WHEN I THINK about Clarkston, I sometimes visualize the town as a lifeboat being lowered from a vast, multilevel passenger ship. No one aboard chose this particular vessel. Rather, they were assigned to it—the refugees by resettlement officials they never met, the townspeople by a faraway bureaucratic apparatus that decided, almost haphazardly, to put a sampling of people from all over the world in the modest little boat locals thought they had claimed for themselves. In an instant, the boat was set upon a roiling sea, its passengers left to fend for themselves. Everyone on the boat wanted the same thing: safety. But to get there, they would first have to figure out how to communicate with each other, how to organize themselves, how to allocate their resources, and which direction they should row. I imagine their heads bobbing in and out of view between the troughs and crests of the wind-whipped sea as they begin their journey. And I wonder: What will they do? What would I do in that same situation? And: Will they make it?

IT’S HARD TO know exactly where to begin the story of the Fugees. The violence that led young Grace Balegamire from Congo to Clarkston in the early twenty-first century had its origins in the 1870s, when King Leopold II of Belgium established the Free State of Congo, a corporate state that pillaged the region around the Congo River of its natural resources, terrorized the population, and gave way over time to a collection of politically unstable nations divided by ethnic tension. The tribal violence that drove Beatrice Ziaty, a Liberian refugee whose sons Jeremiah and Mandela played on the Fugees, from Monrovia to Clarkston grew ultimately from the decision of a group of Americans in the mid-nineteenth century to relocate freed slaves from the United States after emancipation, a process that created a favored and much-resented ruling tribe with little or no organic connection to the nation it ruled. The story might begin in 1998, when Slobodan Milosevic´ decided to unleash the Yugoslav army on the people of Kosovo and gave his soldiers the go-ahead to rampage through villages in Kosovo such as Kacanik, where Qendrim Bushi’s family had a small grocery store that Serb soldiers torched—though that conflict too had beginnings in age-old political and ethnic tensions in that region. Or one might start near Clemson, South Carolina, where Lee Swaney—the future mayor of Clarkston, Georgia—was born in 1939, well before integration changed the South.

For now, though, let’s begin the story amid the nineteen hills of the ancient city of Amman, Jordan, where Luma Mufleh grew up and where she learned to love a game that would create so much joy and cause so much trouble years later in a little town in Georgia, half a world away.