Southern Man vs. Fugees

At first glance you could file this next story with those comic tales Canadians like to share about how weird and out-of-whack America can get — like calling french fries “freedom fries” — but the more you read about this the more complicated it becomes. There are a bunch of kids on a soccer team called The Fugees who are struggling to be allowed to play their sport in Clarkston, Georgia because the tension over immigration and refugees is pouring out into the public parks of this town. The NY Times has a good long article about all this (be sure check out the multi-media section too):

Early last summer the mayor of this small town east of Atlanta issued a decree: no more soccer in the town park.

“There will be nothing but baseball and football down there as long as I am mayor,” Lee Swaney, a retired owner of a heating and air-conditioning business, told the local paper. “Those fields weren’t made for soccer.”

In Clarkston, soccer means something different than in most places. As many as half the residents are refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Placed by resettlement agencies in a once mostly white town, they receive 90 days of assistance from the government and then are left to fend for themselves. Soccer is their game.

But to many longtime residents, soccer is a sign of unwanted change, as unfamiliar and threatening as the hijabs worn by the Muslim women in town. It’s not football. It’s not baseball. The fields weren’t made for it. Mayor Swaney even has a name for the sort of folks who play the game: the soccer people.

Caught in the middle is a boys soccer program called the Fugees — short for refugees, though most opponents guess the name refers to the hip-hop band.

In 2002 I was at some kind of Film or TV industry conference here in Toronto, the name, purpose and why I was there I have long forgotten, but I remember one thing an American speaker said when asked how Canadian content could be successful in the U.S. (paraphrased via 4 year deteriorating memory): “Toronto should export what it’s doing here. You should tell stories about the stuff you might take for granted, but that a lot of other places can’t seem to pull off without conflict.” He was of course talking about this city’s multiculturalism.

Since then, when a story like this one comes up, I wonder if there is a way to do just that. And do it while not pretending there aren’t actual and real problems in Toronto, and without coming off as too earnest or overly-Pollyanna like our city’s motto: “Diversity – our – strength.” Though maybe being completely earnest is the way to go, and the motto’s fine. Either way, maybe people worried about how World Class Toronto is should stop fretting about failed World’s Fair bids and look at this stuff we do better than most places. How is it that an uptight, WASP fortress like Toronto was up to the 1950s, where the Jews weren’t even allowed to work at Eatons, could get over all that and become what it is today, so quickly and without such conflict?

(Thanks to Mita at New Jack Almanac — who wrote her own letter to the Clarkston mayor — for the heads up)

3 comments

  1. Well, you hit the nail on the head when you said that we shouldn’t be too earnest or polyanna about our initial reactions here in Toronto about a story like this.

    Frankly, I don’t think that Toronto has anything to teach this southern exurb about assimilation. I think we’re forgetting that in Canada most of the immigrants who come here do so voluntarily and then become landed immigrants based on a points system that evaluates professional criteria and, well, ability to assimilate (English proficiency, et. Al). The soccer team in this story consists mainly of children of political asylum seekers, who were faced with a life or death decision to leave their countries and therefore possess, on average, fewer marketable skills for their adopted country’s labour force than many of our would-be immigrants. Here in Canada, we can’t be too smug about a story like this when our own country is so highly selective in the kinds of immigrants it wants to accept.

  2. Asylum seekers are part of the immigrant mix in Canada, just as in the US. (In fact, Canada took in 35,768 refugees in 2005 while the US took about 54,000, so per capita we’re taking many more refugees.)

    Like Canada’s points system, the US work visa and green card systems are highly selective. But having lived in the US for five years, I found stark differences between the two countries. In the US, the immigration-related news headlines were about immigrants taking American jobs and the flood of illegal “aliens”; returning to Canada, I found the headlines here focused on “new Canadians” not having their foreign qualifications recognized and visa approval backlogs in the system.

    As for “diversity our strength”, I like it. Many places see diversity as a challenge or, at best, a necessity, so describing it as a strength captures part of what makes Toronto special.

  3. Judging by the buzz that “Little Mosque on the Prairie” received, I think it’s obviously in our best interest to export “diversity” without idealizing it (too much).

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