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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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.