Williams: As Immigration Issues Roil the Nation, One Georgia Community and School Welcomes Refugees


Atlanta, Georgia

In 1878, the Georgia Department of Agriculture published a little book under the odd title A Manual of Georgia for the Use of Immigrants and Capitalists. “Georgia,” it began, “is, perhaps, less known in foreign lands, and to their inhabitants who have sought homes in the Western World, than any other State.”

Outside of the state’s large population of freed slaves, brought forcibly from Africa, Georgia’s last significant wave of new residents came with the original British colonists. “She lies geographically remote from the old thoroughfares of international commerce,” the Manual notes. “Few immigrants from the Old World have landed on her shores.”

In the wake of the Civil War, however, Georgia was ready to become more “known” overseas — the Manual is a paean to the state’s many supposed charms. Georgia, it notes, is home to “the finest timber country on the continent,” and its death rate compares favorably to Michigan’s (“one of the healthiest States in the Union”). The book reflects a relatively straightforward theory of economics and demographics: Georgia needed to reinvent itself and its economy — so it needed an influx of new people.

Nearly a century and a half later, the Manual’s mission appears to be accomplished. Since 1990, Georgia’s foreign-born community has quadrupled as a share of the population, from 2.7 percent to 10 percent. In 2000, 1 in 10 Georgia children had at least one immigrant parent. By 2015, 1 in 5 Georgia kids did.

Like with many other U.S. communities who have recently become immigrant gateways, these shifts are sparking both economic opportunities and (sometimes ungainly) cultural adjustments. Indeed, the past few weeks of national attention on the administration’s policy of separating asylum-seekers at the border have laid bare the brutality — and ugliness — of American immigration narratives.

It is one thing to grow an economy, and quite another to build a community — especially since trouble with one of those projects invariably threatens the other. In Georgia, as in many American states, cities, and towns, folks are finding it takes serious, thoughtful, and compassionate work for communities to reap immigration’s full range of benefits.

Incidentally, all the way back in 1878, the Manual’s position on immigrant integration couldn’t have been clearer: “Their examples of industry, economy, cheerfulness, and respect for law, have made them useful members of society, and large contributors to the energy and wealth of the State.”

In 2018, nowhere is the new Georgia more visible than in the Atlanta metro area. Drive east out of the city on Ponce De Leon Avenue, past the town of Decatur, and turn into “Your DeKalb Farmers Market,” an enormous international supermarket selling a dizzying array of ingredients from jackfruit and durian to baba ganoush, amaranth, quail, and goat.

Buy a samosa from the market’s lunch buffet, and then drive a few more miles down Ponce to Clarkston, one of the country’s “most diverse square miles.” Stop in at Refuge Coffee, a nonprofit café staffed by refugees and run out of a food truck parked in an old gas station parking lot. That cup of joe helps pay the man behind the counter a living wage — and helps fund the job training class he’ll be taking later that day.

Kitti Murray, Refuge Coffee’s founder, fuels up on caffeine under the station’s old pump canopies. With each sip, she flashes a wrist tattoo reading “grace.” Murray, a cheerful grandmother, writer, and pastor’s wife, got inked as part of a Refuge fundraiser.

The initial idea, says Refuge’s director of job training, Walt Anderson, was to create “a central gathering place where there can be this crossroads and intersection of ideas and stories and connectedness.”

Refugee resettlement programs have brought thousands of new residents to the area. Nearly half of Clarkston’s approximately 11,000 residents speak a non-English language at home. Refuge talks about these newcomers in the same terms as the Manual. “[Refugees] offer so much to whatever community that they live in,” says Murray. “Don’t ever see them as people with needs. See them as people that are assets. I mean, I would go so far as to say that you don’t need to do anything for them. Just figure out ways to do things with them.”

Newcomers are both central to — and emblematic of — the Sun Belt’s growing economy. Refuge has built out programming to help area refugees develop core language and job skills that will allow them to contribute and succeed in their new home.

Still, these demographic changes can present challenges. Labor markets may draw in new residents and local economies may thrive on their contributions, but the process of welcoming, integrating, and getting to know immigrants and refugees as neighbors can be uncomfortable for native-born Americans and newcomers alike.

Georgia’s religious and political leaders sometimes speak warmly about the new residents attracted to their state’s hot economy. But state legislators recently sparked anger from pro-immigrant activists by floating legislation that would mark non-citizens’ drivers licenses to identify them as immigrants. In 2013, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal pushed the U.S. State Department to reduce the number of refugees resettled in Georgia.

Anderson and Murray believe that such anxieties tend to come from folks who don’t interact regularly with newcomers. So Refuge hosts outdoor community watch parties when Atlanta sports teams play, hosts a 5K run, and runs a slate of programs designed to simply get native-born Americans and refugees into rooms with one another.

“For me, these people who are refugees — I think that’s a significant sentence, because they’re people, first. They’re not just other refugees. That’s not their identity. Their identity is personhood,” says Anderson.

Naturally, the work of immigrant integration isn’t just about adults. The region’s new diversity is showing up in its schools as well. In the past decade, the number of English language learning students in Georgia schools increased by over 60 percent (nationwide growth was about 5 percent). Clarkston-area elementary schools serve disproportionately large ELL populations: they make up 85 percent of students at Indian Creek Elementary School and 62 percent at Jolly Elementary School. For comparison: across the United States, ELLs aren’t quite 10 percent of school enrollment.

Many Clarkston families send their children to the International Community School (ICS), a nearby public charter school (45 percent ELL) with immigrant and refugee student integration as part of its mission. Like Refuge Coffee, ICS makes family engagement a central goal.

“There’s a sense of community and getting to know the families,” says ICS teacher Kristen Okada, “[We] have a little more freedom in the way that we do it, because we’re a charter school.”

Founded in 2002, ICS runs the International Baccalaureate program, a comprehensive and internationally benchmarked set of academically rigorous curricula. “We’re global thinkers here,” says principal Chad Velde-Cabrera. “We value multiple perspectives, we value what each of our kids brings, because we have kids from over 30 countries.”

(Disclosure: My mother-in-law taught at ICS for several years in the 2000s.)

Integration is central to ICS’s model — and its reality. One-third of its students are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, slightly over one-third are African American, and almost one-fifth are white. Multiracial and Hispanic students make up the remaining 10 percent. Around half of the school’s students come from recent immigrant and/or refugee families.

“We really do have something special here that could be modeled in other places,” says board member — and former ICS teacher — Maggie Deaton. “The idea of having students who have just arrived from a refugee camp, or siblings of students whose families came from refugee camps and also having lawyers’ children or professors’ children, it motivates you as a teacher, because you look at one child being able to reach these high levels academically, and you say, ‘This is possible, so I need to bring my game up because I need to give the same access to this child, who’s equally valuable.’ It does something to you as an educator that might not exist if you had only a whole classroom of [refugee children].”

Further, ICS sees its community’s multilingualism as a strength. While ELL students head off for a block of targeted English language instruction, their English-proficient peers go off to Spanish or French classes. The idea is to reduce the stigma students might associate with being classified as ELLs. At ICS, all students are learning something new at the same time. It also simplifies the schedule: kids who head out to work on their English don’t miss math or reading or other academics.

“[ELLs] aren’t feeling like the other kids may be judging them … everybody’s going to a language,” says ICS teacher Suzanne Balint.

Some of this social capital building happens through other school activities. “We have so many different programs for kids,” says Velde-Cabrera. “We have a huge soccer program … we’re turning it into a soccer school.” Around one-third of ICS students participate. Not coincidentally, Atlanta United prospect Lagos Kunga is an ICS alumnus.

The school also offers mentoring programs, a running club, a drama group, cooking, gardening, afterschool academic support, a family food co-op, and more. ICS leaders say these help engage students and families with the school, but also help build connective tissue throughout and across the broader community as families connect over logistics and shared interests.

Things are changing fast in Georgia. As recently as 1996, Gary M. Pomerantz could, in his best-selling Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, introduce Georgia’s capital city — and its defining racial dynamics — thusly: “Atlanta is not a New York City shaped by waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.”

But just 13 years later, in his best-selling book on a heroic soccer team of young refugees in Clarkston, Outcasts United, Warren St. John could note, “Between 1996 and 2001, more than nineteen thousand refugees were resettled in Georgia, and many of those ended up in or around Clarkston … [in 2000], fully one-third of Clarkston’s population was foreign-born.”

Where does all of this leave the state? Its shifting demographics signal the strength of its economic present and could serve as the foundation for an increasingly diverse, plural, and wealthy future. But that bright horizon is nothing certain. The Manual promised that “Georgia always receives such accessions to her population with open arms.” This appears to be the present rule in Clarkston, but much depends on how local leaders respond.

Anderson doesn’t see it as a choice: “As a person of faith, I have a mandate to welcome the alien, to welcome the foreigner, to welcome the refugee and the immigrant, because the Holy Book of my faith, the Bible, says that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

For Velde-Cabrera, meanwhile, the gap between native-born American families and newcomers isn’t as wide as folks think.

“[Refugee families] are just like you and me. We all want the same things in life. We all want safety, we want food, a nice home, and we want to be happy. Refugee families work really, really hard,” he says. “There’s so many misconceptions, and just from my experience … working in all different kinds of schools in the U.S., you know, we’ve got our differences, but when it comes down to it, we all want the same things, and so we’ve got to learn how to get across barriers and get to know each other.”

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