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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    In "One Goal," author Amy Bass details a feel-good refugee story in small-town Maine

    A Maine high school soccer team united a whole town

    As a bumper sticker or the sort of exultation trotted out by a sports broadcaster trying to manufacture drama, "Soccer is life!" isn't particularly clever or even memorable.

    On the other hand, what if "Soccer is life!," as expressed by a high school athlete at a transcendent moment extending far beyond the green-grass parameters of an athletic field, is instead a metaphor for gratitude, acceptance, affirmation and joy in a fashion that unified an entire conflicted community?

    That's the context in "One Goal," the passionate, wonderfully reported and riveting new book by Amy Bass, who appears Sunday at the Savoy Bookshop & Cafe in Westerly. "One Goal" is about the high school soccer program in Lewiston, Maine — a predominately white mill town of about 36,000 with a crumbling economy. Starting in 2001 and over several years, almost 7,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, relocated to Lewiston. The per capita demographics were unprecedented in U.S. history — and, not surprisingly, an electric atmosphere of racial tension developed.

    Improbably and slowly, in ebb and flow fashion, a sense of coexistence and respect evolved, not least because a number of Somali youth joined the Lewiston High Blue Devils soccer team under coach Mike McGraw. He'd noticed that, unsettled and lost in their new home, beset by poverty and isolation, the Somali kids were filling the community's parks, playing an endless succession of impromptu soccer games.

    When a few of the young athletes asked to try out, McGraw was happy to have them. Though there was jostling over who made the team at the expense of other players, the team — and skill level — ultimately started to nurture integrative relationships and trust across the entire town. In 2015, the Blue Devils won their first-ever state championship.

    Bass, a Massachusetts native, has authored three previous books, teaches history at the College of New Rochelle and has written about sports and politics for Slate, Salon.com and CNN Opinion. She is the sister of Elissa Bass, a former reporter and editor at The Day.

    Amy has a Lewiston connection — she went to Bates College there, graduating in 1992. Many of her pieces for CNN are about soccer and, when an old friend from Bates posted about the Lewiston soccer championship on Facebook, Bass was intrigued.

    "I looked into it and wrote several hundred words about it for CNN and it kinda went viral," says Bass. She's trapped in a hotel room in Lewiston, snowed in by Nor'easter #2 after a "One Goal" signing event several days ago and a conversation about the book is a nice way to spend an embedded afternoon. "My personal rule is not to read the comments, but I did. It was 2015 and there had been the (terrorist attacks) in Paris. There was global and national hysteria over refugees and governors were saying, 'They're not welcome in my state,' which is absurd because they don't get to make that decision. And, in addition to the fear and hysteria was misinformation and panic about how the (the refugee process) works."

    The comments on Bass' CNN story reflected that hysteria and anger, and she realized, as she was reading them, that — quite without any intention of doing so — she'd already started outlining a book in her mind. "It's a story about high school soccer, but it's so much more than that," Bass says. "I already knew the questions I'd have for the people across Lewiston."

    Bass wasn't the only one who immediately thought the situation would make a compelling book. Within 24 hours of the story being posted on CNN, Mauro DiPreta, an editor at Hatchette Books in New York, reached out. Though Bass has published with respected university presses, the subject matter and timing was a bit intimidating. She contacted literary agent Dan Strone at Trident Media, who had represented Bass' late father, Milton Bass, the Edgar-nominated author of 14 books and two different mystery series. The connection was not only solid within the industry, it also provided Amy with a bit of familial comfort.

    "I didn't know where to turn," Bass says, "and Dan said, 'Don't worry, you'll be fine. I'll help you with this.'"

    Bass had to reintegrate herself into Lewiston decades after her time as a student at Bates, which was tougher than it might sound. "When I was at Bates, I was an annoying college student," she says. "As such, I was focused on my classes and friends and didn't pay that much attention to the actual town."

    Still, there was a cautious, proprietary sense of familiarity, and Bass went to work. Over the next few years, she became embedded in Lewiston in a completely cross-cultural fashion. Her two main connections — guides, really — were Coach McGraw and Abdikadir Negeye, a founding member and assistant director of the Lewiston-based Maine Immigrant & Refugee Service.

    "One was from Lewiston and one from Kenya, and those connections were so important," Bass says. "It was just instinct to reach out to the high school and also a leader in the Somali community, and, thanks to their openness and gracious help, I was able to move on from there."

    Bass began a series of visits to Lewiston and essentially shadowed the players and the coaching staff. She'd watch practices and games and quickly realized her formal outline to write the book would never work.  "That all quickly went out the window," Bass says with a laugh. "The guys on the team started to trust me. They'd give me little tests. 'We're going to be at the park or wherever' — wanting to see if I'd show up.

    "So it wasn't just soccer. I spent the whole summer hanging out and that led to meeting their families and members of the community. I got pretty good at the art of hanging out and people were so generous and inclusive. 'Let's meet my mom in the kitchen and we'll have something to eat.' One kid's dad went on a run and I ran after him and caught him and we became friends."

    As the season went on and it was obvious the Blue Devils were good, Bass simultaneously began to feel a part of Lewiston on many levels. She was witnessing the slow union of two factions within the town, brought together largely through the prism of the soccer team. And then, of course, they actually won the championship. It's an incredible story.

    Bass was delighted, but the tone of the book is cautionary. "Yes, this is exhilarating as a sports story and I was privileged to write about it," she says. "But there are 60 million refugees in this world. That's a country's worth of population. Putting their lives into perspective is very difficult. Even if you get to know someone really well, it's hard to see in their rearview mirror and, in that context, try to understand something that's part of every second and every day for them. I don't go into a lot of detail about that, but it's in there because the readers need to know, along with the story, what the battle is."

    Bass also felt pressured to finish writing "One Goal" and get it in the bookstores as her process paralleled the presidential campaigns and the 2016 election. "I felt what I was working on was very relevant to what's happening in the world. And when the election happened, it became more relevant in a very bittersweet way — not for the purposes of selling my book but because this is a hugely important issue. I felt frantic."

    At the same time, Bass — and anyone who reads "One Goal" — will certainly experience a note of possibility and optimism. "Out of everything I learned and experienced in this project, and it sounds super hokey, but the emphasis of family and community and commitment that I saw was amazing," she says. "These are people who arrived here maybe just with their families and they are giving their kids opportunities they'd never had had. It works, too, across the board in a broader sense of community. People start to appreciate the idea of survival in new ways."

    Just as the book was going to press, something remarkable happened. The Lewiston Blue Devils, featuring younger siblings of some of the players from the 2015 championship team, won the title again. Bass had to hurriedly write an epilogue reflecting this bonus material. Her final interview was with star player Wasami Ali. The little brother of former Blue Devils Muktar Ali, Wasami's last-second goal clinched the 2017 championship.  Reflecting on the victory and what it means to the whole town, Wasami Ali told Bass, "We bleed blue. Soccer is life."

    "If someone had said that to me at the start of this whole thing, I'd have said, 'Yeah, that's a great phrase,'" Bass says. "But I understand it in a totally different way now. Soccer is how these kids lived and learned to live where they landed."

    If you go

    Who: author Amy Bass

    What: signs copies of her book "One Goal"

    When: 4 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, 10 Canal St., Westerly

    How much: free, books available for purchase

    For more information: (401) 213-3901

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