Refugee Lit

Outcasts United, by Warren St. John

Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate

These are two books I ordinarily would not choose to read–but I’m glad I was required to read them. Our community has a Common Read Program. Students at our local university along with educators in our area select a book for everyone to read and then programs are developed at the university level on down to the early grades to promote discussion of the book among students, families and other community members. Not only is the book discussed but also related topics. To top off the program, the author is invited to speak.

This year Outcasts United is the selected book and the author as well as Coach Luma Mufleh are scheduled to speak on separate occasions. Outcasts is the story of Coach Luma and her soccer teams of young refugees from all over the world–hence the team name “Fugees.” The book starts out with some of the stories of the team members’ families and how they came to Georgia. But what I found most interesting was the reaction of the community where they were sent. Some locals were outright hostile, forbidding the teams to use a little-utilized field for soccer practice. Others embraced the change, like the grocery store owner who struggled to keep his business alive until he took the advice of a recent immigrant employee and began to stock the food items the refugees sought. If anything, this is a story of change and adaptation–much like playing a game of soccer.

During the meetings which discussed the progress of the election committee, the comment was made that this was one book on the list that had “sparkle.” I think the term in the 90s was that something was “sexy.” This book isn’t “sexy,” but it does have “sparkle.” The writing is superb and Warren St. John’s description of the games is some of the best sports writing I’ve read. He takes a step back from all the action, not just the sports action, to maintain a journalistic non-bias–“fly on the wall” reporting, which took me even deeper into the story.

Because St. John’s writing might be a little tougher going for younger students, a second book was selected which also deals with the current refugee experience, Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate. (There’s also a picture book selected for the even younger students, which is not covered here.) Home takes place in Minnesota and is told by Kek, a young refugee.  Kek comes to live with his aunt and counsin after becoming separated from his mother and losing his father and brother in Africa. He arrives in the dead of winter and make friends with the only thing he finds familar–a cow.

Applegate writes in poem format. It’s a fast read. Nevertheless, I found it much more powerful than Outcasts. Again, it is a story of change and adaptation for both the refugees and those they encounter. I don’t know if there’s a superlative to “sparkle” like there is for “sexy” but compared to Outcasts, Home has it. Both of these are wonderful stories; but because of the first person, poetic format I found Home of the Brave the more compelling.

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