Author asks students to open minds to diversity

Journalist Warren St. John lived among resettled refugees in Ga.

September 28, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Journalist Warren St. John is the author of "Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference."
Yvette May, Staff Photographer

From his five months of living in a community of resettled refugees in Clarkston, Ga., there is one conversation journalist Warren St. John says he will remember more than any other.

St. John, author of "Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference," said Tuesday during a presentation at South Hagerstown High School that one of the most eye-opening exchanges he had while writing the book was talking with Shamshoun Dikori, a youth from central Sudan, about his experience coming to the United States at age 15.

"He said that in his village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, if a stranger walked into town, everyone in the village would come out to meet that person, they'd bring a lot of food, and they'd have a lot of questions," St. John said. "They'd want to know where that person was from, what life was like there, how they ate, how they organized their society."


But when Dikori arrived in the United States with his thick accent and dark skin, no one asked him where he was from, what life was like in his thatched hut in the mountains of Sudan or how he had ended up in a small town in Georgia, St. John said.

"People just seemed, he said, mostly to be afraid of him," St. John said.

Addressing about 250 students from South Hagerstown and North Hagerstown high schools, St. John encouraged his audience to keep that lesson in mind when encountering people who are different from themselves.

"Try to think a little bit more in terms of those people from Sudan and from Shamshoun's village who are curious and open and eager to learn about other people and places and cultures and eager to be enriched by that experience, and a little bit less like the people that Shamshoun encountered when he first got here that seemed to look through him like he was invisible," St. John said.

St. John's book, a national bestseller published in 2009, is this year's selection for the One Maryland One Book program, an initiative by the Maryland Humanities Council to encourage Marylanders from across the state to read and discuss one common book. The Maryland Humanities Council worked with Washington County Public Schools and the Washington County Free Library to bring St. James to Hagerstown as one of six stops on a statewide tour.

The book is the true story of a soccer team made up of refugees in Clarkston, Ga., a town St. John said was a "classic, backwards, small, American town" until, in the 1990s, it became a center for the government-facilitated resettlement of refugees from the Balkans, southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

"I had this idea that we all know America's becoming more diverse by the day; immigration's making our communities and our society much more diverse," St. John said. "It seemed to me that because Clarkston had experienced so much diversity so quickly, it was a way of looking into our future."

On the web: Read about Outcasts United and the One Maryland One Book program at

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