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Why a global village thrives in this small Georgia town

Why We Wrote This

Decades of refugee arrivals have reshaped Clarkston, a town on Atlanta’s outskirts. Amid a heated national debate over immigration and asylum, Clarkston’s churches are playing a key role in the integration of newcomers.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Community members and refugees attend a gathering at Cafe Clarkston in Clarkston, Ga., in 2015. The cafe, part of the nonprofit Friends of Refugees, provides educational opportunities, job-placement services, and emotional support for immigrants.

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Since the 1980s, the population of Clarkston, Ga., has been swollen by refugees arriving from around the world. Its transformation was in part due to its proximity to jobs in Atlanta and its cheap housing stock, but there was never a grand plan. Regardless, its rapid makeover has yielded a remarkably tolerant attitude toward diversity, including among its churches that had declining congregations of mostly white worshippers. For refugees, Clarkston offers a glimpse of America’s promise of equal treatment under the law. Some newcomers to Clarkston say they are moving to the town of 13,000 so that they and their children are exposed to greater diversity. For Eric Holland, a Baptist pastor, moving to Clarkston has shown him the renewed promise of America as a global melting pot. “I hear all this hateful rhetoric about immigrants destroying America, and it hurts,” says Holland. “These are my neighbors, my friends.”

Eric Holland spent most of his nearly 50 years living in “one of the whitest counties” in Georgia. He never really thought much about its lack of diversity until he visited Clarkston, Ga.

Known as one of the most international square miles in the US where more than 60 languages are spoken, Clarkston is a suburb of Atlanta.

Nearly half of its 13,000 residents are refugees from violence-torn corners of the world: Bhutan, Myanmar, Bosnia. Dark Ethiopian coffee spiced with fresh ginger and cane sugar can today be had in a leafy town founded by goat herders in 1882.  

Not long after his 2013 visit, Mr. Holland picked up his family, his wife and their four kids, and moved to Clarkston. He confesses he still struggles a bit with the transition, particularly communicating without a common “heart language” with some refugees.

But his children are thriving in an international-themed charter school. And his Baptist church’s 300-strong congregation is a multicultural outpost of conservative Christian faith in the Deep South.

A week after a gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue after posting on social media about Jews helping refugees “invade” the US, Holland felt a slight heightening of tension around the safety of his multiracial congregation.

But his greater concern is for a country that he sees as so bent on identifying enemies that it forgets what a friend looks like. That’s why, for him, Clarkston’s fitful embrace of foreigners speaks to America’s promise, not its feared demise.

“I hear all this hateful rhetoric about immigrants destroying America, and it hurts,” says Holland, who is the discipleship pastor at Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC). “These are my neighbors, my friends.”

A favorite landing spot

In a polarized country, Clarkston, the South’s own Ellis Island, is a snapshot, says Mayor Ted Terry, of “a future America” where a polyglot community can thrive. It is also where Oval Office executive orders filter down: Some of the most recent Syrian families to be admitted to the US settled here. (Overall admissions from Syria fell from 12,500 in 2016 to 62 in 2017.)

If the US is riven by nativist anti-immigrant sentiment today, that conflict is old hat in Clarkston.

By virtue not of a grand plan but its proximity to jobs and available housing, Clarkston starting in the 1980s became a favorite landing spot for refugees. They arrived from various war zones into a quiet if ramshackle corner of Atlanta, a town bisected by rumbling freight trains.

Since 1992, some 40,000 refugees have trod a path to US citizenship through Clarkston, serviced on their journey by an array of NGOs, many of them church-led.

Few other communities in the US have had to ask such deep questions, nor come up with such difficult answers, on matters of belonging, compassion, prejudice, and sacrifice.

“We have had to prune prejudice down to where there was almost nobody left, and we had to build ourselves back up,” says octogenarian Vietnam War veteran William Perrin, a CIBC church elder. “But as a result, the base is stronger than ever.”

‘We live together’

For refugees, Clarkston offers a glimpse of America’s promise of equal treatment under the law.

And it is so small that nationalist ghettos can’t really form: Everyone has to live together, usually in late-model townhouses set amid longleaf pines.

“People here [are] good,” says Bosnian refugee Esef Kiebic, who arrived in 1998 and retired recently as a greenskeeper at an Atlanta golf course. “We live together.”

In the recent past, Eritreans and Ethiopians have warred back home. In Clarkston, they cook next door to each other, says Tesfamkeil Katema, an Eritrean refugee and naturalized American waiting for a church service on a sunny Georgia morning.

“War is politics, not people – we all want a good life,” Mr. Katema says. “Here we live together even though we have differences on politics and religion. That is what makes it Clarkston.”

He adds, more philosophically: “If refugees are treated as second-class citizens, why would they be dedicated to this country? The fact that they are not native but are given every right due a citizen is exactly the reason why it became a great America, a very powerful country.”

As the town’s population has shifted, some churches have folded, some have adjusted. New churches have emerged. A large mosque is also going up in town.

But while some townspeople moved away as the refugees flowed in, today many white Americans – from “woke” Southern progressives to Christian conservatives – are the newcomers, drawn by the opportunity, even the privilege, to live in a diverse community.

“I’ve made my home here for a reason. I tell people I am the son of refugees, eight generations removed,” says CIBC Pastor Trent Deloach, who traces his lineage to French Huguenots who made their final home in America. “I am not for open borders. But shouldn’t we react with compassion and charity instead of fear and animus? We were once them.”

Moving too fast for some

In that way, Clarkston epitomizes an immigration debate that has become as much about the hosts as the guests.

For some, like Steve Davis, it has been a jarring pace of change.

Mr. Davis grew up here, an African-American in a state that morphed in fifty years from Jim Crow to a black woman, Stacey Abrams, running for governor. Now in his late 50s, Davis says he will likely vote for Trump in 2020, in part because of his hardline stance on immigration.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Steve Davis is a Trump supporter who urges caution in allowing immigrants to enter the US. But he holds no animus toward the refugees that now make up half of the town where he was born in the Jim Crow era. ‘It is just people learning to live together – utopia, maybe,’ he says.

Davis cheered when Trump banned Syrians. He had worried whether his town could become a gateway for terrorists. And he notes that some of the young refugee boys joined gangs.

“Trump recognizes dangers and he addresses them. I appreciate that,” he says. “But I also walked by a stoop the other day and saw five little kids, all different nationalities, just being together. I thought that was real cool.”

In few places has that kind of internal conflict been felt more deeply than at what used to be known as Clarkston Baptist Church, at the top of Church Street.

In 2004, in a great upheaval, the church merged with an Asian and an African church to become CIBC. Fourteen years later, the church is going strong. Part of that is through the North American Mission Board, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that bought the church last year. The SBC’s Send Relief effort is expanding its mission to “impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelicalism and church planting.” It is building a new complex and hopes to convert other land to soccer fields.

But a “Save Our Neighborhood” campaign has risen up, in part over concerns about increased traffic but also due to unease with the SBC, which progressives accuse of mixing anti-gay views into its refugee relief programs. The SBC was long known as a segregated church for whites that opposed civil rights, a position that it publicly renounced in 1995.

Mayor Terry says the Send Relief effort shows that the SBC is embracing refugees. The controversy “is a reminder that tolerance of those who are different from us cuts both ways,” he says.

The steady national barrage of immigration rhetoric has kept Clarkston in the spotlight.

Earlier this year, a Republican gubernatorial candidate brought a “Deportation Bus” and parked it in the center of Clarkston to kick off his unsuccessful candidacy. (The eventual Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, who appears to have a lead in the governor’s race which has yet to be called, ran an ad that suggested he would use his truck for the same purpose.)

In response to the stunt, “we brought him tea and cookies and offered to dialogue,” says Pastor Deloach. “The irony I wanted to point out to him is that if all the fearful rhetoric about immigrants and refugees was true, well, Clarkston wouldn't exist.”

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