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Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Townby Warren St. John
The name Luma means “dark lips,” though Hassan and Sawsan al-Mufleh chose it for their first child less because of the shade of her lips than because they liked the sound of the name–short, endearing, and cheerful–in the context of both Arabic and English. The al-Mufl ehs were a wealthy, Westernized family in Amman, Jordan, a teeming city of two million, set among nineteen hills and cooled by a swirl of dry desert breezes. The family made its fortune primarily from making rebar–the metal rods used to strengthen concrete–which it sold across Jordan. Hassan had attended a Quaker school in Lebanon, and then college in the United States at the State University of New York in Oswego–“the same college as Jerry Seinfeld,” he liked to tell people.
Luma’s mother, Sawsan, was emotional and direct, and there was never any doubt about her mood or feelings. Luma, though, took after her father, Hassan, a man who mixed unassailable toughness with a capacity to detach, a combination that seemed designed to keep his emotions hidden for fear of revealing weakness.
“My sister and my dad don’t like people going into them and knowing who they are,” said Inam al-Mufl eh, Luma’s younger sister byeleven years and now a researcher for the Jordanian army in Amman.
“Luma’s very sensitive but she never shows it. She doesn’t want anyone to know where her soft spot is.”
As a child, Luma was doted on by her family, sometimes to an extraordinary degree. At the age of three, Luma idly mentioned to her grandmother that she thought her grandparents’ new Mercedes 450 SL was “beautiful.” The next day, the grandparents’ driver showed up at Hassan and Sawsan al-Mufl eh’s home with a gift: a set of keys to the Mercedes, which, they were told, now belonged to their threeyear-old daughter.
Hassan too doted on his eldest child. He had high expectations for her, and imagined her growing up to fulfi ll the prescribed role of a woman in a prominent Jordanian family. He expected her to marry, to stay close to home, and to honor her family.
From the time Luma was just a young girl, adults around her began to note her quiet confi dence, which was so pronounced that her parents occasionally found themselves at a loss.
“When we would go to the PTA meetings,” Hassan recalled, “they’d ask me, ‘Why are you asking about Luma? She doesn’t need your help.’ ”
Sometimes, Luma’s parents found themselves striving to please their confi dent daughter, rather than the other way around. Hassan recalled that on a family vacation to Spain when Luma was ten or eleven years old, he had ordered a glass of sangria over dinner, in violation of the Muslim prohibition against drinking alcohol. When the drink arrived, Luma began to sob uncontrollably.
“She said, ‘I love my father too much–I don’t want him to go to hell,’ ” Hassan recalled. He asked the waitress to take the sangria away.
“I didn’t drink after that,” he said.
Luma encouraged–or perhaps demanded–that her younger sister, Inam, cultivate self-suffi ciency, often against Inam’s own instincts or wishes.
“She was a tough older sister–very tough love,” Inam said. “She would make me do things that I didn’t want to do. She never wanted me to take the easy way out. And she wouldn’t accept me crying.”
Inam said that she has a particularly vivid memory of her older sister’s tough love in action. The al-Mufl ehs had gathered with their cousins, as they often did on weekends, at the family farm in a rural area called Mahes, half an hour from Amman. Inam, who was just seven or eight at the time, said that Luma took her and a group of young cousins out to a dirt road to get some exercise. The kids set off jogging, with Luma trailing them in the family Range Rover. It was hot and dry and hilly, and one by one, the kids began to complain. But Luma wouldn’t have any of it. She insisted that they keep running.
“She was in the car, and we were running like crazy,” Inam recalled. “Everyone was crying. And if I would cry, she would just look at me.”
That withering look, which Luma would perfect over the years, had the stinging effect of a riding crop. Despite the pain, little Inam kept running.
Luma’s drill-sergeant routine at Mahes became a kind of family legend, recalled to rib Hassan and Sawsan’s firstborn for her tough exterior. The family knew another side of Luma–one that others rarely encountered–that of a sensitive, even sentimental young woman with a deep concern for those she perceived to be weak or defenseless. Luma laughed along with everyone else. She enjoyed a good joke and a well-earned teasing, even at her own expense. But jokes aside, Luma’s tough love had it’s intended effect.
“I wanted to prove to my sister that I could do anything,” she said. “I always remember that my sister pushed me and I found out I was able to do it.”
THE AL-MUFLEHS WERE intent on raising their children with their same cosmopolitan values. They sent Luma to the American Community School in Amman, a school for the children of American expatriates, mostly diplomats and businessmen, and elite Jordanians, including the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor. Luma learned to speak English without an accent–she now speaks like a midwesterner–and met kids from the United States and Europe, as well as the children of diplomats from all over the world.
Luma’s childhood was idyllic by most measures, and certainly by comparison to those of most in Jordan. She went to the best school in Amman and lived at a comfortable distance from the problems of that city, including poverty and the tensions brought on by the infl ux of Palestinian and later Iraqi refugees. But her maternal grandmother, Munawar, made a point of acknowledging and aiding the poor whenever she could. Beggars regularly knocked on her door because they knew that on principle she would always give them alms. And when relatives would tell her she was being taken advantage of because of her generosity, Munawar would brush them off.
“She would say we had an obligation because we were so privileged,” Luma recalled. “And she would say, ‘God judges them, not us.’ ”
Munawar’s home abutted a lot in Amman where young men played soccer in the afternoons. As a kid, Luma would climb a grapevine on the concrete wall behind the house and watch the men play. She eventuallygot the nerve to join in, and she would play until her grandmother saw her and ordered her inside on the grounds that it was improper for a young woman to be around strange men.
“She would have a fi t if she saw me playing soccer with men,” Luma said. “And then she’d say, ‘We are not going to tell your father about this.’ ”
At the American Community School, Luma was free from the strictures of a conservative Muslim society and at liberty to play sports as boys did. She played basketball, volleyball, soccer, and baseball with the same intensity, and stood out to her coaches, particularly an African American woman named Rhonda Brown.
“She was keen to learn,” Brown said. “And no matter what you asked her to do, she did it without questioning why.” Brown, the wife of an American diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Amman, coached volleyball. She had played volleyball in college at Miami University in Ohio and, when she found herself bored in the role of a diplomat’s wife, had volunteered to coach the women’s varsity volleyball team at the ACS. When she showed up to coach, Brown said, she was disappointed at what she found.
“These girls were lazy–incredibly lazy,” she said.
Luma was the notable exception. Though Brown didn’t know much about the Jordanian girl, she noticed her dedication right away and felt she was the kind of player a team could be built around. Coach Brown asked a lot of her players, and especially of Luma. She expected them to be on time to practice, to work hard, to focus, and to improve. She believed in running–lots of running–and drilling to the point of exhaustion. Brown challenged her players by setting an example herself. She was always on time. She was organized. When she asked her players to run fi ve kilometers, she joined them, but with a challenge: “Because you’re younger I expect you to do it better than me,” she told them. “If I beat you, you can expect the worst practices ever.”
“They ran,” Brown said.
Brown’s coaching philosophy was built on the belief that young people craved leadership and structure and at the same time were capable of taking on a tremendous amount of responsibility. She didn’t believe in coddling.
“My feeling is that kids have to have rules,” Brown explained. “They have to know what the boundaries are. And kids want to know what their limits are. It’s important for them to know that people have expectations of them.”
Brown was resigned to the fact that her players might not like her at fi rst. But she took a long view toward their development and their trust in her. She was willing to wait out the hostility until her players broke through.
“I’m stubborn,” Brown said. “I don’t give in a lot. You can come across as mean, and until they see what kind of person you are they might not like you.”
In fact, Luma didn’t like Brown at all. She felt singled out for extra work and didn’t appreciate all the extra running. But she kept her mouth shut and didn’t complain, partly, she said, out of a suspicion that she and her teammates would benefi t from the harsh treatment.
“I knew my teammates were lazy–talented but lazy,” Luma said.
“And part of me was like, Maybe I want the challenge. Maybe these very harsh, very tough practices will work.”
Over time, the practices began to have an effect. The team improved. They were motivated, and even the slackers on the team began working hard. Along the way, Luma started to pick up on a seeming contradiction. Though she told herself she disliked Coach Brown, she wanted desperately to play well for her. “For the majority of the time she coached me, I hated her,” Luma said. “But she had our respect. She didn’t ask us to do anything she wouldn’t do. Until then I’d always played for me. I’d never played for a coach.”
When Luma was in high school and still playing for Coach Brown the junior varsity girls’ soccer team at the American Community School found itself in need of a coach. Luma volunteered. She emulated Brown–putting the team through fi ve days a week of running drills and pushing the young women to work harder and to get better.
Luma loved it. She liked the way the daily problems of the world seemed to recede once she took the field, the subtle psychological strategies one had to employ to get the best out of each player, and most of all the sense of satisfaction that came from forging something new out of disparate elements: an entity with its distinct identity, not a collection of individuals, but a new being, a team. And she wasn’t afraid to admit she also liked being in charge.
But as she got older and accustomed to the liberty she had as a woman at ACS–where she could coach and play sports as she pleased–she began to feel at odds with the Jordanian society in which she had grown up. She wanted to be able to play pickup games of soccer with whoever was around, without regard to gender. She wanted the liberty to be as assertive in her daily life as Coach Brown had taught her to be on the court. Her family’s social status created additional pressure for her to follow a more traditional path. There were obligations, as well as the looming threat that she might be pressured into marrying someone she didn’t love.
“When you come from a family that’s prominent, there are expectations of you,” she said. “And I hated that. It’s a very patriarchal society, and as modern as it is, women are still second-class citizens. I didn’t want to be treated that way.”
Coach Brown picked up on Luma’s yearning. At a team sleepover, the players and coach went around the room predicting where everyone would be in ten years. Coach Brown joked that Luma would be “living illegally in the United States.” Everyone laughed, including Luma. But she disagreed.
“In ten years, I’ll be there legally,” she said.
“I knew from even our brief time together that she wanted something else for her life,” Brown recalled.
Toward the end of Luma’s junior year, she and her parents decided she would attend college in the United States. Hassan and Sawsan wanted their daughter to continue her Western education, a rite of sorts for well-to-do Jordanians. But Luma was more interested in life in the United States than she was in what an education there might do for her in Jordan. “America was the land of opportunity,” she said. “It was a very appealing dream of what you want your life to be like.” Within the family, Luma’s grandmother alone seemed to understand the implications of her going to college in the United States.
“If she moves to America,” Munawar told the family, “there’s a chance she won’t come back.”
Luma’s fi rst trip to the United States came when she enrolled at Hobart and William Smith College, a coed school in the Finger Lakes region of New York, not too far from where her father had gone to college. She played soccer her first fall there, but midway through the season injured a knee, sidelining her for the rest of the year. Luma liked the school well enough, but winter there was colder than anything she had experienced in Amman, and the campus was remote. She wondered if she had made the right choice in going so far from home. Luma decided to look at other schools, and soon visited Smith College, the women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The campus seemed to perfectly embody the setting Luma had envisioned for herself when she left Jordan for America. It was set in a picturesque New England town with a strong sense of community and security. And as a women’s college, Smith was focused on imbuing its students with the very sort of self-reliance and self-confidence Luma felt she had been deprived of at home. Luma fell in love with the place and transferred for her sophomore year.
At Smith, Luma had what she described as a kind of awakening. She was taken by the presence of so many self-confident, achieving women, and also by the social mobility she saw evident in the student body. Her housemate, for example, was the first in her family to go to college, and there she was at one of the preeminent private colleges in the United States. That would never happen in Jordan, Luma remembered thinking to herself at the time.
Luma’s friends at Smith remember her as outgoing and involved–in intramural soccer and in social events sponsored by the college’s house system. Few understood her background; she spoke English so well that other students she met assumed she was American.
“One day we were hanging out talking about our childhoods and she said, ‘I’m from Jordan,’ ” recalled Misty Wyman, a student from Maine who would become Luma’s best friend. “I thought she’d been born to American parents overseas. It had never occurred to me that she was Jordanian.”
On a trip home to Jordan after her junior year at Smith, Luma realized that she could never feel comfortable living there. Jordan, while a modern Middle Eastern state, was not an easy place for a woman used to Western freedoms. Professional opportunities for women were limited. Under Sharia law, which applied to domestic and inheritance matters, the testimony of two women carried the weight of that from a single man. A wife had to obtain permission from her husband simply to apply for a passport. And so-called honor killings were still viewed leniently in Sharia courts. As a member of a well-known family, Luma felt monitored and pressured to follow a prescribed path. A future in Jordan felt limited, lacking suspense, whereas the United States seemed alluringly full of both uncertainty and possibility.
Before she left to return to Smith for her senior year, Luma sought out friends one by one, and paid a visit to her grandmother. She didn’t tell them that she was saying goodbye exactly, but privately, Luma knew that to be the case.
“When I said goodbye I knew I was saying goodbye to some people I’d never see again,” she said. “I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to prove to my parents that I didn’t need their help.”
Luma did let on to some of her friends. Rhonda Brown recalled a softball game she and Luma played with a group of American diplomats and expatriates. When the game had finished, Brown went to pick up the leather softball glove she’d brought with her from the United States, but it was gone–stolen, apparently. Brown was furious. She’d had the glove for years, and it was all but impossible to get a softball glove in Jordan at the time. Luma had a glove that she too had had for years. She took it off her hand and gave it to her coach.
“She said, ‘You take this glove,’ ” Brown recalled. “ ‘I won’t need it. I don’t think I’m coming back.’ ”
Brown–who soon moved to Damascus, and later to Israel with her husband and family–lost touch over the years with her star player, but she kept Luma’s glove from one move to the next, as a memento of the mysteriously self-possessed young woman she had once coached. Fifteen years later, she still has it. “The webbing has rotted and come out,” Brown told me from Israel, where I tracked her down by phone. “That glove was very special to me.”
IN JUNE 1997, a few weeks after graduating from Smith, Luma gave her parents the news by telephone: She was staying in the United States–not for a little while, but forever. She had no intention of returning home to Jordan.
Hassan al-Mufleh was devastated.
“I felt as if the earth swallowed me,” he said.
Hassan’s devastation soon gave way to outrage. He believed he had given every opportunity to his daughter. He had sent her to the best schools and had encouraged her to go to college in the United States. He took her decision to make a home in the States as a slap in the face. Luma tried to explain that she felt it was important for her to see if she could support herself without the social and fi nancial safety net her parents provided at home. Hassan would have none of it. If Luma wanted to see how independent she could be, he told her, he was content to help her find out. He let her know that she would be disinherited absolutely if she didn’t return home. Luma didn’t budge. She didn’t feel that she could be herself there, and she was willing to endure a split with her family to live in a place where she could live the life she pleased. Hassan followed through on his word, by cutting Luma off completely–no more money, no more phone calls. He was finished with his daughter.
For Luma, the change in lifestyle was abrupt. In an instant, she was on her own. “I went from being able to walk into any restaurant and store in the United States and buy whatever I wanted to having nothing,” she said.
Luma’s friends remember that period well. They had watched her painful deliberations over when and how to give her parents the news that she wasn’t coming home. And now that she was cut off, they saw their once outgoing friend grow sullen and seem suddenly lost.
“It was very traumatic,” said Misty Wyman, Luma’s friend from Smith. “She was very stressed and sick a lot because of the stress.
“There was a mourning process,” Wyman added. “She was very close to her grandmother, and her grandmother was getting older. She was close to her sister and wasn’t sure that her parents would ever let her sister come to visit her here. And I kind of had the impression from Luma that she had been her father’s pet. Even though he was hard on her, he expected a lot from her. She was giving up a lot by not going home.”
So Luma made do. After graduation, she went to stay with her friend Misty in Highlands, North Carolina, a small resort town in the mountains where Misty had found work. Luma didn’t yet have a permit to work legally in the United States, so she found herself looking for the sorts of jobs available to illegal immigrants, eventually settling on a position washing dishes and cleaning toilets at a local restaurant called the Mountaineer. Luma enjoyed the relative calm and quiet of the mountains, but there were moments during her stint in Appalachia that only served to reinforce her sense of isolation. Concerned that her foreign-sounding name might draw unwelcome attention from locals, Luma’s colleagues at the Mountaineer gave her an innocuous nickname: Liz. The locals remained oblivious of “Liz’s” real background as a Jordanian Muslim, even as they got to know her. A handyman who was a regular at the Mountaineer even sent Liz flowers, and later, sought to impress her by showing off a prized family heirloom: a robe and hood once worn by his grandfather, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I was so shaken up,” Luma said.
After a summer in Highlands, Luma kicked around aimlessly, moving to Boston then back to North Carolina, with little sense of direction. Her news from home came mostly through her grandmother, who would pass along family gossip, and who encouraged Luma to be strong and patient with her parents. Someday, Munawar said, they would come to forgive her.
But for now, Luma was on her own. In 1999, she decided to move to Atlanta for no other reason than that she liked the weather– eternal-seeming springs and easy autumns, with mercifully short and mild winters–not unlike the weather in Amman. When Luma told her friends of her plan, they were uniformly against it, worried that a Muslim woman from Jordan wouldn’t fi t in down in Dixie.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Misty recalled.
Luma didn’t have much of a retort. She knew next to no one in Atlanta. She had little appreciation for how unusual a Muslim woman with the name Luma Hassan Mufl eh would seem to most southerners, and certainly no inkling of how much more complicated attitudes toward Muslims would become a couple of years into the future, after the attacks on September 11. Luma arrived in Atlanta with little mission or calling. She found a tiny apartment near Decatur, a picturesque and progressive suburb east of Atlanta anchored by an old granite courthouse with grand Corinthian columns. She knew nothing yet about Clarkston, the town just down the road that had been transformed by refugees, people not unlike herself, who had fled certain discontent in one world for uncertain lives in another. But like them, Luma was determined to survive and to make it on her own. Going home wasn’t an option.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2009 by Warren St. John
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