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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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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."

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.

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