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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.