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June 23, 2008
Thanks to a remarkable woman, young war refugees from three continents have found a new home on a soccer team in Georgia
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June 23, 2008

Alive And Kicking

Thanks to a remarkable woman, young war refugees from three continents have found a new home on a soccer team in Georgia

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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.

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