Inside the Georgia city that has become a home away from home for refugees
▶ Watch Video: Inside “the most diverse square mile in America”
The plight of the world’s refugees has come into special focus following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.N. refugee agency says more than 1 million people have fled to Poland, Hungary, and other nations, and millions more could follow.
In the United States, the most recent influx of refugees came last summer, following the fall of Afghanistan. One place where they have been welcomed is the city of Clarkston, Georgia.
Over four decades, the city has hosted so many refugees from so many places that it has become known as “the most diverse square mile in America.”
A journalist who fled Afghanistan and has been asked to be identified simply as Ahmad has been named on more than one Taliban hit list. He and his family fled to the United States.
“We spent our whole life in Afghanistan, you know. We had friends there, our whole family were there,” Ahmad’s son, 20-year-old Aziz, told “CBS Saturday Morning” co-host Dana Jacobson.
After several months living at different U.S. military bases, the family of six now has a home in Clarkston. Their neighbors include people from all parts of the world including Nepal, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Clarkston is known as “Ellis Island of the South.” More than half of the population was born outside of the United States and 60 languages are spoken in the city’s one square mile.
The Atlanta-based nonprofit, Inspiritus, resettled Ahmad’s family and thousands of others since 1981. ESL classes, ethnic grocery stores and easily available public transportation help refugees settle into Clarkston.
“It’s a welcoming city, and it’s been that way for a very, very long time,” Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services at Inspiritus, Aimee Zangandou, said.
Inspiritus has resettled more than 600 Afghan refugees alone in the last three months. The nonprofit had settled just 74 total refugees in 2020. It was forced to downsize during the Trump administration, which capped refugee admissions in fiscal year 2020 at 18,000 — the lowest number since Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act.
“We’re still hiring, we’re still looking for resources, we’re still gathering communities, and partners that have partnered with us before that we want to try to bring back,” Zangandou said.
It’s not just the refugees who benefit from Clarkston’s open arms. Georgia native Kitti Murray launched Refuge Coffee in 2017. The nonprofit has hired and trained 50 people from over 17 countries, including her first hire, Leon Shombana, who fled the Congo 10 years ago.
“We are like people from the big family, you know. I can probably say, like you’re from a big family, different mother but one father. That is Refuge Coffee,” Shombana said.
While Clarkston prides itself in being about the “long welcome” for residents like Shombana who came and never left, it all starts with a place that is home in more than just the name.
“The people are very loving. They brought all these things, the furniture, the beds, the mattress, the kitchen, appliances all. They’re helping us a lot and we are very thankful to them,” Ahmad said.