Clarkston: A Refugee Oasis in the American South

Dozens of nationalities and cultures meet in a small-town melting pot.

Khushbu Shah

Nasar and Ali man the siren-red-and-black Refuge Coffee Co. truck on East Ponce de Leon in the heart of Clarkston, Georgia, serving up caramel macchiatos and hibiscus ice tea. They know every one of their customers; Nasar is a recent arrival from Kabul, while Ali has been in Clarkston for nearly two years after arriving from Sudan.

“Refugees Welcome Here,” a sign proclaims in the coffee shop’s building, where small groups gather over laptops and pastries. The coffee shop is not alone in that sentiment. 

Clarkston has been home to tens of thousands of refugees in the past three decades, after former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan's Refugee Acts of the 1980s. It became one of the favored locations to send refugees, and over the years, due to the housing, resettlement programs, and community infrastructure in place, also became a popular landing place for those moved to the Atlanta area. While the government places refugees across 190 communities in America, Clarkston remains one of a kind. 

In fact, although its tagline as "the most diverse square mile in America" is true as far as it goes, neither Clarkston nor Georgia receive the most resettled refugees overall. According to the resettlement data from the United States government, the states of Florida, California, New York, and Texas consistently receive thousands—if not tens of thousands—more refugees than Georgia. 

More than 50 percent of the population in Clarkston is foreign born. Sixty languages are spoken within the single square mile that holds the town’s 14,000 residents. More than 150 ethnic groups are represented. In the last decade, there has been more than a six percent increase in the population, according to census data

Across from the convenience store that sells freshly made injera bread is the South Asian market. Next door, a resident espouses the virtues of the Ethiopian coffee with ginger that the owner, Elsa, made just moments ago before coming out to serve it in to two customers sitting near the storefront in the winter sun. Down the street is a Nepalese restaurant. Thriftown, the only grocery store in town, has expanded its offerings to better serve its diverse customers. 

A Rohingya family bustles out of a minivan for grocery shopping. Two Ethiopian women sip coffee under a sign in Amharic. A sign in Hindi beckons people to try biryani. Signs for refugee assistance are posted in nearly every store window. These Clarkston characteristics have led to the town proclaiming itself the “Ellis Island of the South.” 

Thousands of refugees, many of them in transit, some putting down roots, call the town home. Luay Sami set foot in Clarkston in 2010 after leaving Iraq, where he had worked with the United States Army as a translator. It wasn’t until he was getting on the plane in Baghdad that he asked where he would be resettled. He had never heard of Georgia, so he quickly Googled his new home state. 

Initially, he didn’t know why he had been resettled in a small town outside Atlanta, he says. “It’s not the thing you want to see when you move to the United States. When you see the options here, we don’t have much," adding, "And if you don’t have a car, you have to take two buses to get somewhere,” he recalls from behind his desk at the Clarkston Community Center. 

The average median income in town is a little over $35,000 dollars (the median average is the U.S. is over $59,000), and more than 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 2017 census data recorded. And Clarkston remains a rural town, with most people—refugee and otherwise—commuting elsewhere for work. 

Eight years after arriving, Sami’s initial negative views of the small town changed, and he has remained an integral part of the community. His experience when he first moved to America help him understand the transition many people face when they step foot in Georgia, whether it’s choosing a place to live, getting to the grocery store, or finding an English-language class. 

It’s important, he says, for the non-refugee population living in the town and metro Atlanta to understand that those seeking refuge in the United States are not only part of a news cycle. 

“OK, they are refugees, but they are human, too. They are people. Sometimes, people walk in and say they want to see refugees. You’re not walking into a zoo and looking for refugees. But my job is to educate them,” Sami says.

He’s now serving as the Community Center’s interim executive director, having moved up the ranks of one of the town’s many nonprofits. Of course, Clarkston hasn’t always been a training ground for the hundreds of refugees that pass through the streets. In the 1800s, it was little more than a dusty strip of land near a railroad track. Eventually, the ever-growing rail lines made the community a home for those commuting to Atlanta. It was in the late 1980s that refugee relocation programs began identifying Clarkston as a potential hub for those coming to America due to its location near Atlanta, the low cost of living, and access to metro Atlanta’s subway system. 

Angie Dalton has lived in Clarkston since those early days in the 1980s, watching the town evolve as international conflicts over the years brought increasing diversity to the community. First, it was the Vietnamese, she recalls, then the Chinese. Before long, it was too difficult to keep track of the languages and cultures flooding the streets of her home. 

“When I first moved here, Clarkston was predominantly white, and within a year and a half, the refugees started moving here. I loved it. And then over time, it had been a whirlwind—the language, the food, the cultures,” she says, standing outside the a row of grocery stores and restaurants that she says look like a representation of the United Nations. 

While it might have been exciting for the locals, refugees and those who work with them don't romanticize Clarkston. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, as Brian Bollinger, executive director of Friends of Refugees, another nonprofit in town, says. Just a few years ago, then-governor Nathan Deal tried to ban Syrian refugees from resettling in Atlanta after the terrorist attacks in Paris, then backed off. 

Doris Mukungu, a Kenyan immigrant who first moved to Georgia as a college student, is the president of Amani, a Clarkston organization providing cultural, educational, and health support to refugee women. There are layers to transitioning into this American lifestyle: “These women are starting a new life, leaving a life of trauma and persecution,” she says, “but they need to be self-sustainable.” Many refugees were sent to Clarkston because for purely economic reasons, she argues, with cheap housing and resettlement programs already located here. 

Mukungu's business partner, Reggie Erawoc, a Ghanaian immigrant, agrees. “From where everybody came from, they still have talent and skills," he says. "What makes a great community are all the economic factors. People are able to sustain that community, whether it is jobs, amenities, or stores. What’s depressing, [after[ you have been in a camp for 10, 12 years, you have to navigate the system, you have to drive. There are so many layers that can make Clarkston great, but the first thing you have to figure out is logistics. And then economics. It’s overwhelming.”

House prices have risen with the influx of people moving to Clarkston over the years, which makes it difficult for people to remain. The first job those who are resettled in town usually get are at the chicken factory an hour away, so that most have to organize their own transportation in a new country, where many do not yet speak English comfortably. The town’s entrance is now flanked by two chain convenience stores, with a farmers market too far to walk to for anybody in town. 

People often have grand ideas about wanting to help, and they are well-meaning, Erawoc continues. But dumping clothes and presents in town each time an influx of refugees arrive is not the way to do it. He’s not sure what the solution is, though. “Maybe they should build better schools and an actual hospital in town,” he says. 

However, in recent years, President Donald Trump's administration has decreased the number of refugees moving to and remaining in Clarkston and the rest of the U.S. It's led to perhaps one of the few positive results of those policies, Sami says, “Because the number of resettlements have been [lower], the quality of resettlement has been better.” He adds, though, that that’s not something to be proud of. 

Sami, like Mukungu and Erawoc, acknowledge it is trendy right now to be an inclusive, welcoming refugee-friendly town near the relatively liberal oasis of Atlanta. But, they all asked, who is it benefiting, exactly? It makes the hundreds of people who volunteer feel good, they acknowledge. 

A pair of friends, both immigrants, sit at a local coffee shop one weekend across the street from Refuge Coffee Co. They both roll their eyes at the red-and-black truck, saying it is not authentic, and its American owner who opened the shop in recent years profits from the refugee-friendly identity. By contrast, immigrants and refugees have been selling their coffees for years, without the PR and fanfare Refuge received for setting up in town and employing refugees. 

Sami agrees it’s not perfect. There are kinks to be worked out in this starter city for thousands of refugees the last thirty-plus years. “It’s just like any other place. But I love it. It’s home.”