CLARKSTON, Ga. – Tucked within just over a square mile of land bordered by Georgia’s Stone Mountain Freeway and Interstate 285 east of Atlanta, the tiny city of Clarkston is easy to miss. But for decades, this community has welcomed thousands of refugees looking to begin a new life in the United States.
As home since the 1970s to refugees fleeing oppression and war, Clarkston has been hailed as “the most diverse square mile in America,” where residents have proudly adopted the nickname “The Ellis Island of the South.” Because of its proximity to Atlanta’s plentiful job market, and its convenient access to public transportation and affordable housing, it became a hub for refugee resettlement after the Vietnam War. Over time, the 60,000 refugees who arrived in Clarkston from around the world transformed the once White-majority community dotted with goat farms into an enclave of radical diversity. More than half of Clarkston’s population of about 13,000 people is foreign-born, City Manager Robin Gomez said.
“You cannot find this diversity of people in other places in Georgia,” said Leon Shombana, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has lived in Clarkston for nine years and works as a manager at Refuge Coffee downtown. “We are from every corner of the world. It makes this place unique.”
In recent months, as thousands of people fled Afghanistan following the collapse of the government there, even Clarkston, which is known for its services for refugees, is struggling to keep up with the pace of the arrivals. As part of the Biden administration’s goal of welcoming 95,000 Afghans to the United States, 1,700 are anticipated to come to Georgia this year, and hundreds are slated to land in Clarkston.
“Clarkston is the center of our resettlement universe. It’s our first choice,” said Paedia Mixon, chief executive of New American Pathways, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that provides services to refugees. “People want to be close to Clarkston.”
Resettlement agencies and local affiliates were hit hard during the Trump administration, however, when the federal government severely reduced the number of refugees who could enter the United States. In fiscal 2021, 11,411 refugees were resettled in the United States, the lowest number since Congress established the Office of Refugee Resettlement more than 40 years ago. By contrast, the Biden administration has raised the cap to 125,000 people. The sudden influx of new arrivals from Afghanistan has strained organizations that were forced to downsize or close.
“In the last five years, we barely survived,” said Aimee Zangandou, director of refugee and immigrant services at Inspiritus, which serves refugees in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. “We were preparing to staff up and rebuild the program, and while we were doing that, the Afghan crisis happened. It has been a challenge for us.”
Resettlement agencies struggling to rebuild after being hobbled by President Donald Trump’s reductions have also had to overcome supply and staffing shortages and, most pressingly, scarce available housing for the Afghan arrivals.
Nationwide, agencies working with refugees have scrambled to find temporary shelter for them while they work to secure permanent housing. Many families from Afghanistan have started their new life in hotels, spare rooms of willing hosts or Airbnb apartments before finding a permanent home.
Although Clarkston has dozens of apartment complexes within city limits, the supply of units is low.
“The biggest current challenge is housing,” said Marjan Nadir, who immigrated to Clarkston from Afghanistan in 2000 and now helps resettle refugees with the Georgia-based Refugee Women’s Network. “The apartment complexes are full.”
One family that escaped from Afghanistan in August spent months in temporary housing while waiting for a place to open in Clarkston. Nader, 34, an economist who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and asked that his full name not be used out of fear of reprisal from the Taliban against relatives still in Afghanistan, arrived in the United States with his wife and their six children this summer. Like many of the recent migrants from Afghanistan, they were granted Humanitarian Parole, a temporary status that provides them most refugee benefits, but not formal refugee status.
On the day they fled their home in Kabul, Nader and his family were given only 45 minutes to pack their belongings and board a bus to the airport. With their children, ranging in age from 2 to 13, Nader and his wife carried essentials in small backpacks – a couple of sets of clothes, diapers, juice, water and a little food – and rushed to the rendezvous point.
“We left everything behind,” Nader said. “We were just praying to survive the storm and somehow be able to get out.” Packed inside a bus without air-conditioning, the family rode through the summer heat toward the airport in Kabul, their second attempt at escape after large crowds had blocked their way to the airport a week earlier. Taliban forces along the road stopped the bus several times to question them. They arrived at the airport hours later, exhausted and hungry.
“It was chaos,” Nader said. “There were so many people. The kids were crying.”
A plane flew them to Qatar, and the family slept in a hangar for two nights before arriving at Fort Pickett, an Army National Guard base in Blackstone, Va. They stayed there for weeks, waiting to be processed with thousands of other Afghans. With the help of Inspiritus, the regional resettlement agency, the family found a temporary place to live in Decatur, Ga. In November, three months after they fled Kabul, the family of eight found a permanent home, a two-bedroom apartment in Clarkston.
Nader’s days are now busy as he navigates his new city, which offers many resources to help people like him. The influx of immigrants in Clarkston over the years has attracted private ministries, businesses and service organizations that cater to newcomers, and locally-owned restaurants opened by refugees serve food from around the world. Schools in Clarkston offer English-language programs. Even Clarkston’s small police force has access to a mobile service on their phones that provides interpreters fluent in more than 170 languages.
In the center of town, Refuge Coffee, a nonprofit business, hires refugees to provide work experience. Refuge, which operates out of a refurbished garage with a red barista truck outside, serves as a community space for large public gatherings in town, including meetings for neighborhood groups and Iftar dinners during Ramadan. On the side of the building, a pantry is available to anyone who needs food, water or supplies. A colorful sign reads, “Free Food” in several languages.
For Thanksgiving week, local ministries and nonprofit groups are rolling out the welcome mat for refugees. The Clarkston International Bible Church, a longtime hub for refugee services where members have opened their homes to Afghans amid the housing shortage, will hold a holiday service in five languages. The event will give established residents an opportunity to meet new ones and invite them to a family dinner, said the Rev. Jason Lee, one of the church’s pastors. For Afghans still living in temporary housing, the Refugee Women’s Network plans to deliver hot meals to 20 families on Thanksgiving. And the following week, Refuge Coffee is planning a “Friendsgiving” potluck for the community.
With his résumé polished, Nader is searching for work while tending to his family. He is still waiting to secure his Special Immigrant Visa, a Georgia driver’s license and a Social Security card. His school-age children will soon start attending classes.
“We’re grateful for the government and the people here,” Nader said. “They welcomed us and gave us a home here. We are very grateful for everything. There’s no more danger.”