Pouring into the Community
Words by Sarah Pitts
Photos by Jonathan Wade
In a time when national borders divide us both physically and more ideologically than ever before, the word “refugee” is burdened with political implications. It is a word that provokes partisan disagreement, a word echoed so frequently across media that it has become abstract and fluid, drained of concrete meaning, dissociated from the humanity of those forced to flee unlivable conditions and to seek refuge. But a refugee is a real human being and not a political abstract. The refugee crisis is a crisis of humanity rather than one of politics.
Indeed, Kitti Murray had no political agenda when she founded Refuge Coffee Company in 2015 as a nonprofit focused on providing job training to refugees in Clarkston, Georgia. For her, starting a nonprofit such as this was about strengthening the global reach of her community, and about spreading welcome and hospitality to the people around her. It was about humanity.
Clarkston has been called “the Ellis Island of the South” and “the most diverse square mile in America.” Over the past thirty years, thousands of refugees have been resettled in this small town, which lies just a few transit stops from Atlanta’s bustling city center. But Clarkston’s incredibly diverse population hasn’t received national media attention—this is just another ordinary small town in the Bible Belt. The truth is that these resettled refugees form an often invisible part of our developing Southern narrative—but Murray, through Refuge, combats this invisibility by affirming the dignity and humanity of Clarkston’s refugee population.
When Murray moved to Clarkston with her family in 2012, she was struck by the beauty of the many different cultures and peoples she encountered. The self-proclaimed “hyper-networker” quickly formed connections with her emigrant neighbors, but as she did, she realized that although these refugees had been resettled, they hadn’t necessarily found a sense of belonging in their new town. Though they had landed in safety, they lacked the sense of home they had lost.
Rather than excusing herself from meaningful action by merely pointing the finger of blame at inadequate government policy beyond her control, Murray carefully observed her community and its particular needs, and then she set about bringing together people with the skills to contribute. The major problem she aimed to address was the hospitality gap between Americans and refugees. She did this by building a coffee shop (or, more accurately, a coffee truck) as a multiethnic gathering place where people could come together for “more than good coffee,” as reads the sign outside. She sought to elevate her community by providing high-quality coffee and cultivating a town center where people of any culture could feel a sense of home.
Refuge Coffee is built on the mission of welcoming. According to Murray, “Every human being needs some form of welcome. It’s both a universal need and a universal capacity.” Of course, differences birth tension, and maintaining a welcoming attitude and an open heart requires work. This is the primary goal of Refuge.
The coffee truck is just one component of Murray’s hospitality project; the nonprofit also provides jobs and job training for refugees in Clarkston. Trainees become baristas who serve coffee to their community, but they also receive training beyond making coffee. The management team at Refuge—comprised of both Americans and refugees—works to connect trainees with people and resources that will help them pursue their field of interest in the United States. For instance, a Syrian refugee who had worked in film and video in Syria came to Refuge and is now training to work in the American film industry. Refuge Coffee concentrates on building human connections and strengthening the refugee community, which in turn strengthens our South by establishing tolerance and harmony within diversity.
The diverse community of refugees in Clarkston is comprised of people who come from some of the most desperate places on earth. They have fled war, persecution, and the devastation of natural disasters. They have been forced out of their homes, and they have lost everything. Says Murray, “The refugee crisis is at our doorstep”—and her solution is to lay out a welcome mat. The desperation of one forced to flee in search of refuge is one that can be difficult to understand, especially for those who have been sheltered by the wealth and resources surrounding them, and a deeper empathy can be hard to procure where understanding is missing. In America, resolution to crisis can be found across the street or a few miles down the road, but for these refugees, the only solution was a new nation. Proximity fosters compassion, and Refuge provides a space for shared humanity to flourish, unconstrained by the lines on some geopolitical map.
The coffee truck is open Monday through Saturday from 7:00am to 6:00pm, and you can find it parked outside a 1960s service station on East Ponce de Leon Avenue, outfitted with all the coffee-shop necessities. The next time you find yourself in Atlanta, make a trip to the most diverse corner of Georgia and drink a cup of coffee prepared by one of the many refugees who make up our globalizing South.