Cover Story
WELCOME: A refugee from Nepal in Clarkston, Ga.
Robin Nelson/Genesis
WELCOME: A refugee from Nepal in Clarkston, Ga.

Cities of refuge

Immigration | 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

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

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.

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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. 

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