A new chapter has opened in the storybook of the life of 18-year-old Atak Yai.
Yai, pronounced "Yie," an incoming freshman and soccer player at UAB, is going to class, making new friends, hanging out at Blazer Hall and practicing with his new teammates, a fairly normal first week at university for a freshman athlete.
But in one of those interesting twists on the road of life, Yai shares experiences with other young men chronicled in this year's UAB freshman discussion book, Outcasts United, by Birmingham native and best-selling author Warren St. John.
Yai is not the average UAB freshman. He is from Sudan, one of many young men dubbed "The Lost Boys" in the national media. His mother died when he was 6. His country had been torn apart by civil war and genocide for decades, so later that year, in 1997, his father - who stayed behind - sent him and his brother Mabior, two years older, to Kenya to escape the violence, to get an education, to hope for a chance at a better life.
Yai, slightly built with close-cropped hair, speaks in rapid, African-accented English. A hint of a growing Southern lilt can be heard as he tells bits of his life story. He is quick to smile, but that smile just as quickly disappears when he casts his eyes down, away, then up again. He is serious, practical, focused — and very talented.
Kenya is where Yai learned to play soccer. He played with bare feet, with a ball made of paper, plastic bags, rope. He played soccer "24-7," he says. But without that, he would not be at UAB, on a full scholarship, with hopes to become a professional soccer player, a computer scientist or, maybe, a doctor. Soccer led him here, to his father's dream come true, an education, a chance at a better life - everything he wanted for his sons when he sent them from their ravaged country.
Thousands of young men from Sudan have been offered refuge in the United States.
In the 1990s, Clarkston, Ga., a town of just 7,200 near Atlanta, became a resettlement center for war zone refugees from various countries — Liberia, Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan. But by the time Atak and Mabior arrived in 2005, the town had been "turned upside down" by the process of refugee resettlement, according to St. John's book. The boys and young men often arrived with nothing but the clothes they wore, with no friends or family, and government assistance for just three months. They were outsiders. The people of the town were overwhelmed, angry, afraid for their changing town.
But there was soccer — a game that had been his life in Kenya, and turned out to be his life raft as he grew up in a strange new land.
Atak and his brother lived with a foster family and found a team made up of other young immigrant boys with a coach who was tough and tenacious, an outsider herself. Luma Mufleh fought for her team so they could have a place to play, so they would be treated with respect and so they would earn that respect by winning.
"She didn't like for us to lose," Yai says with a wry smile.
The experiences of those refugee boys, who named their team the Fugees, and their coach in Georgia was a pretty good story, and it was told in 2007 by St. John, a reporter for The New York Times. Really though, the story was good enough for a book.
After playing with the team for one year, Yai and his brother were chosen to move with a group of other lost boys to Jackson, Miss. As he left, his coach told him of plans for a book. He didn't think she was serious.
Jackson, hot and humid with lush green foliage and red dirt roads, reminded him of Africa, he told a newspaper reporter there. He didn't like it so much. He missed his foster mother in Atlanta. But in Mississippi his high school athleticism and academics garnered attention, and his hard work and dedication impressed those around him. Mabior was in college already at Belhaven University, on a soccer scholarship studying engineering. Yai received the offer from UAB, but others around him weren't in favor of his coming to Birmingham.
"There was a problem, I didn't think I was going to get to make it here, but I made it and I'm happy," Yai says. "It was a long process, because some, they didn't want me to come because they thought there was nobody here that was going to take care of me, look after me. And I would stay with my brother in Mississippi. And my brother, like, me and him have been forever. It is the first time for me and him to be separated."
The first application he threw away because of the others' thoughts. The second application, he signed.
"The harder thing is that my brother is left, I left my brother. Now it is just going to be me by myself. So I will no longer have a brother to look after me. That's the only thing I can say," he says. But a bright note is that his brother will come to see him play at his first home game.
And, even without his brother, Atak was met in Birmingham by a reminder of his team and his foster family in Atlanta, and his coach's words of a book materialized. Outcasts United, was, by chance, chosen for the summer reading. St. John himself came to UAB, and he and Atak were able to meet twice while he was on campus.
The thin young man, with a quick smile and even quicker feet, has been recognized on campus by other freshmen, who ask him if he is "the one from the book." He tells them yes. And while others are reading, he has put the book aside after reading the first three chapters. It's a true story, and he already knows how it ends.
Besides, with a new team and a new home, Atak is no longer an outcast.