Clarkston, Georgia is the epitome of diversity. If you ask me, it’s comparable to being at the airport, the Olympics, or a United Nations meeting. There are people from literally all across the globe. But the thing about Clarkston is that here you find people of all ages from all different countries living in the same CITY. In the same apartment complex, even. When I step outside of my apartment, I can run into a Nepali man in a colorful wrap skirt, an Iraqi woman wearing her burqa, a Somalian family piling into a worn-down sedan, and a swarm of barefoot Eritrean kids within just a few yards. This is Clarkston life.
Clarkston is this way because it was chosen a while ago to be the relocation center for millions of refugees coming into America. These refugees come from lives of chaos, danger, persecution, and rough conditions in countries such as Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. And they’re squeezed together into this one square mile south of Atlanta.
A lot of the refugees here aren’t fluent in English or even know the alphabet. They struggle to find jobs and pay rent. Homesickness is the least of their worries. They come here with nothing and are expected to thrive when the most they can do under this pressure and in their situation is simply SURVIVE.
I’m spending my summer in Clarkston (for the second time) because 1) these refugees need love, and 2) these refugees need Jesus. I’m working with an organization that strives to provide those two things in the form of ESL classes, summer camps for kids, gardening, prayer, and day-to-day conversations.
But not until today did it occur to me that they have something to offer me, as well.
This morning, my roommate Hannah and I stumbled across a scene we had never seen: an Iraqi woman with her young daughter, an Eritrean woman with her special needs son, and a Nepali woman with her infant… sitting on the same bench and conversing. We approached the three women and joined in on their conversation to the best of our ability. Do you know what they were talking about? How much our apartment complex stinks. They’re unhappy with the complex manager and how they’re treated. With kids in lap, through broken English and thick accents, they were engaging in a dialogue about these irritating and discouraging experiences.
And there was something beautiful about the way these three very different women were taking turns shaking their heads in disbelief, nodding in agreement, and sharing these burdens. Never mind the fact they come from various war-torn countries and different faiths and backgrounds. They just wanted to sit together and bond as next-door neighbors, as mothers.
In that moment I felt like I knew nothing.
I’m a not-even-twenty-year-old who has much to learn about independence, financial burdens, marriage, and raising a family. If I were to sit with two women of my choosing, it’d be women my own age who have no children, no real responsibility. Our greatest burdens would be choosing a major or dealing with our protective parents. And I don’t say that to talk down those burdens. I say that to show how much I have left to experience and learn.
Who am I to think that I’m here in Clarkston to solely teach and to change lives? No. I’m also here to have MY life changed by these refugees.
I don’t want to let my pride prevent real friendships from forming while I’m in Clarkston.
I want what those three women had: common ground forged in even the mundane trials of life.
I want to knock on that Iraqi woman’s door and ask her to show me the way of motherhood. How do you raise three children? How do you carve time for your marriage? When you’re a stay-at-home mom, do you struggle to find purpose?
I want to sit down with that Eritrean mom and hear her experience of having a special needs son. Were you scared? Are you still? How does it change you?
And then I want to spend time with the Nepali woman and her infant son and see how a love for a newborn grows from the start. What was it like when you first took him home from the hospital? What are your dreams for his life?
And then I’d ask them all about living. Not just living as a refugee, but day-to-day living. Is it hard to pray and pursue God in the busyness of life? Do you have unrealized dreams and how do you cope with that? How do you get stains out of clothing?
I know nothing. And these women know something. Instead of trying to teach, I think it’s time to learn.
And while doing that, perhaps I’ll be opening up doors for giving them the two things I still want to offer: love and Jesus.
I’ll keep you updated on how this goes. I’m nervous, but excited. Maybe I’m on the right track here.