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Cities of refuge

The U.S. immigrant legacy and the welcome refugees receive in the United States offer relevant lessons in the debate over immigration reform and how to pave a way for foreign newcomers

Cities of refuge

WELCOME: A refugee from Nepal in Clarkston, Ga. (Robin Nelson/Genesis)

CLARKSTON, Ga.— When the congregation of Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC) meets on Sunday mornings, black and white Americans squeeze into pews with Africans and Asians from places like Sudan and Burma.

It wasn’t always such a diverse hour. Less than 20 years ago, the Southern Baptist congregation was almost entirely white. As the town of Clarkston, Ga., changed—including a massive influx of refugees—the church floundered: Many white members moved away, and some resented efforts to reach the new population. 

Attendance dropped from 600 to 100. The church began holding one worship service instead of two. To pay expenses, church leaders leased space to a handful of ethnic groups holding their own worship services on the large campus.

But slowly, another dynamic developed: A handful of churchgoers adapted. They invited local youth to a basketball program. They held ESL classes. They opened a computer lab for residents. And they changed the church’s name: Clarkston Baptist Church became Clarkston International Bible Church—a deliberate sign that refugees were welcome.

On a recent Sunday morning, some 300 churchgoers from at least three different continents filled an old-fashioned sanctuary for an English-language worship service. Midway through a sermon on Christian identity, Pastor Phil Kitchin read from Ephesians 2: “You are no longer foreigners and strangers …”

It’s an arresting passage for a tiny city where foreigners abound. 

A tour of Clarkston doesn’t take long. The city situated 11 miles northeast of Atlanta measures about one square mile. But it’s a packed mile: The population of 7,500 includes thousands of refugees from all over the world. 

A visit to Clarkston Village shopping center reveals the diversity: The strip includes an Asian market, an Eritrean restaurant, an Ethiopian café, and a Middle Eastern grocery store. 

A small Southern town that once hosted the Ku Klux Klan may seem like an unlikely place to send refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, but the U.S. State Department saw opportunity as it began settling refugees in the Atlanta area in the 1990s: Officials noticed Clarkston’s abundance of cheap apartments and its access to Atlanta’s public transportation system. 

Many of the 60,000 refugees that enter the United States each year settle in large cities like New York or Los Angeles. But the State Department and resettlement agencies also send refugees to mid-size cities like Minneapolis and Portland, and even smaller cities like Bowling Green, Ky., and Utica, N.Y.  

The resettlement process is often complicated, but the attraction of smaller cities is simple: They usually have more available housing and a lower cost of living. Over the last 20 years, dozens of towns across the United States have become cities of refuge for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

Many refugees in Clarkston eventually move to other towns, but new refugees continue to arrive. Out of some 16,000 who arrived in Georgia since 2007, more than 2,300 came to Clarkston. Some locals call Clarkston the “Ellis Island of the South.”

The growth has also brought strain, and many white residents followed others who moved away during earlier shifts: In the 1970s, the small city built a large stock of apartments to attract middle-class workers drawn to the area by Atlanta’s new international airport. 

As some of those workers moved to homes in nearby suburbs in the 1980s, lower-income families moved into the apartments, including a significant number of blacks. Refugees followed in the 1990s and filled much of the vacant housing. 

Today, the town that once was nearly 90 percent white has dropped to about 14 percent white. 

The city’s unusual demographic shift has brought national attention: Stories in The New York Times led to a book about the Fugees, a local soccer team for refugee youth founded by an ambitious volunteer. A PBS documentary last fall noted some of the challenges of settling refugees in a small town with a limited budget. 

But another story lies beneath: While refugees are legal immigrants with special status granted by the U.S. State Department, their experience offers lessons relevant to the nation’s current immigration debate. 

For example, questions of how immigrants assimilate into American life largely hinge on personal determination, but they also often depend on how communities receive them. Churches and other Christian groups in Clarkston are demonstrating the fruit of relationships with sojourners seeking a new home.

And while the current immigration debate is a critical discussion for lawmakers and American citizens, refugees in places like Clarkston remind us the reality of immigration is a far larger story than what to do about those who come here illegally. 

Pastor Kitchin of CIBC relishes the bigger story of many backgrounds in Clarkston, and despite the substantial challenges, he tells other Christians: “If you don’t like it here, you won’t like heaven.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports some 40 million foreign-born residents live in the United States. That number includes everyone from naturalized citizens to permanent residents (known as “green card” holders) to workers and students with temporary visas to immigrants without any legal status. 

In a significant shift, the number of new arrivals from Asia outnumbered new Latino immigrants in 2010 for the first time, according to the bureau: More than 430,000 Asians arrived in the United States—about 36 percent of new arrivals. Latinos comprised 31 percent of new arrivals. 

A much smaller number of refugees arrive each year—about 60,000. But along with other new arrivals, and some longtime residents, their transition raises questions, including how well they assimilate into American life. 

A recent study by the conservative Manhattan Institute found most major immigrant groups were more assimilated in 2009 than they were in 2000. (The study included factors like English skills, home ownership, and employment.) 

There were notable exceptions: Immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador showed far less progress over the same period of time, according to the study.

Manhattan Institute scholar Jacob Vigdor says factors like poverty and lack of education slow progress for Mexicans and similar groups. But he also notes immigrants who plan to stay longer often assimilate better.

Indeed, Vigdor says many Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s had few English skills and little money when they arrived, but many assimilated well: “When they know they can’t go home again, they realize they have to do whatever it takes to fit in.”

For refugees in Clarkston, fitting in happens in stages. 

The U.S. State Department defines a refugee as someone who has fled his home country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution. The United Nations estimates there are some 15.4 million refugees worldwide today.

Most refugees seek shelter in another country until they can return home. A smaller number become citizens in the country to which they fled. Less than 1 percent, usually the most endangered, settles in a third country after applying through the UN—a process that can take years. The United States accepts over half those refugees.

When they arrive, the State Department matches refugees with one of nine nonprofit groups–including the evangelical World Relief–and gives the groups $1,875 per refugee. The daunting challenge: Place individuals or families in an apartment, and try to settle them in about 90 days.

For many, truly resettling can take years.

Take job-hunting: In a small room on the second floor of Clarkston International Bible Church, eight refugees from at least four different countries sit behind a row of computers looking for work.

The job center is a project of Friends of Refugees, a local Christian group that offers services including classes for pregnant refugees navigating a complex healthcare system, and a “Mommy and Me” ESL class to help mothers and their small children learn English together. 

For those seeking work, the job center provides help with writing resumés, learning how to use email, and networking. Even those with extensive work experience find the challenges formidable. At a reception desk on a recent afternoon, center employee Lauren Mitchell asks an Iranian refugee with limited English a series of questions: 

How long have you been in the United States? “Two months.” 

Are you working now? “No.”

Do you have a car? “No?”

Do you have any family or children with you? “No.”

Are you available full-time? “Yes.”

In a follow-up conversation, the 33-year-old Iranian tells me he worked as an architect in Tehran. A member of the heavily persecuted Baha’i religion, he fled to Turkey when locals threatened his life. Since his parents remain in Iran, he doesn’t want to give his name.

He spent two years in Turkey, and he says finding work is difficult for refugees. When he struggles to explain in English, he grabs a blank sheet of paper and quickly draws a detailed sketch that looks like a blueprint. He points to windows and stripped walls to illustrate his job in Turkey: He installed insulation.

While his work skills seem evident, his English skills pose a serious challenge. When Mitchell asks what kind of work he would like to do, he haltingly replies: “My problem is I need money. My English isn’t so good. I’ll do any job.”

It’s a common refrain among refugees who want to work, but don’t know where to begin. In the Clarkston area, jobs are limited, and many refugees take minimum wage work at chicken factories or warehouses up to two hours away. After returning home from long shifts at grueling work, tackling a project like learning English is overwhelming to many.

But it’s a vital project, according to Kebede Haile, a volunteer at the center. The retired human resource officer is originally from Ethiopia, but is now an American citizen, and has lived in the United States for 45 years. He volunteers here because he’s grateful for how Americans helped him find entry-level work when he arrived. 

“I was just like them,” he says of the refugees at the center. “It’s really uncomfortable for them.”

But Haile encourages refugees to push through discomfort: When an Eritrean man approaches and asks a question in Amharic, Haile answers him in English. “It’s the most important thing for them,” he says.

In a small room next door, Adam Hoyt directs the job center, and he says the range of work experience is vast: “Everyone from folks who have lived in the jungles of Burma and have never worked for a company, to pediatric surgeons from Iraq.”

For any refugee, Hoyt encourages English classes, but he also notes the importance of relationships in the community. Having an American friend can play a critical role in navigating a new life and adjusting to a new culture—a role he and his family particularly enjoy as Christians: “This is where we’ve found the Lord’s delight.” 

And while Hoyt says challenges remain—including differences across refugee cultures—he says it’s encouraging to watch so many live in the same community.

“The fact is that every day thousands of Christians and Muslims and Eritreans and Somalis and Iraqis and Kurds are going to school together—and they get along,” he says. “It’s the unexciting story of everyday mediocrity that is probably one of the best signs that assimilation is happening.”

Dianne Leonetti agrees. She’s lived in Clarkston since 1986 and now serves as a city councilwoman. When other residents fled the city in the 1980s and 1990s, Leonetti and her husband stayed. 

Over lunch at a local Ethiopian restaurant, the councilwoman says she loves Clarkston’s diversity, but also acknowledges the strains on the small town. 

For example, though refugee children usually learn English quickly, they often have difficulty with standardized tests. That has left some area schools with abysmal achievement records, and has kept families with children from settling in Clarkston. 

Crime is high in Clarkston, with out-of-towners often preying on vulnerable refugees. Leonetti says the town has hired more police, but hasn’t received federal funds to help add the new officers. The per capita income in Clarkston is $17,000 a year, and drawing new businesses to town is difficult. That makes finding jobs difficult for refugees.

Similar strain has led a handful of other U.S. cities that host refugees to plead for a break, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal asked the federal government to send fewer refugees to his state this year. The U.S. State Department agreed to reduce the number of refugees settled in Georgia by 20 percent. 

Despite the challenges, Leonetti says Clarkston leaders are working on improvements to the city (like better streetscapes, parks, and business development) they hope will attract more residents to the town. 

Meanwhile, her church and other groups offer the kind of assistance that helps refugees adjust—everything from obtaining identification to reading letters from landlords to learning to trust local police. 

“I believe God doesn’t want the worst for people, He wants the best—including for municipalities,” she says. “He wants us to thrive.”

Leonetti acknowledges not everyone in the city has embraced the changes. “But we have to move forward,” she says. “Change is not always about feeling comfortable, but it is for the good.”

For Jay Taylor, embracing change is a daily reality. The pastor of Mosaic Fellowship (a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America) has lived in Clarkston more than a decade.

For the first 10 years, Taylor worked in sales, and his family lived in an apartment complex filled with refugees. He tutored students, led a Bible study for interested residents, and formed friendships with neighbors. 

Eventually, some of those neighbors embraced Christianity, and Taylor became a pastor. He and a group of Christians from another local church launched Mosaic nearly three years ago.

Starting a new church offered an opportunity for a new approach: From the beginning, Taylor has encouraged everyone to worship together, instead of breaking into ethnic groups. 

He hopes that kind of unity will help keep cultural differences from dominating the church community: “The farther you move away from the Tower of Babel towards the wedding supper of the Lamb, that becomes less and less the priority of people’s lives.”

Luca Peh is one of Mosaic’s attendees. Peh fled political unrest in Burma more than two decades ago, and lived in makeshift homes and refugee camps in Thailand until he came to America with his family about three years ago. 

These days, Peh lives in a modest apartment with his wife and four children near Clarkston, and helps other refugees resettle through his work as a translator for World Relief. 

During an afternoon visit, Peh explained some of the challenges: It’s hard for older refugees to learn English, and some likely never will. Long hours of work in factories include little interaction with others, and limited opportunities to learn the language. 

Another challenge: Refugees miss home. Cultural differences make it difficult to adjust, and Peh says befriending Americans isn’t easy for reserved outsiders.

Going to an English-speaking church helps, he says, though refugees still struggle with feeling unequal with Americans. (Taylor, who’s also visiting, leans forward in his chair and tells Peh: “We need you as much as you need us. We’re not the church without you.”)

Peh says he encourages other refugees to observe American life and try to follow customs. And as much as refugees miss their home countries, he reminds them: “It’s a new life, and we’re in a new country. There is no other best place.”

Across town, Rose is learning the same lesson. The African mother of four speaks good English, but still finds adjusting to America a challenge.

In the apartment she shares with her husband and children, Rose says she fled war-torn South Sudan with her family in the 1980s. She grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, but she worked hard and became a nurse. (Because of family back in Africa, she prefers to give only her first name.)

These days, a stack of flash cards with colorful diagrams of intestines sits on her couch: She’s going to school here. Since her nursing credentials don’t transfer, she’s enrolled in science classes at a community college and plans to pursue a nursing degree.

When Rose talks about Africa, she grows emotional: “There’s nothing that I don’t miss.” But she says relationships with local Christians help. A woman she calls her “American mom” from Clarkston International drives Rose and her children to church every Sunday: “It makes me feel like I am at home.”

Back at Clarkston International Bible Church, Pastor Kitchin hopes that dynamic continues. During a recent Sunday morning service, the audience is diverse, but the worship is similar to traditional services in other small Southern Baptist churches.

At the congregation’s weekly potluck lunch after the service, Kitchin says when he focuses on preaching from the Bible, he doesn’t worry much about cultural differences. Indeed, his sermon this morning echoed what he tells his congregation often. “When you do life together you are much stronger than when you do it apart,” he said. “That’s what fellowship is.”

See “More about Clarkston, the refugee city” by Rachel Cooper.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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  • dvbcbob
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:48 pm

    In one place there is a legal immigrant population and very little work. In another place farmers are saying they need workers and can't find any except for iilegal workers. What is a country to do?