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

Residents of Clarkston, Georgia, reflect on living in a town that has absorbed thousands of refugees.
Residents of Clarkston, Georgia, reflect 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.

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Credit APM Research Lab
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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.”

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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

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

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.

Edna Soliman

Edna Soliman has found her community working at Refuge Coffee Co.
Credit Andrea Tudope / America Amplified
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Edna Soliman has found her community working at Refuge Coffee Co.

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.

Sushma Barakoti

Sushma Barakoti sees Clarkston, Georgia, as a launching pad for refugees, catering to newcomers with a network of support agencies such as the Refugee Women's Network, which she runs.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified
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Sushma Barakoti sees Clarkston, Georgia, as a launching pad for refugees, catering to newcomers with a network of support agencies such as the Refugee Women's Network, which she runs.

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.

Amina Osman

Amina Osman is know around town as Mama Clarkston.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / America Amplified
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Amina Osman is know around town as Mama Clarkston.

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.

James McNeely

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

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.

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

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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