Third Country: refugee resettlement in Clarkston, Ga.

Last night I attended a discussion of refugee resettlement efforts in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The Horizon Theatre Company hosted the session, which was tied to the first run performance of Atlanta playwright Suehyla El-Attar’s Third Country.

Panelists  Jeremy Lewis (CDF: A Collective Action Initiative), McKenzie Wren (Clarkston Community Center), J.D. McCrary (International Rescue Committee), Emily Pelton (Refugee Family Services), and Omar Shekhey (Somali American Community Center) discussed the challenges and rewards of their work. The five spoke about language barriers, housing, and the ways in which their organizations complement each other’s work.

Audience members asked hard questions about how refugees adjust to life in the “third country” (their homelands are the first country; initial host nations are their second; and, places like the U.S. where permanent resettlement occurs are the third). Clarkston CIty Council member Dean Moore was in the audience and he answered questions about providing safe, decent, and affordable housing. So was Ibrahim Awow Sufi, a Somali who was resettled in Clarkston and who is now running for city council. A recent Sapporta Report post described Clarkston and its upcoming election as “Ellis Island of the South.”

The session reminded me of an interview I did in 2011 with Amy Crownover of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta (RRISA). Crownover is the agency’s development director and the brief phone interview was done in advance of a fundraiser the organization sponsored.

Spun off in 2002 from the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, RRISA has several core programs, including resettlement and immigration. Each year about 550 people go through RRISA’s resettlement program. It’s a program that works with refugees from the moment they arrive in the United States. “We literally meet them at the airport. Welcome them right off of the plane. We set up an apartment for them, take them there, have a culturally appropriate meal waiting for them,” explained Crownover. She added,

And often these clients don’t speak English. They don’t have more than the suitcase full of belongings. They may have been in refugee camps for well over a decade. So this is really quite an emotional time to transition into America and learn our systems, our ways.

We do things like take them smart shopping so that they understand how to shop in a grocery store. How to set up a bank account. How to set up a budget that they can live by. Our immediately goal is to help them become self-sufficient and so we have to do that within three to six months.

So when the government funding and other bridge services that we are able to help them connect to run out, they are working, they are speaking English, and they are able to support themselves.

RRISA’s clientele lately has originated mainly from Bhutan, Myanmar, and Iraq. One success story that Crownover likes to tell involves one of RRISA’s own employees, a refugee from Bhutan. “He has been here only for three years and has held multiple jobs at once,” Crownover explained. “He actually lived in a refugee camp after his family fled Bhutan, it lived in the jungles in Nepal and landed in a camp in Nepal and was there for 17 years. His introduction to America was literally he came over here at the age of 21 having been in a refugee camp since he was four years old.”

The refugees settling in Clarkston, where Third Country is set, and in other Atlanta suburbs are part of a rich cultural shift. They are creating what historian Tom Hanchett calls “salad bowl suburbs.” In the 20th century, Southern cities and their growing suburbs became homes to people fleeing the poverty of Appalachia. Now they are hosting new immigrant communities with new languages, foodways, and other traditions.

Whether it’s Atlanta’s Buford Highway corridor or suburban Washington’s Langley Park area, it’s exciting to learn how these new immigrants are creating new cultural rhythms and landscapes in otherwise familiar suburban settings.