattered shorts; one flapped about in his boxers and a flannel shirt. They didn't know where to go, but they sure got there fast.
None had ever been coached. They'd learned the game on streets and in refugee camps. Luma didn't know whether to laugh or whoop or cover her eyes, but damn, the game was fun again.
It was strange, watching them. She'd become a chameleon, taking on the look, clothing and easy slang of an American; she had to convince people that she was a Muslim from Jordan. But those kids ... it was all right there on their skin and clothes, in their accents and mannerisms: the immigrant, the outsider, the otherness that she felt inside but kept hidden. She felt free around these kids.
She tried to get the attention of one carefree boy, his right foot bare and his left one clomping about in an oversized black sneaker, but she couldn't remember his name. "One Shoe," she heard his new teammates calling him, and when practice ended she watched him remove his sneaker, carefully wipe off the grime, return it to his backpack for the two-mile hike home and say, "See you tomorrow, Coach."
How could she cut anyone? Why not coach two teams, she decided, an under-10 and an under-12 in a local soccer league, enter a few weekend travel tournaments if she could scrape together enough money and move the two teams up to the next age brackets the following year if the idea worked.
She began harnessing the chaos. "She's a girl! She doesn't know what she's talking about," sneered a 12-year-old from Sudan. At once Luma gathered her team—boys from countries where a woman wouldn't dream of telling a man what to do—placed the Sudanese boy in front of the goal and lined up a penalty kick.
On all her youth and school teams (soccer, basketball, volleyball, softball and tennis) she'd been the best and fiercest player. She'd scored a hat trick to lead her jayvee girls' soccer team to a 3--1 victory over the varsity boys, who—when they'd finished digesting their pride—presented to her a jersey with the words THE MAN across the back. "You're not going to wear that, are you?" her father had cried.
"Sure I am," she said, and did.
She took one step toward the ball, her right leg exploding like a karate chop—she'd taken that in high school too—and sent a BB past the Sudanese boy and into the goal. "Anyone else?" asked Luma. Nope. Nobody else.
She stunned the kids again a few days later when they heard her speak in Arabic and French. She asked them to divide into groups of four for drills. When they split up by nationality or tribes, she shook her head no and reshuffled them. The East and West Africans sniped at one another. The northern Sudanese begrudged the southern. She made them run laps at the first whiff of old animosities. She outlawed all languages except English to smash any cliques.
But she wanted them to remember who they were. Maybe the name of the hot hip-hop band was floating around in the back of her head, but she never made that connection. Why not, she suggested, snip the re from refugees and call themselves the Fugees? Not the Fugees team. The Fugees Family. They liked that. She bought packs of white T-shirts from a roadside booth and etched their names and numbers in black marker. Now they had uniforms. When the kids heard a song on her radio a few weeks later, and the deejay credited the Fugees, they were outraged—that band had stolen their name!
She pulled up to the field at the Clarkston Community Center one day, a few weeks after practices had begun, and looked around. Where was her team? Finally she saw a half-dozen players cowering behind a dumpster and a building. "What's going on?" Luma asked.
"There's been a fight!" they said. "A bunch of kids jumped on Rooh! There was blood everywhere! He and his brothers ran home!"
Rooh, the fifth-grade Afghan Muslim who'd helped her form the team, was her leader. Suddenly Luma had a decision to make. Call off practice, hope Rooh was O.K. and try again tomorrow? Or go find him? She jumped into her car and headed to his apartment complex, no idea which apartment was his. An Afghan boy led her to Rooh's. It was all happening so fast, she barely had time to consider the consequences of walking through that door.
Rooh, crying and bleeding, had locked himself in his bedroom. His father, who'd been captured by the Taliban years ago and escaped, had long since vanished so he wouldn't be snatched again. Rooh's older brother, having fled the Taliban too, was somewhere in Pakistan. His mother, Sheila, was in her bedroom, scrambling for a head scarf in case the visitor coming through their door was a male. Rooh's younger brothers, Zabi and Noor, were jabbering at the same time, trying to tell Luma what had happened. Some African-American kids had jumped Rooh, they said, beat him and slammed his skull against the asphalt.
"It is O.K.," the children called to their mother. She wouldn't need to cover her head; their guest was a woman, the one they'd told her about, their feisty new coach. The mother emerged from her room, saw the visitor from behind—short hair, soccer shoes, shorts—and blanched. "You said your coach was a woman!" she barked at her children. "You said she was a Muslim!"
The children fell to the floor laughing. Luma turned to face her. O.K ... she was a woman. Sheila stabbed an accusing finger at Luma's bare legs. "No Muslim you!" she cried.
Luma thought fast. "'Ashhadu 'an la 'ilaha 'illa-Allah, wa 'ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasulu-Allah!" she rattled off. It was the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief, which translates, "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger."
Sheila blinked in surprise, eyes still glued to Luma's legs. Rooh emerged from his room. Luma cleaned his wounds. "I will take him and you to the emergency room," she told his mother. "I want to make sure his head injury is not serious."
Sheila looked at Luma. Ever since the Taliban had shorn her of her husband and eldest son, stampeding her and the rest of her family to Pakistan and then to America, she had been a camel, kneeling to take on one burden after another. "No," said Sheila. "You take him."
For a moment Luma absorbed the woman's reply. Then she led Rooh to her yellow Beetle and headed down the long, slippery slope.
Grace is the midfielder from Congo with the shaved head and the brilliant smile. When civil war began annihilating nearly four million of his people a decade ago, he fled with his mother and siblings on foot, confronting hunger so sharp that his mom had to sell her clothes to feed him, and passing mothers who hurled their babies into the river to save them from a fate even worse.
Now he and the Fugees were spending spring break at Camp Twin Lakes in rural Georgia, listening to a camp counselor explain the rules for an American game called egg toss. The children were going to use an egg ... for a ball? Grace shrugged, paired off with a partner and began tossing the egg, each taking one step away from the other with each successful catch, until ... splat! Grace looked down as the yolk began to ooze through his fingers. His hands flew to his mouth, and he ate the egg.
How could Luma explain to all her bewildered relatives why she'd never returned home after college? Explain that wealth and status and a big family's embrace—all the things that her raggedy Fugees yearned for—could feel like jail? That roles were prisons too?
She had tried to bust out as a kid. She'd walked the streets of Aqaba, a Red Sea resort in Jordan, wearing shorts and the same breezy smile as her American friends from her international high school in Amman, the children of diplomats. She'd spun and cursed the Arab who'd grabbed her rear end, and then—when he'd justified the grab by hissing, "You shouldn't be dressing like American whores"—she'd punched him.
She'd tried to smuggle free speech from the dinner table of her American friends into her own house, loving how the Yanks argued over Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush. But all she'd get, when she introduced Jordanian politics at home, was a sudden hush.
She'd tried to breach the wall between rich and poor. She'd dropped off food at Palestinian refugee camps, gathered supplies for escapees who'd flooded Jordan after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and confronted her father when she discovered that her allowance was more than the salaries of their maids, cook and chauffeur. She'd begun slipping the servants part of her monthly stipend and toys for their children, but she couldn't mingle or play with their kids, couldn't go anywhere that an educated, well-to-do young lady wasn't supposed to go without an army of aunts and uncles and cousins wagging their tongues.
Another wall went up after college. Luma's parents stopped speaking to her when they realized she wasn't coming home. Her financial support disappeared. Holidays became hell: If someone answered when she called ... click. Now she had to make it in America, to prove her stubborn father wrong.
Which only turned the screws tighter as her careers floundered and she found herself, at 29, eating dinner on the floor with a poor Afghan family in Clarkston. Yes, she'd collapsed the wall between herself and poverty at last, but all the trouble and complexities behind that wall were crawling into her lap, demanding choices from her, decisions that could turn her into something so much more than a coach ... yet so much less than the doctor or lawyer or tycoon her father expected.
Could she stand back and watch Rooh, struggling with English, fall perilously behind in school? No. She became his tutor. Could she tutor him without tutoring his brother Noor, or all the other failing Fugees? No. She paid someone else to do her laundry, put her personal life on ice and scurried each evening from one apartment to the next.
"Coach!" the mothers called to her when she'd finished helping their children with homework. The women had no clue how to fill out forms for food stamps or green cards, how to compel the landlord to fix the oven or stop the mildew spreading across their walls. She became their advocate.
None of the players, back in their homelands, had had the luxury of worrying about grammar or manners, about deodorant or toothpaste. But without those things here, she knew, they'd be taunted or shunned. She became their grammar cop, their Miss Manners, their hygienist.
They didn't have soccer moms. The Fugees showed up late for practice because they had no rides, woke up late for school because their parents worked night shifts, or came home to empty apartments because it took their mothers an hour and a half to travel 17 miles from work by train and bus. She became their chauffeur.
How many Fugees can fit in a yellow VW Beetle? Don't ask. She was about to drop off the last urchin one day after practice when he told her that his belly hurt from hunger. Fix a sandwich when you get home, she suggested. He shook his head. "This is the time of the month when our food runs out," he said. She began taking boys to Taco Bell—two tacos and a cup of ice water for $1.98—and to the store for a week's supply of groceries. She became their food bank.
She tried to help their mothers figure out a budget so they'd make it to the end of the month, but no math could stretch $5.75 an hour that far. She closed her café, started a company named Fresh Start and offered the mothers 10 bucks an hour to clean homes and offices. She became their employer.
She was exhausted. Mothers had begun calling her Sister and asking, "If anything happens to me, will you raise my children?" She knew she was getting in way too deep, but then ... what she carved out of America had to be as deep and wide and rich as the life and family she'd given up in Jordan.
She awoke one morning to 13 missed calls on her cellphone from Grace's mother, Paula. Paula's aunt, Mama Louise, had gone into labor and Coach was needed at the hospital on the double! No, not needed in the waiting room, but in the delivery room, clutching Mama Louise's hand and coaching her as if she too were a Fugee. Coach had never seen a birth, let alone coached one, but now she found herself sweating and barking, "Poussez! Poussez!" and chorusing a Catholic prayer with a 43-year-old Congolese woman who was hanging onto her hand for dear life. And now, ohmygod, the baby was coming out! And now—what was that?—the afterbirth?! The doctor and nurses saw the expression on Luma's face and howled. First one? they asked. Yep, she gulped. And now Mama Louise was telling Luma to cut the umbilical cord, and she was wincing and snipping. She grabbed her cellphone as she reeled out of the delivery room and began speed-dialing friends. "I just gave birth!" she blurted. Huh? How? What? To a baby girl, she spluttered. A baby girl named Aganze Luma Chishibanji.
The Fugees had never stayed in a hotel before. Even players whose mothers worked as chambermaids didn't quite understand the concept. Their coach braced as if for a tsunami as they raced with their plastic Kroger grocery bags stuffed with clothes and piled in, four to a room, on the eve of their first weekend road tournament.
A hotel, she explained to them, is a place where a traveler stays for a night or two, then moves on and some other traveler takes his place. But someone has to come in and clean the room so the next traveler has a nice place to sleep. Someone just like your moms.
Now they understood what staying in a hotel meant. It meant that the next two mornings, every one of their rooms was spotless, every towel folded and returned to its rack, every bed made without a wrinkle ... because it might make life just a little easier for some exhausted immigrant women just like their mothers.
Oh, what joy the first time the Fugees won! They hugged, they hollered, they spread their arms like wings and swooped across the field, then swooned onto their backs.
They slept with their tournament medals and nailed them to their living-room walls so every guest could see them. It dawned on Luma: This meant more to them than she ever could've imagined. It dawned on Luma what that meant: She could demand from them even more.
The steel that her father manufactured hadn't all been trucked and sold across Jordan. One thick rod had gone into his eldest daughter. The former U.S. Marines who coached her youth teams in Jordan had tested it and found it formidable, then a blowtorch of a high school volleyball coach, an American named Rhonda Brown, had made it harder still. Even as a teenager Luma had begun channeling those coaches, ordering her eight-year-old sister and a half-dozen cousins out of the family Range Rover on a country road, demanding that they run to keep up with the SUV and reducing them to tears.
It shocked the Fugees, how the lady who wrapped an arm around them and listened to their woes, who understood just how it felt to start over in a faraway land, could stride onto the practice field and transform. If they tried to beg off running laps, claim their stomachs hurt, she'd bark, "Just fart!" If they tried to cut corners while doing sit-ups and push-ups, she'd explode. "If you're going to clown in practice, don't come! Go home! We don't want the quitters coming! Do you want to test me today? You'll run the hill for the rest of practice!"
Dead silent were the Fugees each time she summoned them to kneel around her on the field. Was Coach angry? They could never quite be sure; her unpredictability became her sword. Two Thursdays each month, she held a confessional. "Does anyone have something he'd like to tell us?" she'd ask. They knew she'd forged relationships with their parents, principals and teachers. They had to assume she knew everything, to fear the double whammy if they stonewalled, and so they coughed up new indiscretions left and right.
After all, they'd signed the Fugee contract: No smoking, drugs or alcohol—or no more Fugees. Miss a practice, miss a game. Miss two, goodbye! All progress reports and report cards went straight to Coach; C average minimum, or see ya! Five-absence limit per semester. Tutoring mandatory. No hair longer than Coach's. Curse and it's curtains.
I'll tell Coach. That's all their mothers need murmur to turn them to mush. They'd come to Luma from long, frustrating days at school, exhaust themselves in her grueling 1 1/2-hour workouts, then pull their books from their backpacks for another hour and a half of tutoring, sometimes by flashlight on benches beside the field. Let all those relief-agency workers roll their eyes and tell her she was nuts to take on teenage refugee boys. Let others ache for them and give them excuses to fail. Not Luma. She'd show the depth of her respect for them by plumbing the depths of their resilience and character. She'd cut them no slack for the tragedy on their résumés, because she knew the world would not.
But she leavened all that misery with mirth. She planted rubber spiders on their food and tittered when they screeched. She made her ears wiggle. She turned them into ghouls and vampires and ferried them to wealthy neighborhoods to trick-or-treat. She'd cheer them on as a Fugee from Liberia named Josiah led them in a hilarious butt-rollicking dance routine to It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Except for those 1 1/2 hours on the practice field, Luma loved nothing more than to cram into one room with the kids on road trips as they yanked down the blinds and cranked up the heat, burrowing in their warm, safe Fugee cocoon. They didn't talk about their pain or pasts in that cocoon. It was the place where a Fugee could forget that he looked and talked and felt different, because everyone around him did as well.
They had no cheering section—their overwhelmed single parents had no time for children's games—so here, in the cocoon, they became their own audience, replaying every moment of each game, celebrating and mocking each other's every move. Josiah did the wickedest Luma impersonation, flinging a ball cap to the floor in disgust and screaming, "Spread out, Fugees! You clump like bubble bees! You play like craps!" They'd roll across each other laughing, and she'd marvel at the wonder of the world, at how an unmarried woman could find a family 6,500 miles from home in the unlikeliest ethnic stew, how a Jordanian could become the gateway to America for a jumble of Asian, Eastern European and African kids.
Go back to Africa! Luma cringed when one team's parents shouted those words as the swiftly improving Fugees dismantled their sons. Some spectators mocked the Fugees' accents or snickered at names, such as Mohammadullah's. So painful grew the slurs in another game that a 12-year-old Liberian player asked Luma if he could play with her Walkman earphones to blot them out. "How does it feel to coach a team of n------?" an opposing player asked Luma.
Luma's unprintable reply broke her own team rule: Smile at the slurs and walk away. One Fugee smiled so hard that an opposing coach snapped, "What are you looking at, boy? Turn your head, n-----," and got the heave-ho from the ref.
Some Clarkston residents, not unlike those of any other town, recoiled from all the strangers. A town that was 90% white in 1980 had found itself, by 2007, with the highest concentration of African and European immigrants and the second-highest concentration of Asians among all towns in Georgia, with foreigners comprising roughly a third of its 7,000 residents.
Luma wondered why her team had to practice on a barren field behind an elementary school, electric wires dangling from poles, more broken glass and trash than grass poking from the dust. Adults quaffed beer and smoked weed in the surrounding woods. Young men strolled onto the field in mid-practice. Tensions had begun to boil between refugee families and African-Americans, some of whom called the immigrants "African booty scratchers." One gang, in packs of 20 and wielding bats, materialized at refugee-dominated apartment complexes, watched foreigners scatter, then plundered bicycles and TVs.
Firecrackers exploded one day near the practice field. A few Fugees had flashbacks and dove to the ground, panicking Luma and the rest of the team into following them. "What are we doing?" she asked when she finally lifted her head.
"They're coming to get us!" cried one boy. No, she convinced them, that's crazy. Or was it? Tito, a Liberian teenager who'd just joined the Fugees, was approaching that sorry field one day last year when a bullet ripped through his chin.
Luma rarely cried. She walked away when emotions were about to strangle her, lapsed into moody silence for a few days or laced on boxing gloves and tore into the heavy bag at a gym. Then went right back to battle. She got permission from the town to practice on Armistead Field, adjacent to the municipal park, on a probationary basis rather than risk another day on that minefield. She scrounged up money for the players to be tutored in two classrooms at Atlanta Area School For the Deaf. She cleared out of her apartment five miles away and moved to Clarkston. Her home became Fugee Central, the team's hangout and sleepover pad on Friday nights. She drove the streets on weekday mornings scanning for Fugees late for school or wearing sagging pants. She moved Josiah and Prince, two Liberian teenagers whose single mothers were often away working, into her home for much of the year.
The doors of the school where she tutored her team burst open one evening just as homework was about to begin, and two Fugees raced in with four gang members on their heels. Luma felt her legs rush toward the gangbangers, heard her voice croak, "You need to leave now!" and saw her hand on the chest of a glowering young man nearly a foot taller than she.
"Do you know what we could do to you?" he asked.
Luma trembled as he turned and walked away.
The Fugees had never been to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Their eyes grew wide as they approached their first buffet line, but not as wide as their coach's when she saw their plates: spaghetti piled atop fried chicken piled atop soft-serve ice cream piled atop grapes. "What are you doing?" she cried.
"But, Coach, we're hungry!"
It dawned on her that she'd failed to mention one critical fact. "You don't have to fit it all on one plate!" she said. "You can go back for more."
The boys looked at each other—God bless America!—and broke into cheers. They staggered onto the bus an hour later, and eventually they had another favorite sing-along. To the tune of the soccer anthem Olé! Olé! Olé! the Fugees sang, "Buffet! Buffet! Buffet!"
The last child in the yellow Volkswagen Beetle: that was the one who began to unnerve Luma. The final one to be dropped off after a practice or a weekend outing, when it was just she and he riding in the dark, and they couldn't look at each other. That was when the trauma found its way up from the cellar.
One night it was a boy from Sierra Leone. When he confided to her that sometimes his dad would grow angry and hit him, Luma replied, "My dad did the same sometimes when I was little."
The boy was quiet for a few seconds. Then, thinking he and his coach had found common ground, he said, "Oh. Did you see your dad's fingers get cut off?"
Luma gulped. "No," she said. "How?"
Luma, for once, could think of nothing to say. She still can't.
Another night, at the end of her first year as Fugees coach, the last boy in her car was Jeremiah from Liberia. She was going away, she'd told the boys that day, to visit friends in Massachusetts, just for four days. But life had taught Jeremiah otherwise. Rebels had charged into his home during Liberia's civil war, when he was a toddler. The soldiers believed that his father, who held a modest job in the government's payroll office, had access to big money. When they discovered that he had none, they slaughtered him in the living room.
Jeremiah's eyes filled with tears just before he got out of Luma's car. "What's going to happen to the Fugees Family?" asked the nine-year-old boy.
"What do you mean?" asked Luma.
"You're leaving and never coming back, and we won't have soccer anymore."
"But I'll be back in a few days."
"But what if something happens ... and you don't come back?"
Luma thought fast. "You know I never leave anywhere without my watch. Why don't you keep it for me until I come back?"
The boy stared at it after she left, realizing that it wasn't digital and he didn't know how to read it. Yes! How could she get angry at him if he called her each day she was away with a perfectly good question. "Coach!" he yelped each time she answered. "What time is it now?"
One night two years ago—two years after Luma had founded the Fugees—she got a call from a friend. "Turn on the news," she was told. She did, just in time to see an apartment complex where three of her players lived going up in flames. She raced there, jumped out of her car and blew past the police barricade, crying, "My kids are in there!"
She arrived to see firemen pulling out the dead bodies of the two younger sisters and brother of Christian, the fastest kid she'd ever seen, as six other Fugees watched in horror. Christian's mother, who had fled Liberia with her children, was sobbing, and a neighbor woman was screaming at 14-year-old Christian, demanding to know why he hadn't run back in and saved his siblings. Christian fled into the night, and Luma followed, driving up and down the streets of Clarkston in search of him.
Three days passed without a sign of him. Luma started a fund-raising drive for his family and raised nearly $5,000. On the fourth day, she glanced over as the Fugees ran laps and saw Christian, shaggy and forlorn, hanging onto the fence. "I really want to play," he said.
"It's the same rules, no exceptions." She'd had to expel him from the team just before the fire for uttering obscenities.
She dug a spare pair of cleats out of her car and reinstated him. He was a model Fugee for the rest of that season, except during laps, when he'd slow to a walk after just a few, wincing in pain. "My heart hurts," he'd tell Luma, and she'd walk the rest of the laps with him, knowing it was the truest excuse that a Fugee had ever given her.
But then the season ended, summer came, and Luma—who spent half her waking hours trying to raise funds to keep her team afloat—couldn't afford to place the boys in summer camps or programs to keep them off the streets. Christian slipped through the cracks and never returned.
Luma tore at herself. Maybe if she'd worded something a little better on her website, fugeesfamily.org, or had made just one more appeal to one more group, she could've raised the money that would've kept him on the right path.
Sure, helping hands had emerged—wonderful volunteers such as Kevin and Susan Gordon who provided rides and supervision to the kids, and opposing teams that donated balls, cleats and jerseys—and she was grateful. But each day brought a new family crisis, and it was becoming too much for one woman to coach, tutor, mother, raise funds and remember that many birthdays.
Tracy saved her. Tracy Ediger, a woman who volunteered for Jubilee Partners, a Christian organization in Georgia that helped refugees get on their feet. "I can't do this on my own," Luma confided to her in 2006. Tracy joined the battle, and now the passionate visionary had the cool, rational, detail-doting partner that she needed.
Then Luma hit the lottery. A New York Times writer named Warren St. John, searching for a meaty refugee story, sent out a query to a relief-agency worker in the Atlanta area. Luma and the Fugees, he was told, were prime rib. The story appeared on the front page. A woman visited the Fugees after reading the article and asked what they needed. "A bus!" blurted a Fugee, and damned if the woman didn't write a $50,000 check to buy one. The Atlanta Falcons chipped in money, Nike sent cash, uniforms and gear. "Look, Coach!" crowed Qendrim. "We went from Kroger bags to Nike bags!"
But no matter how much came in, it wasn't enough to keep up with Luma's dreams. In this, her fourth year, she expanded to five teams, including a girls' under-14 squad—nearly 100 players in all. She hired a full-time teacher, rented a classroom from a private school and initiated a full-day Fugees Academy so that six struggling boys could catch up on their reading, writing and math. She watched their reading levels leap by two, three, four grades in just months and laid plans to expand the academy by one teacher and one class of six boys each year.
She turned reading books into a horse race, each book moving a Fugee one block forward on a chart, and grinned to see boys who'd been virtually illiterate a year or two earlier talking smack over who'd finish first and, as a prize, go with Coach on a mysterious summer road trip. She turned them into coaches, had them teach soccer to little kids in a weekly clinic at an elementary school, and into referees so they could officiate youth games. She had Tracy and three full-time Vista volunteers sizzling the phones to place the players in summer literacy and science camps. But her fondest pipe dream remained Fugeeville, a place in the woods with a big field, a building for classrooms, a computer lab and cabins that 60 or 70 refugee families could move into, to heal their wounds and start anew.
Big dreams had a scent, and her kids began to sniff them. At a summer camp last year, when the Fugees were cut loose in a computer lab and asked to create a story, 14-year-old Al-Haji of Sierra Leone produced a video about the fragmentation of his homeland and concluded it with his dream. "I want to unite Africa," he declared. "If Coach Luma can do it with the Fugees, I can do it with Africa."
The Fugees had never been to college before. They gaped at the manicured lawns and ivy-covered walls when their coach's alma mater, Smith, in Northampton, Mass., invited them last summer for a week. "It's like Harry Potter," sighed Muamer, a 15-year-old Bosnian.
"Why," asked Qendrim, from Kosovo, "would you ever leave this place?"
"Sometimes," said their coach, "you have to leave places you love and find other places you love," and they all knew that to be true.
They vowed to return to this magical place to attend college one day ... and were crushed to learn that Smith admitted only women. Moma, a 13-year-old from Liberia, refused to surrender his dream.
"I'm coming here," he insisted. "They'll let me in, Coach. I'm gonna break the record!"
"It's not a record, Moma. It's a school policy."
"I don't care, Coach. I'm gonna break the record!"
A 56-year-old Arab stepped off an airplane in Atlanta one day three summers ago. He'd never told his daughter this, but Hassan felt as if he'd aged 10 years for each of the nine since Luma had left home. He watched, impressed, as she coached all those refugee boys and taught them the correct way to speak and write and carry themselves. But still he was confused, thinking this was just some sort of hobby, and he couldn't understand the stress he read on her face. "Why are you doing this?" he asked her. "For your career?"
"Don't tell me what to do with my life!" flared Luma. It felt as if nothing had changed.
She took him to Grace's apartment to eat dinner with the Congolese family. All his life Hassan had given alms to the poor, but from a distance. The four-year-old crawled all over him. The children called him Baba, Arabic for father. He watched their mother, Paula, serve fried fish, warning her children with a glare that no one was to eat a bite of it until Hassan and Luma had eaten all that they could, and then slap the hand of a child who reached for it. He watched them suck the bones when their turn came.
His eyes welled as he left the apartment. They had nothing, and they'd given him all. He turned to his daughter and hugged her. "I don't know how you do this," he said. "I can't do it. I'm really proud of you."
Luma didn't say a word. She couldn't. Maybe, she realized, each of them had underestimated the other.
When Hassan returned the following year, his daughter introduced him to Baby Luma, as Mama Louise's little girl had come to be known, the toddler she loved to bring to her home and dance with to Livin' La Vida Loca. "This is the African Luma," she told her father.
He smiled. "I don't know how many Lumas there are going to be before you are through," he said.
Back in Jordan his walls and computer screen filled with pictures of Luma and the Fugees. "I was expecting much more from her," said Hassan, "and she turned out to be much more than I expected. How many Jordanians have been on the front page of The New York Times? Hussein, our old king. Abdullah, our new one. And Luma.
"What she's doing compensates for what I've lost. Not totally ... but it's the way God wants. He willed that I not see my daughter, but that she would change the lives of many children. Who knows? Maybe one day one of my grandchildren will be president of the United States."
He's in! One of my kids got in!" Huh? Who? What? It was Luma, speed-dialing her bewildered friends again last year. Shamsoun—a Sudanese boy who'd seen legs and arms severed when government planes bombed his village, who'd seen his father run for his life each time troops swarmed their mountain, who'd escaped to America only to lose his mother and two siblings in a car wreck en route to a Sudanese reunion in Tennessee—had just gotten a scholarship to play soccer at Pfeiffer University, outside Charlotte: Luma's first Fugee in a four-year college.
She'd gotten America wrong when she imagined it as a kid back in Jordan. It wasn't like the shiny steel rods that came out of her father's mill. It was like the piles of iron ore that went in, malleable enough so that if you really wanted to, if you had the heat, you could take a scoop of it and begin shaping it into what you wanted it to be. "It's not Utopia like it seemed in the movies and TV shows I'd seen growing up," she says. "But it's the only place in the world where this could happen. So many people here have stepped forward to help. I couldn't do this in any other country."
She put on her ball cap. She climbed back into the driver's seat on that bus. You know, the one you missed the other day. That's O.K., because it'll come by again. It's America, that bus, just as colorful and loud and mixed up, always pulling away and coming back, giving us another chance to really see it ... and jump on.