A few blocks north, an Afghan third-grader named Farwah bounds from the school bus into the apartment she shares with seven relatives. Grinning, she hauls her backpack up the stairs.
In front of a Baptist church on the other side of Market Street, four African mothers are leaning on baby strollers when a volunteer invites them inside. Moments later, they leave, carrying grocery bags packed with yesterday's bread.
This is not the United Nations. It's Clarkston, population 7,300, a niche community in the shadow of I-285, one of the farthest stops east on the MARTA bus line and the first taste of freedom for hundreds of resettled refugees.
It's a long way from the broad swath of land that is the birthplace of most refugees to the U.S.: the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics, east Africa, the Near East and South Asia. In the villages of predominantly Muslim Somalia and northern Sudan, refugees were starved and slaughtered under despotic regimes. In the rolling forests of Bosnia, they were raped and mutilated because they were Muslim. In oil-rich enclaves and pockets of poverty in Iran and Afghanistan, they were flogged or stoned for not being Muslim enough.
It's no surprise, then, that CL's random sampling of Clarkston refugees happen to be Muslims.
Many spent years in camps -- barely a step up from prisons -- before the United Nations chose them as the lucky 1 percent to board flights for America. Of the 72,000 refugees who entered the United States last year, 4,000 were destined for Georgia.
In metro Atlanta, half a dozen resettlement agencies contract
with the government to help refugees acclimate to their new surroundings. Of those agencies, the International Rescue Committee in Decatur -- founded in 1933 after Albert Einstein requested help for Hitler's victims -- works with the greatest number. Most of those who come to the committee wind up living in DeKalb County -- and in DeKalb, most settle in Clarkston.
There, they can take advantage of the liberties we think of as normal: public transportation, a home safe from bullets and bombs, a job or even a business of their own, and people who at least partly understand them.
But, in Clarkston, some simpler freedoms aren't guaranteed.
For female refugees, freedom can mean a walk across the street without a man, with the sun on your face. But, near the spot where the two women crossed Market Street, weeks earlier an apparent racist ripped an Egyptian woman's scarf from her head.
For young girls, freedom is a bus that drives them to and from a school, a ride their birth countries would never allow. But near the apartment complex where the Afghan child's bus dropped her off, another kind of injustice took place. On Sept. 13, a Sudanese refugee was nearly stabbed by a group of locals blaming him for the attack on the World Trade Center.
For mothers, freedom is the chance to watch their children eat, because in their native countries there was never enough food for all. But there still is disgrace. At a house not far from where the mothers picked up their bread, an Afghan woman walked outside one morning and found feces smeared on her stoop.
"When we're in America, we expect to have the same equalities everyone has," says Alex Jabe, who was orphaned by Sudanese rebels and fled his home in 1986. He was barely a teenager when he arrived, on foot, at a Kenyan refugee camp. He waited nine years for a United Nations' invitation to America. "I wanted a place where there was peace and unity, at last."
The accidental exile
Three years ago, when Sakhidad Hatif was fleeing his home in Ghazni, Afghanistan, he traveled by bus through Kandahar. The driver stopped abruptly.
He was Pashtun, a member of the ethnic group that has ruled Afghanistan for centuries. Hatif is Hazara, a minority group whose people have faced persecution in recent years.
The Pashtun man pointed to a nearby valley. "One hundred and sixty-five Hazara people have been killed [there] just two or three weeks ago," he said.
"Why are you talking about them with me?" Hatif asked.
The driver warned that the area they were passing through was extremely dangerous for Hazaras.
"If you want to see them," he offered, "the corpses are still scattered everywhere."
But Hatif did not look. He continued his trek to the border city of Quetta, Pakistan. Remaining in Afghanistan was more frightening.
Now Hatif sits on a plush Persian-style couch in a friend's Clarkston apartment, thousands of miles from his family. A human rights coordinator in Pakistan, he came to Atlanta in August to attend the annual conference of the Refugee Women's Network. But, on Sept. 11, what started out as a temporary visit turned into an accidental exile. He can't go back to Pakistan and wants to wait until there is at least "stable anarchy" in Afghanistan before going home. His visa will allow him to stay in the U.S. for at least a year -- with the recent changes in immigration laws, he doesn't know what will happen after that.
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Finally - common ground!