Ellis Island of the South

A Georgia town becomes a magnet for refugees – including from Syria – despite resistance to the newcomers in many parts of the South. Can Clarkston be a model?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Kindergartners listen to their principal read a book at the International Community School in Decatur, Ga. The elementary school has about 400 students from 30 nations who speak 25 languages.

In another life, one man owned four blacksmith shops, a second sold mattresses, and a third labored as a skilled mason. Now the former Syrian patriarchs are standing nervously on a stage at the Clarkston Community Center in this Atlanta suburb, where the mayor and a local congressman are welcoming them to their new home in the United States. 

The Syrian refugees – about 50 in all – have fled political brutality in their home country and settled in this working-class town that has become a new Ellis Island for immigrants in a state and region which, at least recently, have turned decidedly hostile to outsiders. Indeed, since 1983, the town has accepted and helped resettle about 60,000 refugees – most from Africa and many of whom were Muslim. The locals’ hospitality has turned the community into what is considered the most ethnically diverse square mile in the US. Now comes another wave of outsiders – a group of Syrians that so many other places in the US have spurned. 

After the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which were carried out by Islamic militants tied to Islamic State in Syria, Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order demanding that state agencies “halt any involvement” in resettling Syrian refugees. It was a largely symbolic gesture, given that refugee policy is set by the federal government. But the message was sent – and it was backed, according to opinion polls, by a strong majority of the state’s residents. 

The anti-immigrant sentiment only hardened after the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., which was carried out in part by a devout Pakistani woman vetted by the State Department for a K-1, or fiancé(e), visa. Presidential contenders such as Donald Trump, as well as state officials such as Mr. Deal, have lashed out at what they see as a faceless Syrian invasion, reflecting deeper historical fears about hidden threats in the continuous stream of immigrants coming to America. 

The Syrian newcomers to Clarkston, which the US Office of Refugee Resettlement sent here because of the town’s welcoming ethos, are well aware of the conflict swirling around them. “For them, this is a big day, but it’s also painful,” says one young Syrian asylum seeker who works as an accountant at a chicken-processing plant in the area.

That is why local officials are doing so much to try to make them feel at ease this afternoon. Inside the community center, chunks of lamb and a gourmet display of pastries are spread out on tables. Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and others give impassioned speeches about how America has drawn its strength from immigrants. Refugee children, clad in immaculate clothing, look on while smiling nervously. 

Clarkston offers both a cautionary tale of the costs of increased resettlement in a volatile time as well as a model for how America can play perhaps an even larger role in humanitarian relief while keeping its security intact.

In many ways, Clarkston has emerged, along with St. Louis; Portland, Maine; and Dearborn, Mich., as one of the most successful resettlement communities in the world. Four out of 5 families who show up here become self-sufficient within six months of arriving – a good thing given that most refugees only receive government subsidies for three months after settling here. (If they’re found eligible, they can also receive state and federal welfare benefits.)

Yet Clarkston is hardly an immigrant utopia. Schools in the area have struggled to educate refugee children, who often lag behind in learning after they get here, pulling down overall test scores. According to Michael Singleton, Georgia’s state refugee coordinator, the refugee flow has stretched resources and “there have been reports of robbery and refugee gang violence” in the town as well as in surrounding communities. Indeed, while the parents almost never get into trouble, the Americanized sons and daughters of refugees sometimes do, including a group of Burmese teenagers known as “the slingshot kids” for their hunting of squirrels and birds.

As Clarkston opens its cafes and classrooms to the latest arrivals, the question is, Will it continue to be a symbol of how diversity can work, or exemplify how the country is going too far in sheltering some of the world’s huddled masses?

“What you’re seeing in a little town [like Clarkston and others in the surrounding area] is both people being decent and at the same time exhibiting fear of some amorphous refugee jihadist,” says Sarah Lischer, an international affairs professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

•     •      •

Clarkston was an improbable place to become a national magnet for immigrants. For most of its history, it was simply a sleepy goat-farming town – dubbed “Goatsville” – with a train depot along a well-used railroad line. Then, in the 1970s, it became one of Atlanta’s first bedroom communities, thanks to the building of the city’s “perimeter” highway, Interstate 285, which opened the entire metro area up to a 30-minute commute.

Developers built dozens of apartment complexes, which housed upwardly mobile white-collar workers, many of them engineers from overseas. But by the early 1980s, these newcomers had moved on to tonier towns, and the well-worn apartment warrens they left behind began to fall into disrepair while property values went down.

In 1983, the Reagan administration formalized what had been an impromptu refugee-resettlement program, and Clarkston became a favored spot to locate newcomers. The bones of the town were still solid. Atlanta’s rapid transit system, MARTA, ended at its border. Atlanta was booming, as was the job market. And Clarkston’s apartments, though not upscale, were cheap and provided walkable access to transportation and jobs. They also provided shelter far superior to any United Nations refugee tent. No matter that the next town over, Stone Mountain, was the site of the modern revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Even in the history-sensitive South, that all seemed a long time ago.

By the 1990s, the influx of refugees – mainly from Eritrea, Somalia, and a few other African countries – had become steady. The Clarkston Baptist Church, whose imposing steeple stands as the tallest point in town, faced a decisive moment, like many local institutions: Adapt to the refugee population or wither away. The church fathers looked to Scripture and transformed the church into the Clarkston International Bible Church, a place where Ephesians 2:19 – “you are no longer strangers and foreigners ...” – is often read.

The church’s basement is now a mini-Babel known as the Cafe Clarkston, where church groups help new arrivals write résumés and polish their English, and provide, for many, an introduction to friendly Americans.

The population of Clarkston, about 7,000 in the 1990s, grew
34 percent as refugee families from more than 150 different ethnic groups poured into the community. Sleepy strip malls began to convert into colorful storefronts flying prayer flags and offering halal meat. A ragtag group of refugee soccer players unified under a Jordanian-born coach, inspiring the book “Outcasts United,” which in turn inspired a widely lauded academy for refugee children.

“Clarkston has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Brian Bollinger, executive director of Friends of Refugees, a local nonprofit group that tries to empower refugees through jobs and education. “As more new Americans start life here, the easier it is for the next round to start and to do well. The ethnic shops and language communities and religious communities coalesce and form a springboard.”

Since then, the transformation of Clarkston into a refugee mecca has become nearly complete. A population that 30 years ago was almost 90 percent white is now less than 14 percent white. Today, Refuge Coffee Co., a not-for-profit coffee truck, sets up at an old gas station that serves as the informal town square. Women with colorful headdresses walk purposefully along the town’s paths, and bearded Muslim men hold the hands of kids at the bus stop. 

The coexistence of so many faiths, cultures, and languages gained widespread attention. “It’s the unexciting story of everyday mediocrity that is probably one of the best signs that assimilation is happening,” Adam Hoyt, who directs a local refugee job center, told World Magazine in 2013.

•      •      •

While many of Clarkston’s institutions have adapted and become boosters of the outsiders over the years, local leaders have embraced them with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Consider the case of Mayor Terry, a goateed administrator with blue eyes and a shock of blond hair who looks as if he’d be comfortable playing in a neo-blues band. 

Terry came to the latest immigration controversy through a bit of serendipity. The 33-year-old won office in 2013 on a plank that had more to do with building the town’s tax base than defending refugees on a national stage.

But since terror concerns have risen, he has found himself in the sometimes unpopular role of refugee host, defending the incoming residents of Clarkston against what seems to some a building xenophobia. Through the process, he says, the town, in essence, has discovered its true identity.

“The old town fathers never felt like they needed to [build the town],” he says. “They were content to have a small little town that harkened back to the good old days. But Clarkston sort of woke up and found that it had become an international city.”

At the Syrian banquet, Terry spoke about the hard-line rhetoric, and how it betrays America’s fundamental promise to newcomers. But he has also incredulously had to announce, only half-jokingly, that “there’ll be no sharia law in Clarkston as long as I’m mayor.”

In an interview, Terry acknowledges coming into office knowing almost nothing about refugees. He learned quickly on the campaign trail. He remembers one Bhutanese mother in traditional dress waving him in for a coffee, eager to practice her English. “Then the son comes in, wearing his baseball cap like Justin Bieber,” he says.

Terry’s political profile has risen as he’s shot back at Georgia’s conservative leadership over their hard-line stance. But in the end, he says, preserving the flow of refugees is as much about capitalistic survival as the debate over the clash of humanitarian responsibilities and national security. 

The fact is, Clarkston has come to rely on refugees as a source of economic progress. While some work in chicken-processing plants as far as two hours away, nearly 500 refugees from 38 different countries are employed at the nearby Your Dekalb Farmers Market, providing a unique interface between the ethnic newcomers and Atlanta’s emerging foodie class. More specifically to Clarkston, dozens of entrepreneurs have opened their own businesses, including Somali restaurants and grocery stores featuring sambusas and sabaayad.

The refugees are “expanding prosperity ... by opening new businesses that add to the tax base, employ local residents, and bring fresh ideas and products to our community!” the local Coalition of Refugee Services reported in 2014. 

Some 80 percent of the newcomers find jobs within six months of arriving – the highest rate of any refugee-resettlement community in the country.

Immigration supporters believe the economic boost that the refugees bring has – and will – translate far beyond Clarkston. Given that the US birthrate has fallen too low to sustain economic growth by itself, “immigration is fundamentally critical to sustaining a capitalist country,” adds Mr. Bollinger, the Friends of Refugees director.

In Clarkston, the refugees are dreaming bigger, too. A Syrian-American college grad named Aladdin Kanawati wants to use the farming expertise many of the refugees are bringing with them to help transform Georgia’s agricultural sector. He is lobbying Georgia’s labor and agriculture commissioners to help steer future refugees into rural Georgia, where demographic shifts have sucked vitality out of many communities.

“These are exactly the people we want,” says Terry.

•      •      •

Yet not everyone is enamored of their presence. Joe Newton is a retired law clerk who lives in a largely Hispanic corner of nearby Norcross, Ga. He spends much of his time lobbying against refugee funding.

Over a cup of hot chocolate at a local coffee shop, Mr. Newton says Syrians like those settling in Clarkston represent an existential threat – and not just because of terrorism concerns. He sees them drawing resources away from native-born Americans. To him and other critics, the $1.6 billion annual budget that the US government spends to resettle refugees is part of a “scam” perpetrated by nongovernmental organizations, which take the federal dollars and then leave the naive refugees to fend for themselves. He believes the benefits could be better spent on Americans. 

“We’ve been way more generous toward refugees than we should have been,” says Newton.

Until the Paris attacks, Newton was a fringe political player, a citizen lobbyist who called legislators out by name for spending on refugees. But since the November shootings, his voice has found more resonance. Three out of
5 Republican primary voters now want to bar Syrian refugees from the US, compared with 1 out of 3 who felt the same way in September. Only about 20 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents feel that way.

“For years, I was labeled as a kook, a bigot, prejudiced, a skinhead, a Nazi, and everything else,” says Newton. “Now, there’s been a stampede towards my view.”

He says the numbers are what shock him. Even though the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the US so far has added up to just 1,800, more than 100,000 Syrians have arrived in all since the civil war broke out, on a variety of visas and work permits. 

“This is a huge, huge migration, not just a few refugees,” he says. He notes that he has a friend who is a veteran who can’t get treatment for a serious illness. But the US sinks millions into helping newcomers. “It’s all upside down,” he says of the nation’s priorities.

The pressure on Clarkston has only mounted as the Obama administration has fashioned a plan to quadruple the number of Syrians arriving in 2016. For Georgians who share Newton’s views, Clarkston is hardly a model of what a citizen factory looks like. It’s a potential hotbed of problems, a “refuge for criminals” holding the rest of America back even as strangers populate its streets, as Lucretia Hughes, a local African-American activist, puts it. She believes the refugees are unfairly siphoning resources that should be going to poverty-bound black students. 

“The problems spread out from [Clarkston],” she says. 

•      •       • 

The debate over immigration swirling through the piney woods of Georgia is one that has a long pedigree in the US. Throughout history, America has always been the world’s premier melting pot – but has also had its share of backlashes to the influx of newcomers. In the 1780s, for instance, there were concerns in some areas that German was going to become the de facto official language in the US. 

“You can go all the way back to the Colonial era and there are these persistent strands of an us-versus-them mentality, though the definition of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ has changed over time,” says University of Washington professor Jacob Vigdor, a fellow at the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London.

Part of the periodic resistance has been driven by the immigrants themselves: the proclivity of many of them to want to close the doors behind them once they have arrived. But the backlash to today’s refugees is rooted in two other powerful forces: first, a slowdown in middle-class mobility in a changing and often struggling US economy, and, now, a tangible national security threat from the Middle East.

Clarkston has not been immune to these pressures. By 2013, Clarkston leaders had enacted three separate one-year moratoriums on new refugees, as local officials grew alarmed by the rapid changes and new problems refugees brought. In particular, the impulse by some immigrants to cloister in their own communities raised concerns about their willingness to assimilate into American life.

And while the election of Terry in 2013 may have marked a new era for the town, he may also have tied his political future to an issue that is far from resolved: It could yet lead to a crackdown on America’s welcoming stance toward the world’s dispossessed – even here in the Babel of Georgia. 

One who has hope that it won’t is Awet Eyasu. Mr. Eyasu, who works for a legal-services firm, came to the US 15 years ago after fleeing one of the globe’s most repressive regimes in Eritrea. He moved to Clarkston with his young family after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles. Eyasu seems to have transformed from an African to an American to, now, a true Southerner. He’s pro-Second Amendment and gun ownership, worries about taxes, and respects cops.

That was part of his message as he recently knocked on nearly 1,000 doors during a campaign to convince Clarkston’s voters to elect him to the Clarkston Town Council. To many of them, he introduced himself by his nickname, “Howard.” In November, just days before the Paris attacks, he won the election, becoming the first person of Eritrean descent to hold office in Georgia. 

Though some worry that the US is hardening its line on immigrants and refugees, Eyasu has found America, and Clarkston specifically, “an ultimately tolerant place.” At the same time, he argues that the ability of the US to better vet ethnic newcomers can be addressed without taking draconian measures such as requiring a registry for Syrian refugees, as Republican front-runner Donald Trump has pitched.

The political rhetoric is driven by “pure fear, I would say, but I can also understand it when people worry about immigrants who do not want to be integrated and do not want to adapt to the culture here,” he says. “But even though it’s a scary time, when you really think about it, America should not be reversing all the progress that we’ve achieved. It’d be better if we slow down and just try to digest what we have achieved already.” 

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