The Mayor of ‘The Ellis Island of the South’ Has a Message for Donald Trump.
In this Georgia town, refugees aren’t just welcome—they are the essential fabric of what makes Clarkston, Georgia unique.
CLARKSTON, Georgia—Twenty miles east of Atlanta sits a low-slung little town of 17,000 that could almost pass for any other in the American South. Train tracks split the town in half. Hulking gas stations serve commuters driving toward the interstate. Shops off the main drag are a little past their prime, but they’re nearly all full.
But inside those stores you’ll see why Clarkson is unlike any other town in Red State America. An Asian grocery store stands next to a Shawarma grill, around the corner from Tran Auto Repair and Refuge Coffee Company. At Clarkston Village, the main strip mall in town, women in flowing Muslim head scarves mix with Latino families and Asian teenagers. If you’re there at dinner time, you can eat Himalayan, Halal, Thai, Burmese, or African.
The ethnic restaurants and stores may be unfamiliar to people passing through, but they are often the only thing that’s familiar to many in Clarkston’s diverse population, more than half of whom are foreign born. Many of those are refugees who fled their own disintegrating cultures to apply for asylum in the United States. Once screened and accepted overseas, the U.S. passed them on to non-profit resettlement agencies. Many of those agencies identified Clarkston years ago as a nearly ideal landing spot for people transitioning to a new life in America.
The town struggled at several points to accommodate the newcomers, but is now a multi-cultural hub. The local elementary school’s website is translated into 104 languages. A Yelp page lists the “10 Best Mosques near Clarkston.” Time magazine hailed it as “the most diverse square mile in America.”
And that’s why last week, news of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration sent shock waves through Clarkston. In addition to restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Trump put a four-month moratorium on nearly all refugees; cut the number of refugees to be admitted this year from 110,000 to 50,000; and banned all arrivals from Syria indefinitely.
In response, Clarkston mayor Edward Terry called an emergency city council meeting to discuss what it would mean for the town. More than 100 people showed up to a meeting that typical draws three or four. Local residents said they knew the executive order would have major effects in Clarkston, but no one knew exactly what those effects were or how long they will last.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Terry said the executive order will have “a huge impact,” especially on his local economy. “As a mayor, vacant apartments are always a concern,” he said. “Resettling refugees rent about 1,000 apartment units every year in Clarkston. That’s a big deal.”
Altogether, Terry said the refugee population accounts for roughly $2 million per year locally on rent and utilities and more than $1 million on groceries at local businesses. The resettlement programs provide them with six months of financial support for housing and necessities and 91 percent are self-sufficient when the aid stops.
Terry likes to call Clarkston “the Ellis Island of the South” and everyone in Clarkston seems to call him “Mayor Ted.” He is Southern-born, white, and a near-evangelist for immigration after living in Clarkston for six years. His next-door neighbor is a Cuban refugee who used to play the tuba in the Havana Symphony and recently thwarted a burglary in Terry’s home.
“They are exactly the kind of people you want in your community,” he said.
At the city council meeting, Ahmed Hassan, one of two immigrants on the council, said he felt the countries named in Trump’s executive order were not chosen fairly.
“But still, I am not angry for the administration,” Hassan said. “Right now it is only temporary. Things change.”
Awet Eyasu, a council member originally from Eritrea, said he sees the executive order as a balance between security and constitutional rights. Although he said he had his own opinion of Trump, “I definitely sympathize with the administration’s concerns, that we might have some bad apples join in all good apples,” he said. “We have been good apples, I believe.”
The rest of the meeting was reserved for local residents to ask questions about the executive order, but one-by-one, they stood to give a message to Donald Trump and the country that has accepted them. Several said they wanted to Trump to come to Clarkston to meet refugees himself.
“Donald Trump should know we are human beings, we have to love each other,” said Amina Asman, a 70-year-old Muslim refugee who now conducts community outreach in the area. “Donald Trump, we forgive you and we love you.”
Dr. Gulshan Harjee was born in Tanzania, and had to flee to Pakistan, Iran, and eventually America to complete her schooling. She now runs a primary care practice near Emory University with 24 employees and a free medical clinic in Clarkston.
“I have seen and experienced many regimes—dictatorship, communism, socialism, and democracy,” she said. “This is the greatest nation in the world, the kindest and most compassionate and nothing will change in terms of those values.”
Another former refugee, who had been a policy planner in Bhutan, said the people making the policies in Washington, including Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, should visit Clarkston. “I have never seen my senators,” he said. “We would like them to come listen to us and take our message to the president and show him that refugees are not only bad—they are also good people.”
An Iraqi refugee who had worked with the coalition forces said he would be the first to defend America from terrorists, as he did in Iraq alongside American troops. “It’s my country now. I lost my country,” he said. “I love this nation.”
Unlike the angry rhetoric on cable news and Capitol Hill over Trump’s executive order this week, the conversation that unfolded in Clarkston was nuanced and thoughtful. The people there gave Trump what Clarkston, and by extension America, has given them—patience, respect, the benefit of the doubt, and an invitation to come to their home.
“I say this in all sincerity to Donald Trump, come to Clarkston,” Mayor Ted told me. “It’s a sincere invitation for him to see for himself. Come on to Clarkston. You’ll see a success story.”