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This Georgia Town Has Welcomed Thousands Of Refugees. Hear What Residents Have To Say

Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified
Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified
Residents of Clarkston, Georgia, weigh in on living in a town that has absorbed thousands of refugees.

Refugee admission into the U.S. has dropped dramatically in recent years. 

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of State Department data, refugee resettlement in the U.S. has dropped to historic lows during Donald Trump’s presidency. This fiscal year, the administration has set a cap for 18,000 — a far cry from the 110,000 cap set in 2017 (data from the Refugee Processing Center show that about 53,000 refugees resettled that year).

As for where those refugees go and who gets to decide, that’s now up in the air.

The Trump administration wants the decision to be a local one. In September, he rolled out an executive order requiring state and local governments to opt in to continue receiving refugees.

But a new national survey from APM Research Lab and America Amplified reveals a plurality of Americans say the federal government should be in charge.

 

chart about refugees resettling in the U.S.

With the ultimate decision tied up in federal court, a vast majority of states have opted in. 

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp remains one of only seven governors who hasn’t. For a state that ranks among the top 10 for refugee resettlement, Kemp’s silence is noteworthy.

To get a sense of how refugee resettlement has played out in communities most impacted, I visited Clarkston, Georgia. 

Between 2015 and 2019, according to APM Research, the small Atlanta suburb of about 13,000 residents ranked first in the nation for resettling the highest number of refugees per capita (among cities resettling 100 or more refugees per year). The distinction has earned Clarkston the nickname “Ellis Island of the South.”

 

map of refugees in Georgia

Some 40,000 refugees have come through Georgia over the past three decades, and for most, Clarkston was the first stop.

With affordable multi-family housing, left vacant by white flight, and access to public transportation into Atlanta, federal resettlement agencies took notice.

 

Refugees constitute roughly half the local population, representing at least 60 nationalities. It’s a tiny town, 2 square miles tops, so you can really see the impact — in the people walking down the streets wearing hijabs and traditional African garb, and in the shopping centers where a Vietnamese gift shop neighbors an Eritrean cafe.

 

Here are some of the people I met:

 

Bill Mehlinger
Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified
Bill Mehlinger stocked his grocery store to accommodate the refugees moving to town. He and his wife would call foreign countries’ embassies to learn what products to buy.

Bill Mehlinger

After buying Clarkston’s Thriftown market in the ’90s, Mehlinger thought he could run it like a typical American grocery store. He nearly went bankrupt. 

Then he hired a cashier from Vietnam and she helped him find products her family wanted to buy. Now his shelves are full of products from around the world. 

Mehlinger says it was a difficult but necessary adjustment many of his neighbors were unwilling to make.

“The whole city was a lot of American businesses. And if you drive around now ... I'm one of the few left. A lot of the people just either decided to get up and go or they didn't change, and they got left behind. Some people who had been living here for years and years, they were afraid their home values were going to go down, they were afraid crime would go up.”

 
Edna Soliman

Edna Soliman standing in front of her businessEdna Soliman has found her community working at Refuge Coffee Co.
Credit Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified

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Soliman is an immigrant from Pampanga in the Philippines. She works at Refuge Coffee Co., where she’s going through a job training program to help her build skills for her next job. 

The nonprofit employs and trains refugees and immigrants, like Soliman, and serves as a popular watering hole in the small town. Soliman says Refuge Coffee helped her settle in to her new community.

“I was sad when I was new. Here it's my first time to meet a lot of people, especially from Africa. I was not comfortable before, but when I got to know them, they are nice people and they went through a lot. I got used to it and I enjoy working with them, and meeting them. I eat what they eat. My coworker from Ethiopia eats injera [Ethiopian flatbread], I eat injera, too. They eat by hand, just like me, back in my country.”

  

Sushma Barakoti
 
Sushma Barakoti stands in front of her businessSushma Barakoti sees Clarkston, Georgia, as a launching pad for refugees, a place that caters to newcomers with a vast network of support agencies, like Refugee Women's Network, which she runs.
Credit Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified

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After immigrating to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, Barakoti now runs the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta. She works with many refugees in Clarkston and says the challenge is tackling unease and the fear of the unknown — not just for longtime residents resistant to change, but also for newcomers.

“Even though it looks like it's a huge community blended, of course it’s not. People have their own communities within the bigger community. If you go to a Nepali grocery store, you just see the Nepali people only, right? If you go to a Burmese store, you see the Burmese people. As is, the immigrant communities live in silos, we should be integrating and working and socializing together. But this kind of political environment and policies will push them in their own silos more.”

  

Amina Osman

Amina OsmanAmina Osman is known around town as 'Mama Clarkston.'
Credit Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified

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In 1998, during the civil war in Somalia, Osman’s home came under attack. She watched as her husband and all of her children were gunned down.

She survived, and recovered from a coma in a hospital in Burundi before she was sent to the U.S. in 2009. That year, Clarkston saw its local population jump about 60 percent to the roughly 13,000 residents it holds now, according to census data. 

It was not easy. But now, the 91-year-old is known around town as “Mama Clarkston.”

“It was a nightmare [at first]. I did not know where to start, or where to go. I said hello to people, but they turned their heads. I did not know why. So, I decided to make friends with them. I cooked for them. I said, come to eat with me and I will give you a gift from Africa. I wanted to know, what is in their mind? How can I make friends? I want to be around people. I don’t like to see people not feeling well because of me or other refugees.”

 
James McNeely
James McNeely James McNeely volunteers at the Friends of Refugees Career Center, helping connect refugees with jobs in and around Atlanta.
Credit Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified

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McNeely has been in the Atlanta area for nearly 40 years, and has watched towns like Clarkston transform from the “small closed Southern community” it once was. He says he has friends who feel uncomfortable with the influx of refugees, but struggles to understand their concerns.

“They buy a nice house, start a business, start making money and they just integrate into the community. They transition from being a refugee to just being an American. It's still the same person. The name is foreign, but they end up being American and their kids go to school and they become Americanized. It'll just take time. Everybody came here from someplace else.”

Andrea Tudhope is coordinating producer for America Amplified: Election 2020. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @andreatudhope.