Awet Eyasu remembers realizing with horror that his homeland of Eritrea had lost its chance at democracy when 11 elected officials allied with a reform movement pushing for inclusive elections were arrested -- alongside journalists -- without explanation and the government suppressed independent media. Just one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that the United States was still struggling to process, the realization came over him that he could never return to his East African home once his university studies in Los Angeles finished.
Eyasu feared for his life should he go back. He heard of people being disappeared or being imprisoned without word of their whereabouts. After applying for asylum, he was relocated to the small Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, where thousands of others facing similarly uncertain fates had found haven. In the years since, while not a single free ballot has been cast in Eritrea, Eyasu has immersed himself into his new community, become a U.S. citizen and, now, an elected official there.
As the United States wrestles with the question of accepting Syrian refugees, Eyasu’s adopted home of Clarkston stands out as an example of the success of the American refugee system to save lives and provide opportunity. Seeking shelter from war and persecution, refugee populations have revitalized the once predominantly white town that is now nearly 70 percent black. Their experience, resettlement experts and locals in Clarkston say, provide a telling look at what should really be expected if the U.S. follows through on its plans to begin admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees a year.
Clarkston is "really just the picture of the world, I would call it,” said Eyasu, who was just elected on Nov. 3 to the six-member city council, which represents people from as many as 50 countries.
Just off Atlanta’s perimeter beltway 11 miles northeast of downtown, Clarkston now has a multicultural makeup that represents a huge shift from less than half a century ago. Founded in the late 19th century as a so-called “jerkwater” town, a place where steam-powered trains would stop to refill their water reserves, the town is down the road from the onetime Ku Klux Klan stronghold of Stone Mountain. In those early days, the city was known for having more goats than people – a rural, white, Southern town that didn’t have much interest in international affairs.
The airport that connected the region to the rest of the world ultimately pulled Clarkston into the urban orbit of Atlanta in the 1970s, ground it up and spit it out. Apartment complexes were quickly built to accommodate the workers, but those populations ultimately moved further out into the suburbs over the next decade. Vacancies yanked down rents and crime in Clarkston jumped.
Refugees reversed that downward spiral. In the 1990s, aid groups saw opportunity for displaced people in the town because of that cheap rent and proximity to public transportation and began sending refugees from places like East Africa there to restart their lives. The result turned the page on a difficult economic period for Clarkston. While the suburb still has a median income level below the Georgia average -- refugees generally work minimum-wage jobs when they first arrive -- the trend of property owners living below the poverty line that was apparent from the 1960s through the '80s was reversed.
Today, Clarkston is much better known for its vibrant mix of shops and restaurants representing dozens of ethnicities than it is for the headcount of its livestock or the tarmacs 20 miles away.
Given a fresh start, refugees from all over have taken advantage of opportunities to build their own businesses. Often within six months, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said, the refugees in his community are able to become self-sufficient.
“When you have economic opportunity and give people hope for their future, they usually don’t resort to the last-case scenario, which is violence,” Terry said. “A lot of these first-generation refugees will start their own food shops or food marts or cleaning services. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship … which creates jobs. If we were to stop taking refugees tomorrow, in five years from now you would probably see the collapse of the local economy.”
Refugees in the United States have shown themselves to be fairly good at assimilating socially, too, experts say. The biggest challenge can be a language barrier, or lack of exposure to American ideas and culture, but even those displaced people without those skills tend to blend in and learn to maneuver through American systems quickly. By the second generation, refugee families often tend to freely and fluently associate with broader American society.
“If you look at the Ethiopians … within the first decade they went through the traditional routes of employment, underemployment, working in garages and filling stations, and have rather quickly worked their way up,” said Westy Egmont, director of the Immigration Integration Lab and a professor at Boston College. “Now we’re seeing Ethiopians in medical school and teachers. And, I think, they are doing very well.”
Refugee experts and people from Clarkston reject, for several reasons, the argument that Syrian refugees pose a greater risk to society than others that came before. History has shown that the U.S. refugee resettlement system works, and has let in a stream of people who have undergone yearslong vetting and who haven’t once committed the kind of mass murder seen in Paris last week. (The people named by French authorities as the Paris terrorists proved to be European citizens, in fact.) Plus, refugees in the U.S. are likely to assimilate relatively quickly, develop social bonds with their community and become valuable contributors to their local economies, just like thousands have before in Clarkston.
Will there be prejudice? Sure, but subsequent generations will have an easier time.
“There are first reactions, then we make peace with the newcomers after the initial reaction and begin to discover these are folks we can live next door to and that they’re people we can appreciate,” said Eskinder Nagash, an Ethiopian refugee and former Obama appointee as the head of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Between 50 and 100 Syrians have been resettled to Clarkston since the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago. The reaction to the Paris attacks will determine if more join them.
If they come, they won't be out of place. In Clarkston, every year in September the diverse cultures who now call the suburb home set up booths on the street for the “Taste of Clarkston” festival and offer up the chance to stroll around and taste foods from all over the world. It is also a chance for those cultures to mix and mingle, as they have been doing for more than two decades.
Along "Market Street, the town center, you'll see a couple of Ethiopian restaurants, a shawarma restaurant, a global pharmacy, Ethiopian cafe, a Himalayan restaurant and a Katmandu kitchen," Terry said. "Then, during the street festivals you come out and it's sort of like an international market."