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Atlanta: Resettled Refugees and the American South


Senior Fellow Jasmine Burton (Poland 2014) wrote "Atlanta: Resettled Refugees and the American South" as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Fellowship.


Over the past 10 years, thousands of refugees have immigrated to a small town known as Clarkston in DeKalb County, Georgia, only 20 minutes outside of Atlanta, my home town, making it “the most diverse square mile in America” according to The New York Times. Clarkston once was the epitome of historic Southern tradition with white picket fences, large Baptist choirs, and a predominantly homogenous population. However, in the 1980s, the refugee resettlement programs and the US State Department determined that Clarkston was a place that was well suited for a diverse group of displaced peoples since the cost of living was low and public transportation was relatively accessible. The 2000s marked the time when this quaint town began seeing massive demographic transformation as Clarkston High School boasted students from over 50 countries, the local mosque housed 800 worshippers, and an estimated half of the population was originally from outside of the United States (1). “This influx of people from all over the world has transformed Clarkston from a sleepy, unassuming Southern city to one of the most diverse communities in the United States. Clarkston’s kaleidoscopic community has become a leading example of the joys and frustrations facing our rapidly diversifying nation” (2).

According to One Region Atlanta, an organization dedicated to building a more inclusive region, a refugee is “a person who flees his or her homeland because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, political belief, ethnicity or belonging to a certain social group” (3). The United Nations states that in 2013 alone approximately 15 million refugees were waiting for a sustained living solution (ie. returning home safely, becoming integrated in their new host country, or being resettled). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees states that the majority of refugees live in camps for a minimum of 7-8 years before having the chance to be relocated somewhere more ‘permanent,’ although many live in the camps for the majority of their lives. Historically, Georgia has been one of the 49 US states that has welcomed refugees, whom, after rigorous background and medical screenings, obtain legal immigration status and are eligible for employment, public school, and social services in Georgia. There are a host of local refugee resettlement agencies including Lutheran Ministries of Georgia (now Lutheran Services of Georgia), Catholic Charities, New American Pathways, and the International Rescue Committee, in addition to a myriad of refugee service providing organizations such as Global Growers Network, Plywood People, and Jewish Family Services. All of these organizations have not only embraced Clarkston as a major city for resettlement, but work to empower these refugees to become employed, tax-paying members of the Georgia economy once they receive citizenship while also giving them a community of support with people from similar cultures and shared experiences. “CRSA, or the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies- resettlement partners welcome new arrivals to Georgia and help ensure a smooth transition to their new home. The weeks and months following a refugee’s arrival are filled with essential assistance from resettlement staff as they help families gain access to health and social services, register for school and English classes, and receive cultural orientations, among many other services” (4). However, much of the “Old Clarkston” residents have expressed concerns about “changes in local economies and threats to safety”. Even the State of Georgia has experienced some major growing pains evidenced by the following case.” In August 2012, the Georgia Department of Human Services sent a letter to the US State Department requesting a 50 percent reduction rate in refugee resettlement within the state. The letter cited Clarkston’s high resettlement rates, gang violence, and school budget shortfalls as evidence that Georgia could not absorb more refugees. The State Department responded to these concerns by encouraging local resettlement agencies to only resettle refugees joining family in Clarkston. It also agreed to decrease resettlement in Georgia by 20%” (2).

With the rise of the contentious issue surrounding refugee resettlement, there has been incredible growth and market for philanthropy and especially social entrepreneurship which “sits at the intersection of entrepreneurialism and social good” according to HUB Atlanta’s founder, Michelle Morgan. In 2012, Morgan said “I see the city and the region as an ecosystem ripe for this type of business typology [because] I’m an advocate for business and investment. My primary agenda is economic development-creative jobs and building things” (16). Many of the refugee service providing and resettlement organizations are funded through NGOs and philanthropies while simultaneously inspiring social entrepreneurship and economic growth for the benefit of the community by members of the communities themselves through a concept known as bottom up innovation. In 2013, Ted Terry, the Mayor of Clarkston said, “Welcoming refugees is not only good humanitarian practice, but also makes sound economic sense.” Additionally, it has been noted via the CRS 2014 Annual Report that “Refugee entrepreneurs are expanding prosperity for all Atlantans by opening new businesses that add to the tax base, employ local residents, and bring fresh ideas and products to our community! (4)”

The culmination of this knowledge following my 2014 Humanity in Action Fellowship in Warsaw, Poland, where I worked on an international team that designed a social media awareness campaign called freeRefugee, as well as my after piloting my senior design teams’ award-winning invention, the SafiChoo toilet in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya last summer as well, I discovered my heart for refugee rights and empowerment. I then discovered that there are over 43 million refugees in the world today, the largest number in history. I have since founded my own social enterprise, Wish for WASH, LLC which is a social impact organization that strives to bring innovation to sanitation in developing regions with a specific goal of better meeting basic human and health-related needs in refugee camps and communities. For this Humanity in Action Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Fellowship, my research hypothesis was the following:

Living in an ostracized state, many of the refugees who resettle in Clarkston live their entire lives without ever interacting with an American, which makes it easier for inadequate healthcare, culturally inappropriate food, and dense living situations of these refugees to go unnoticed.

Being an Atlanta native who was largely unaware of refugee resettlement let alone about how much of a contentious socioeconomic and political issue it has become, I began fostering relationships with refugee-based nonprofits and social enterprises in the Greater Atlanta Area, including many of the organizations listed above, as well as some international refugee agencies. The steady influx of refugees and displaced people into Georgia over the course of a financially unstable period in a historically conservative state lead me to form preconceived notions about harsher injustices that they may face in the work place, worsened living conditions, and perhaps even internal discrimination between refugees from differing origins. Better understanding these internalized hypotheses was the crux of my research. I conducted a qualitative literary review regarding refugee resettlement in the Clarkston community in addition to interviewing five refugee aide and resettlement organizations on the local and international levels so that I could better grasp the reality of the situation according to literature and via firsthand account interviews. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, County Commissioner Stan Watson said that “if [DeKalb county] enhances what immigrants are already doing, build it into international trade and growth, we’d have an economy like no other because it would be “fiscally responsible for DeKalb to capitalize on the people already in the community” rather than ostracizing them for social differences (5). This statement aligns with the reality that the term ‘refugee’ is a status for people who are seeking citizenship, a home, stability, and who are largely not interested in receiving handouts because they seek to be contributing members of society-a sentiment that I collected during an interview with an ESL instructor at New American Pathways. “At New American Pathways, we seek to help resettled refugees succeed in life by not just surviving but thriving” (7).

However, despite this internal drive to provide for themselves in an effort to rebuild their lives and families, which both New American Pathways and Global Growers Network can attest to as it is felt from much of the refugee community in Georgia, a 2013 Creative Loafing article called “Don’t Shut the Door on Refugees” discussed that many state officials under Governor Nathan Deal believed that “refugees drain more resources than they add to Georgia, and, moreover, too much diversity is a drag on our cities, counties, and state” (8). Brian Bollinger, the author of this Creative Loafing opinion piece, was a full time refugee resettlement professional in Georgia who identified as a “conservative, evangelical Christian” in 2013 when he wrote an article, stating “in [his] experience, placing refugees into thousands of entry-level jobs in nearly 200 North Georgia companies during these past several years of brutal recession, [he’s] seen firsthand that refugees don’t ‘steal’ jobs from anyone. Refugees are filling jobs that, more often than not, American citizens just will not consistently do. And those jobs need supervisors, which are filled by locals. It’s a symbiotic market relationship” (8). Bollinger went on to say that refugees who were arriving in 2013 experience “cultural orientation training that our great-grandparents who arrived on Ellis Island — or even refugees 20 years ago — couldn’t have fathomed, and the vast majority of them take it to heart. Those programs are improving exponentially every year, thanks to such organizations such as Washington, D.C.’s Center for Applied Linguistics, which operates orientation programs in refugee camps abroad. [Additionally], refugees in [his] neighborhood [were] statistically less likely than the average neighbor ([himself] included) to wind up in trouble for criminal or domestic violence. And when they do, their community structures often provide accountability to get them back on track, rather than railroading them into the prison-industrial complex” (8).

While Bollinger’s testament was written in 2013, it is echoed by a member of the Jewish Family Services Atlanta team who talked about how refugees in Georgia do not “take” American jobs, because they do jobs that would otherwise be unappealing for most Americans such as entry level jobs in the poultry industry in the interview that I conducted with him. He also stated that both Republicans and Democrats have had their own reasons for supporting or not supporting legal immigration and refugee resettlement regardless of the historic voting nature of the state as a result of fear, religion, job security, and/or social service provision (9).

Several interviews with and resources about the provision of refugee resettlement service in Georgia rejected my original hypotheses and assumptions. The Executive Director of New American Pathways, Paedia Mixon said that “the refugees [New American Pathways’] serve interact with Americans from the moment they arrive [via] a large pool of volunteers, staff, interns and AmeriCorps members who engage with refugees and provide support and friendship along the way. [Additionally], Clarkston signed on to the’ Welcoming Cities’ initiative and has many residents who enjoy the multi-cultural environment of the city and actively engage with their neighbors. Former refugees and other business owners have opened food stores in Clarkston that carry a wide variety of culturally appropriate food such as Thrift Town and Talars International. Clarkston residents are also a bus ride away from the DeKalb Farmers market. Thanks to [refugee service organizations such as] Friends of Refugees, Global Growers and the Clarkston Community Center, many Clarkston residents, refugees included, are growing their food in community gardens.”

Regarding the overall refugee access of equitable healthcare, Mixon explained that many refugees in Georgia have lived in camps where “access to healthcare was very limited and have often faced trauma”. She believes that it is very important for refugees to have access to health services immediately when they arrive in Georgia. She mentioned that “there are some very good culturally and linguistically appropriate health care providers in and around Clarkston and, in the first months in the country, when refugees have Refugee Medical Benefits, most of [New American Pathways’] clients get the services they need.” However, refugee health benefits expire after a prescribed period of time, and, unfortunately, refugees who do not have access to employer health benefits struggle to get the health services they truly need. “Like other low income Georgians, many times their income is too low to qualify for subsidized insurance through the AHA Exchange” and because Georgia has not to expanded to Medicaid, “resettled refugees in Georgia do not qualify for Medicaid either.” The best strategy that resettlement organizations can implement for dealing with this issue is to try and place refugees in jobs that offer health benefits (7).

Conversely, the famous book called Outcasts United about the diverse group of refugee boys that came together despite their differences under the leadership of a strong female soccer coach, Luna, that birthed the Fugees soccer team in Clarkston, captured the essence of Clarkston’s resettlement living conditions and internally facing discriminations in the early 2000s. “The housing plan encapsulated everything that was wrong with the way refugee resettlement was being handled in their town. The federal government did not provide the agencies with enough money to do the job required of them, and the agencies-in addition to lacking a basic understanding of the plights of the people they were resettling weren’t willing to admit that they were too overwhelmed to do the job (17).” Additionally, Outcasts United author Warren St. John wrote about how “the Bantu [lived] in the same complexes as many of the ethnic groups that historically had prosecuted them. These people were living terror (17)!” To this point, representatives from the majority of Georgia Resettlement agencies with whom I spoke supported the notion that “the events [that occurred in Outcasts United] happened almost a decade ago. A lot has changed in Clarkston [especially regarding] the new mayor, Ted Terry” and his views on and approaches to resettlement in Georgia (7). These interviews juxtaposed with this literature-shed light on a large and severely marginalized community only 20 minutes away from my hometown. The synthesis of this research has enabled me to view this research as a microcosm of all refugee-facing work on the global stage by helping me to understand the complexities of politics that surround both the people that have this ‘refugee’ status as well as the direct services that are provided for them.

Overall, this research has enabled me to see that refugee work is inherently political, as resettlement is approved and supported by government sanctions; however, people from both sides of the American political spectrum support refugee resettlement in Clarkston. They do so by founding and working for nonprofits and social enterprises that provide resettled refugees with a myriad of services including ESL classes, transportation training to get around Atlanta, grocery shopping support, living accommodations, “how to get hired into an American job” training and healthcare support, all of which ease the transition of resettlement into the United States. Simultaneously, people from both American political parties resist refugee resettlement for reasons including job displacement and for fear of losing their community norms. Based on this information, I have come to realize that the people whose lives are directly affected by refugee resettlement-people living in Clarkston prior to the government sanction or people working in jobs that would warmly welcome an influx of entry level workers- tend to have a harder time adjusting to the influx of refugees and new cultures, which was particularly poignant during the economic recession in 2008 in Georgia. However, the people whose lives are indirectly affected by refugee resettlement tend to show more support in terms of providing services and trainings via refugee resettlement programs or by supporting the economic growth of refugee founded businesses for the sake of Georgia’s overall economic and social diversity. The reality of these political complexities and this collective notion of “self-preservation” that is felt by many groups of people who are refugees or who are debating refugee resettlement and immigration policies is particularly important for me to understand as a creative professional striving to empower low resource communities through social impact design and health equity advocacy. ‘Refugee’ is a status held by a severely marginalized and often times stigmatized group of people who are often times protected and aided by refugee resettlement agencies that are funded by philanthropies and that inspire community led social enterprises in order to move past this status to reclaim their sense of humanity. As a Philanthropy and Social Enterprise Humanity in Action Fellow, I recognize the parallel between resettled refugees in Atlanta and Detroit natives following the famous decline of the city’s prosperity because it is the role of philanthropy and social enterprises to empower theses struggling communities to reclaim their identities and reach their full potential. The resettlement agencies that support refugees embody this quote by Kofi A. Annann, the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations from Ghana, “I urge you to celebrate the extraordinary courage and contributions of refugees past and present.”

 •     •     • 

About the Author

Jasmine Burton founded Wish for WASH, LLC as an organization intended to bring innovation to sanitation through culturally specific design, research and education beginning in refugee communities. Her senior design team won first place and the people’s choice awards at the 2014 InVenture Prize Competition for the SafiChoo, an inexpensive mobile toilet intended to reduce the spread of diseases. The winnings enabled the team to pilot their design in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya under the auspices of Sanivation. Jasmine has since been working with a new team and with resettled refugees in Atlanta via the nonprofit, the Global Growers Network, in hopes of iterating the design to best meet user needs. She was born and raised in Atlanta. Jasmine is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow (Poland 2014).


Creative Commons photo (2013) by Davecito


1. Ortman, Jennifer M. et al. “An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States.” May 2014. https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1140.pdf

2. Southeastern Synod ELCA: “The Ellis Island of the South”: Refugee Resettlement in Clarkston, GA (Southeastern Synod ELCA: “The Ellis Island of the South”: Refugee Resettlement in Clarkston, GA)

3. http://www.oneregionatlanta.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/20131010FactsAboutRef ugeesinGeorgia.pdf

4. “Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies.” 2013 Annual Report. 2013. http://newamericanpathways.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CRSA-AnnualReport-2013-final.pdf.

5. Hunt, April. “DeKalb Welcomes Migrants, Boosts Its Economy.” Atlanta Journal Constitution, November 28, 2012.

6. Cauley, H.M. “Refugees Foundation Helps Others In Need.” Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 31, 2014.

7. Mixon, Paedia. “New American Pathways and Refugee Resettlement.” E-mail interview by author. May 14, 2015.

8. Bollinger, Brian. “Don’t Shut the Door on Refugees.” Creative Loafing, February 21, 2013.

9. Zane. “Jewish Family Services and Refugee Resettlement.” Telephone interview by author. April 10, 2015.

10. Wright, Rev. Bryant. “Refugees Ought to Be Welcomed, Not Spurned.” The Marietta Daily Journal, March 19, 2014. http://mdjonline.com/bookmark/24770509-Refugees-oughtto-be-welcomed-not-spurned.

11. “New American Pathways: Helping Refugees in Georgia Thrive.” Newsletter.

12. Top 10 Reasons to Hire a Refugee from World Relief (Top 10 Reasons to Hire a Refugee from World Relief) http://worldrelief.org/page.aspx?pid=2327

13. Chanin, Robin. “Global Growers Network and Refugee Resettlement.” Interview by author. June 7, 2015.

14. Cribb, Laura. “Catholic Chartities (Music Therapy) and Refugee Resettlement.” Interview by author. May 4, 2015.

15. Smith, Kelsey. “New American Pathways (ESL) and Refugee Resettlement.” Interview by author. May 4, 2015.

16. A Case for Social Entrepreneurship in Atlanta | Venture Atlanta (Venture Atlanta) http://ventureatlanta.org/2012/11/a-case-for-social-entrepreneurship-in-atlanta/ 6

17. John, Warren. Outcasts United: A Refugee Soccer Team, an American Town. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.

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