Known as the Ellis Island of the south, Clarkston, Georgia is considered by some to be the most diverse square mile in the country.
After the Refugee Act of 1980 was signed by President Jimmy Carter, Clarkston became one of many locations around the country where refugees would restart their lives. Since then, more than 40,000 refugees have started their new lives in Clarkston.
Clarkston is filled with ethnic grocery stores with storefront signs in a variety of languages. And in the town that hosts huddled masses from more than 40 countries, a bright red truck is parked in the center of it all.
Two years ago, Refuge Coffee owner Kitti Murray bought the truck on Craigslist for $3,000. “For 30 years, I was a pastor's wife and a soccer mom,” Murray said. “And I really love coffee, and I really love spending time with people.”
Murray moved to Clarkston in 2012 and saw that while the city was rich in cultural diversity, it was lacking in integration.
“What we really felt like we needed here was a multiethnic kind of agendaless gathering place,” Murray said.
Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said Refuge Coffee has helped bring the community together.
“They provided a place where people from all over Clarkston, and because they're all over Clarkston, they're from all over the world, can come together and share a good cup of coffee,” Terry said.
The other mission Murray took on was to use her new business to help create jobs for a community of people trying to assimilate into American life.
“We saw that opportunities for good jobs that were here were not abounding,” Murray said. “We though we could combine this desire to create a place for people to feel welcomed and to create jobs.”
Refuge Coffee employs 12 people, half of whom are refugees. Malek Alarmash is a Syrian who came from a refugee camp in Jordan in the last year.
“I was a student as a dentist technician in Damascus University,” Alarmash said. “I heard shots, and I heard bombs, and I heard rockets. There are many houses or many families or many homes, they don't have electricity, they don't have water, they don't even have food.”
Alarmash left Syria with his parents and sister in 2012.
“It’s war, it’s disgusting what’s going on over there,” Alamash said. “You just hope, pray that you will be alive for your family, and you'll be safe.”
When Alarmash arrived in Clarkston, a friend of his told him about Murray. He soon began working at his first job in America.
“Refuge Coffee gave me chances, opportunities, made me improve my English, introduced me to the community here,” Alarmash said. “I need this chance to improve myself, so they gave me the chance, feeling welcome, feeling home.”
Murray said her team at Refuge is more of a family, and she tries to provide them with more than a job.
“We do classroom training and we do on-the-job training,” Murray said. “When they leave us, they have this vast network of American relationships.”
The people of Clarkston have embraced the coffee shop and have used it to hold a variety of gatherings, including an Iftar dinner during Ramadan for the Muslim community. However, Refuge has been the brunt of some condemnation outside of Clarkston.
“I hear some times, ‘Oh, great. We take in the terrorists,’" Murray said. “And I just want to say, ‘Do you understand these are the people who have run for their lives from terrorists?’”
Murray believes her idea, while “super simple,” can be an effective tool to fight xenophobia.
“A lot of the fear, I understand it,” Murray said. “But it's so unfounded. The way it's going to change is if you sit down and have cup of coffee with somebody.”