The Collegian’s Ben Abrams sat down with Clarkston mayor, Ted Terry for an exclusive interview on Oct. 10 at the first Clarkston Food Truck Festival to discuss the city being a haven for refugees and the cities plans to thrive with them in the future.
The C: How did Clarkston become the city for refugees to move to so they can start a new life in America?
TT : It started way back to going back to after the Vietnam War there were hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam and Indochina that basically fled after the Americans left Saigon and so Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan and then every president since then have signed the Refugee Act of 1980 which is basically the international United Nations treaty that basically lays out a formal process for developed countries around the world to take in refugees from parts of the world where refugee camps, wars, asylum seekers, people who have basically been forced to flee their homes. And so Clarkston was one of those places they resettled Vietnamese refugees in the 1980’s, and they resettled them all throughout Atlanta, just turned out that Clarkston always had the best success stories and tended to be a safer environment, a more walkable place, easy access to MARTA and more affordable house, and so over the years, more and more refugees were resettled to Clarkston because it was a really good fit for the whole process to be successful. And so to this day, 35 years later, you know, we’ve had refugees going back from Bosnia, from Somalia, from Ethiopia, all over Africa, all over Indo-China, the Balkans, and even Cuba and Russia.
The C: Why do you think Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has concerns about the number of refugees that should be allowed to resettle in Georgia?
TT: So I think the Governor, the Governor’s administration, the Governor himself, as well as the President, should be commended for the stellar process the results of the resettlement process has been. You know, we have one of the highest self-sufficiency rates in the entire country which means that these refugees aren’t taking government aid, they are actually contributing, creating jobs, paying their taxes, and getting their kids enrolled in schools and really giving back to the community. And so all I can do, as a mayor, is say that we think the refugees are a benefit to our community and that if the Governor and the President decide that we need to take in more refugees, more refugees from Syria then we will be ready to work with them. But ultimately it’s going to be up to the states and the federal government to decide.
The C: As mayor, how can you say that the refugees have been a benefit to your community?
TT: Well, if you look around, you don’t see too many chain restaurants around here. You don’t see too many McDonald’s you don’t see Dunkin Donuts, you know, these are small businesses. The entire economy in Clarkston is driven through the international clientele and the residents. And so if five years later, there were no refugees in Clarkston, you’d see the entire local economy collapse. And so, one, it’s been a benefit for the economy locally, just in terms of the jobs that some people will not do. A lot of the refugees will do jobs that some Americans will never do, and that’s been a really good thing for several of our industries where there have been shortages over the years because of lack of migrant workers. And so from an economic perspective, the refugees are a net benefit to our community.
The C: The U.S. has agreed to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Do you think that the US could handle more than 10,000?
TT: I think the President is taking a very pragmatic approach, and I think the answer is, yes we can take more refugees as a nation. When you talk about 350 million people in this country, and being one of the largest countries in terms of land area, we definitely have the space for it, but more importantly we’re going to need the workforce. I think the biggest idea in being an open community to immigration, whether it be legal immigration through the standard processes or through refugee resettlements, I think what you’re seeing is an opportunity for our industries and our businesses to grow even more because we have a ready supply of workers. And so, just to give you an example, for Clarkston, 10,000 more refugees coming to America over the next fiscal year, over the next twelve months, Clarkston gets only about 3,000 refugees right now, over twelve months. And so we’re talking about maybe another 400 people, families coming to Georgia, over twelve months, that’s a very small trickle of an amount. Something that, definitely, we could handle. And, quite frankly, we’re going to need more of those skilled workers in the future.
The C: You are expecting Syrian refugees to come to Clarkston. Are you concerned about having enough resources to support them while they resettle here?
TT: Well, the thing about it is after six to eight months all of the state and federal aid goes away, and so, basically, the whole self-sufficiency argument, and the reason we’ve been so good at self-sufficiency, is that the refugees who come over, are expected to get a job, get their kids enrolled in school, pay back the plane ticket that they came over here on, and start contributing to our country. And so, from the self-sufficiency standpoint these people don’t need resources from the government; they are actually contributing to our community. And so the only thing that really changes is the cultures they come from, and so, as we get more refugees from different parts of the Middle East. We’ll just need to hire more… the local groups will need to change who they hire in terms of translators and cultural orientation. So you’ll probably see more Arabic speaking refugees come in from Syria, but the good news is that the international community, the Muslim community and the inter-faith groups are very willing and ready to work and make these new Americans successful in Clarkston.
The C: I understand there is about a 12-18 month vetting process for refugees that will be coming to Clarkston do you know how this vetting process determines who will be selected to come to the country?
TT: Well, I don’t know how the actual process goes, but I know that it’s FBI, it’s CIA, it’s all the intelligence agencies and the Military, and it’s basically human intelligence, and there is preference for reuniting families, and so, for instance, if there was a Syrian refugee here now, they would try to reunite uncles, brothers, cousins, people who were in the extended family. One because that helps with the resettlement process, and then on top of that once refugees are here it’s really important for police department, officials and for the leaders of the mosque to be coordinated and talk to each other because when I talked to the leader of the local mosque in Clarkston, they say that they say the same thing that other people say about ISIS and Jihadist- “We don’t want them in our community either.” So as long as there is communication between the Muslim community and the leaders and the local officials were going to make sure that we’re not going to have any radical Islam or terrorist in our city, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that over 35 years we haven’t had any problems with any terrorism.
The C: With the new refugees who come into Clarkston, what does the city do to get them acclimated while they are getting settled into their new home?
TT: That’s why we have events like this (!st annual Clarkston Food Truck Festival), because we want people to feel like this is an opening place, a place of community, and it is the role of a city government to provide the space for people come out. All we did was organize the food trucks to come out here, closed off the streets, told people about it, and the rest is up for people to decide. Our job is to create the space for a community to happen and the great thing about Clarkston is that we have so many levels of cultures, languages, music, and food and when you get them all in the same space it becomes so much more interesting and more fun.
The C: How has education in Clarkston been effected by having a strong international presence?
TT: The biggest challenge that some of our refugees have is the language difference and reading and writing comprehension and the idea of a formal education. Some parts of the world people have never had formal education in their lives so they come here and they’re put in a school environment that’s difficult, but I will say that our teachers at Clarkston High School, Freedom Middle School, Indian Creek Elementary, and Jolly Elementary they an amazing job with a very difficult and challenging situation of getting these young people ready for these standardized test and one thing I’m trying to push as a policy change is right now there’s a two year waiver on test scores counting for new immigrants and I’d like to change that to three years basically because two to three years is the right amount of time for a new student to get use to this new environment and get ready for these test scores. The problems in Clarkston schools is the test scores are really low but if you went into the schools you would see that they’re really great schools it just so happens that the standardized test are so difficult to people who use English as a second language.
The C: How has the crime rate been so low?
TT: The city limits of Clarkston were one of the top 50 safest cities in Georgia when you look at it from a perspective of just city limits and DeKalb county as a whole Clarkston is one of the safest cities in DeKalb county. I think a lot of that is because we have a lot of people who have come from violence who live here and don’t want anything to do with crime or violence they want to live peaceful and compassionate lives. From our perspective we a good job to keep our community safe. Now what happens beyond the city limits is beyond our control, because we can’t patrol outside the city limits and enforce the law. We are trying to expand the city to include Georgia Perimeter College we like GPC, Georgia Piedmont, and all the way to Memorial Drive be in the city limits so we can actually go to places like Brannon Hill (apartments) and make that place safer there’s areas we can improve on, but as far the city limits of Clarkston we are one of the safest cities in Georgia.
The C: Speaking of Brannon Hill there are a lot of problems there. Is there a plan to improve that area?
TT: Lee May and several county commissioners have expressed a high interest and want to include money in next year’s budget to help demolish the buildings that have been abandoned and are being used by drug dealers. The go in and work with developers to help redevelop the property I believe in the next year you’ll see a lot more cleaning up, code enforcement, public safety initiatives happening in Brannon Hills especially for the college.
The C: As Mayor, are you optimistic about the future of Clarkston as you prepare to receive some of the refugees from Syria?
TT: I think there a lot of great things happening in Clarkston there’s a six million dollar streetscape project that’s gonna connect all of Clarkston through wider sidewalks, bike lanes, a more walkable and pedestrian environment. So what we’re talking about is better way to connect downtown Clarkston with the College so people can bicycle and walk and feel like a part of this large community. I think your going to see a lot of great things happen for this city and I’m really excited to see a lot of those big development projects are going to transform downtown and you’re going to find a lot more commerce and culture happen in Clarkston and I hope the college students will be a part of that I know we work a lot with the EDGE program and they do a lot of volunteer work here so i want to keep a lot of those relationships open and keep working with students.
The C: What is your vision for the city looking into the next five or ten years?
TT: I want us to continue to be a safe and secure place to live and be able to look back ten years from now and say that Clarkston has thrived by creating more jobs and more walkable and bikeable communities. In a place where people would like to call home and want to come and visit in and want to come to school.