“You’re starting to hear people say, ‘Oh, Atlanta’s all right; Atlanta’s a cool effing city.’ And I’m like, ‘C’mon, man. Are you kidding me? I’ve been telling you that forever!’”
Jermaine Dupri, the 44-year-old record producer and rapper—the man who has probably done more for the Atlanta hip-hop scene than anyone else alive—squats on the edge of a leather ottoman in a back room of his Midtown studio, his eyes hidden behind a pair of oversize Gucci shades. Hanging on the walls around him are souvenirs from his three decades in the industry: copies of the albums Dupri engineered for Ludacris and Xscape and TLC; a framed portrait of one of his first big signees, the duo Kris Kross; a blown-up magazine cover celebrating the release of the 1997 album My Way, from a then little-known Atlanta artist named Usher. Dupri was the executive producer of My Way, and when it went on to sell six million copies in the U.S. and another million globally, it established Usher’s reputation as an R&B heartthrob and cemented Jermaine Dupri’s stature as a master cultivator of talent.
“This city, it’s always fueled me,” Dupri says, fixing his gaze for a moment on the large pet parrot perched on the other side of the room. The parrot squawks in acknowledgment—a guttural, shockingly loud cry that resembles the blast of an air horn. “The black American culture in Atlanta,” Dupri goes on, ignoring the bird, “and really just the culture in general—there’s no other city like it. Not L.A. Not New York. And so when it came time to do the show, I knew it had to be here. Had to be Atlanta.”
The show in question is The Rap Game, the Dupri-hosted reality competition that debuted on Lifetime Network in January 2016 (the first episode was titled “Welcome to Atlanta”) and recently finished its third full season. Created by Intuitive Entertainment, the same California company that made Millionaire Matchmaker, and executive produced by Dupri and part-time Atlantan Queen Latifah, The Rap Game relies on a time-honored reality TV trope: A group of talented amateurs—in this case, rappers—are hooked up with veteran talent (Dupri and a rotating cadre of musicians and producers) and coached through a series of escalating challenges. There are celebrity guest stars (Mariah Carey, Nelly) and field trips (to the Gold Room on Piedmont or the broadcast booths at Atlanta’s Hot 107.9). At the end of the season, after the final showdown, Dupri selects a winner and bestows upon her or him a multirecord contract with So So Def.
The hook with The Rap Game—and it’s a very good one—is that the contestants are all kids, none older than 18, and some as young as 11. For 13 weeks they live together in a swish Buckhead mansion, alternating down time with studio time, gradually refining their writing chops and performance skills with the help of mentors like the Atlanta producer Zaytoven. Because they are minors, each artist is allowed to bring along one guardian, and part of the show’s fun is watching the communal warmth that develops over the course of the season. There are feuds, but they are tame compared to other reality fare, and for the most part the mood in the house is mutually supportive. (An outlier was a combative Nashville artist named Tally, who got cut from season two and was brought back for season three, her demeanor more or less unchanged.)
“You can’t say that there is another show on TV that’s as positive as this show,” Dupri says. “I’m taking kids from inner cities—from Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, kids who would never get this kind of chance—and giving them the platform and the experience. It’s not like they’re just getting a tour of the studio, know what I mean?” The pet parrot squawks once in agreement.
Dupri makes it clear that The Rap Game was not the first reality show offer he’s received. In years past he’d entertained pitches for more straightforward competition shows and proposals for Love & Hip Hop–type theater—programs heavy on histrionics and light on actual music. He turned them all down. “It never excited me,” he says. “My life has never been about what’s outside the studio. It’s about what happens in the studio.”
What sold him on The Rap Game was the focus on mentorship—the molding of raw talent. “It’s my blueprint, right?” he says. “Everyone knows what I did with Kris Kross. Everyone knows that JD went to Greenbriar Mall in 1991 when he was 19 years old, and JD met two kids, talked to them, took them to his house, and next thing you know they’re a group called Kris Kross. Everyone knows 10 years later, Snoop Dogg brought this kid from Ohio to JD in Atlanta, and JD went into the studio with him, and next thing you know the kid is Bow Wow. But the process has been a mystery, and this [is] an opportunity for me to show you how it works. People really want to understand that.”
The ratings say he’s right. As of press time, in the crucial 18 to 49 demographic, The Rap Game was the number-one cable show in its Friday evening time slot. Lifetime has renewed it for a fourth season, which will air later this year, and green-lit a spinoff, The Pop Game. On the Saturday afternoon of our chat, Dupri is obviously exhausted; he’s spent the past few weeks shuttling back and forth to filming sessions for season four, while overseeing the surging careers of season one winner, 18-year-old Atlanta performer Miss Mulatto, and season two champ, L.A. native Mani. (Both Mani and Miss Mulatto have released popular singles in recent months; complete albums are forthcoming later this year on So So Def.)
And he’s still working with the superstars he made his name producing. During the gap between the end of season three and the start of season four, Dupri flew to Italy to produce longtime collaborator Mariah Carey’s new single, “I Don’t,” which debuted in February, quickly claiming a spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
Dupri leans backward, propping himself up with one elbow. “But I won’t complain,” he says. “It’s what I signed up for. You don’t get this career by not working.”
Of course, the music industry that made him is not the music industry of 2017. In the 1990s, back when he was discovering Kris Kross at Greenbriar Mall, the CD was still king. Radio placement and airtime on MTV and VH1 were what dictated an artist’s success. The internet changed all that. A rapper today can build a following on social media or by distributing mixtapes long before she or he is picked up by a label. Some established stars, like Chance the Rapper, have even eschewed traditional label deals altogether, preferring to self-publish, maintaining full creative control in the process. (“There’s no reason” to sign with a label, Chance told a reporter for Rolling Stone. “It’s a dead industry.”)
I wonder aloud if all this seismic change has altered the way Dupri does business. Isn’t there an argument to be made, I ask, what with all the streaming services and social media opportunities, that someone like Dupri—a behind-the-scenes maestro, a record label head—is no longer as crucial to an artist? Dupri shakes his head. “How fans are getting your music may be changing, but in terms of what makes them pay attention to it, that’s timeless.
“I mean, are there a zillion, million ways for people to hear the music that I’m putting out? Yeah, but you gotta get it in people’s faces, and touch them, and show them that you’re passionate about your tracks. You gotta be up on stage; you gotta be in the studio, recording. Because people aren’t going to believe in you until you show them that you believe in yourself.” Above all, Dupri maintains, artists still need an experienced industry hand that can steer their development, shape their image, offer advice on beats and lyrics. “That’s what The Rap Game is about,” he says, “that grind, that hard work.”
Dupri stands up. It’s time for his photo shoot. One last question: Can the self-proclaimed “mayor” of Atlanta ever envision himself living anywhere else? Dupri laughs. Before he signed on to do The Rap Game, he confesses, he’d sold his Buckhead house and started looking for places in Los Angeles. “But when the show happened, it was a sign,” Dupri says. “Like, ‘You’ll go there for a week, and you’ll be right back here in Atlanta where you belong.’ Nah, man, I’ll be here for the rest of my life. And I’ll tell you, that’s okay with me.”
Downtown Clarkston in DeKalb County extends westward from Rowland Street to Indian Creek Drive, with the old Georgia Railroad line running in between—a total of just three city blocks, give or take. And yet there may be no place in the country as kaleidoscopically, vibrantly, viscerally diverse. On a recent afternoon, the waiters at Kathmandu Kitchen & Grill and nearby Reem, an Ethiopian cafe, stood in their shop windows, awaiting the early dinner rush. On Market Street, a Kenyan woman clad in a patterned purple kanga passed a pair of Iraqi boys returning home from the local high school. At Refuge Coffee, a cafe staffed primarily by immigrants, a Burmese barista was at the register. At the MARTA bus stop on East Ponce de Leon Avenue, a bus shuddered to a halt, discharging, in order, an African American couple, an elderly Afghan man, and an East Indian woman with an infant strapped between her shoulder blades.
When the artists at Square Mile Gallery in Clarkston, together with the photography collective #WELOVEATL, set out to chronicle the lives of the city’s residents, it was this unique sense of place that they wanted to evoke: 12,000 people, including thousands of refugees and recent immigrants, sharing the same 1.4-square-mile patch of land. “There was such a spirit of community in Clarkston,” says Tom Griscom, the lead photographer for the project. “You had what amounted to a small town, but one that was throwing open its doors.” In all, Griscom and a rotating cast of photographer colleagues spent months embedded in Clarkston, producing the portraits included here. “Over time,” Griscom recalls, “the project became about trying to demonstrate that people’s hopes and dreams, no matter where they come from, or what they’ve been through”—or what language they speak, from Pashtun to Arabic to Swahili to Spanish to Nepalese—“are more similar than not. That we can get along, as neighbors and friends, no matter the angry political rhetoric.”
Clarkston, of course, has not always been a city of immigrants. Like much of DeKalb County, the place remained, well into the Reconstruction Era, nothing more than an unincorporated patch of farmland, tended to by white families—a wedge of earth nicknamed “Goatsville” for the number of Angora kept by locals. (In homage, Clarkston High School uses a goat as its mascot.) The city rose in the late 1800s in tandem with the development of the Georgia Railroad, which crawled northeast from the capitol in the direction of the South Carolina state line. It became a whistle-stop town, notable mostly, as a nineteenth-century journalist put it, for its “morality, its utter freedom from all objectionable characters, white or black. There is no calaboose”—prison—“in Clarkston; none is needed.” The trees were “magnificent,” the air “pure.”
The city expanded slowly. The first post office appeared in 1876, the one-room town hall shortly after that. For almost a century, Clarkston was largely white, largely lower middle class. It was not until the 1970s that the demographics really started to shift: Whites leaving for the suburbs, part of the nationwide phenomenon of white flight, were replaced by African American and Hispanic families. And then, in the 1980s, came the first trickle of refugees, resettled by humanitarian aid organizations that targeted Clarkston for its proximity to the city, its public transportation, and the relatively affordable apartment complexes then springing up around the downtown.
Over time, organically and gradually, a kind of immigrant cultural infrastructure emerged. There were stores where you could find the foods from your homeland, restaurants and diners where you could find people who spoke your language and shared your memories of what had been left behind. There were churches and Buddhist Temples and a large mosque. “There wasn’t much of a question that we would come to Clarkston,” says Awet Eyasu, an immigrant from Eritrea who arrived in 2002, after a brief stint in alien and expensive (to a recent immigrant) Los Angeles. “We had people in Clarkston. There was a community. And so we went.”
Uganda-born Justine Okello recalls a similar pull. “I’d just gotten into the state, in 2014, and friends were telling me, ‘Okay, you have to check out Clarkston. I think you’re really going to like it there.’” Okello, 31, spent some time volunteering at the Clarkston Community Center, and was named its director of programs and technology in July 2016. We spoke in the same room where Okello teaches a weekly computer science and repair class. I asked him about the background of the students, and he used his fingers to tick off the nationalities: Somali, Iraqi, Nepalese. “It humbles a person, living here,” Okello said, folding his long frame into his office chair. “You have to adapt and learn how to mix. You have to be willing to listen to people.”
In the past year, as the debate over the admittance of Middle Eastern refugees raged, Clarkston was held up as a national example of what successful integration can look like. According to the mayor, 33-year-old Ted Terry, 89 percent of recent refugee families in Clarkston are self-sufficient, meaning they do not require assistance from the aid organizations that resettled them here. Few of the newcomers work in Clarkston—factory jobs are common—but most choose to stay at least for several years in the city that has welcomed them. Crime and unemployment rates (the latter is less than 6 percent) are low. In an interview, Terry said he and his staff have been visited by delegations from towns in Croatia and Germany, eager to mimic Clarkston’s cohesiveness.
Meanwhile, the mayor has pursued a legislative agenda that even in Democratic DeKalb County, where 71 percent of residents voted for Hillary Clinton, looks markedly progressive: The decriminalization, in July, of possession of small amounts of marijuana. A minimum wage hike to 15 bucks an hour for all city employees. Increased paternity and maternity leave for the same. A measure that allows city employees or contractors to forgo the disclosure of prior criminal history on their job applications. The passage of a $1.5 million “green streets” initiative, complete with bike paths and new sidewalks.
“There’s a real sense of optimism in Clarkston,” says Eyasu, who in 2015 was elected to the Clarkston City Council, a six-member group that now includes two representatives from the immigrant community. “All over the world, people are interested in our city . . . and places like Clarkston are going to be the norm from now on.”
This may be overstating it slightly. Although Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in Georgia was narrower than Mitt Romney’s over Barack Obama in 2012, metro Atlanta is very much still a blue island in a sea of red. And antagonism towards refugees, especially Muslim refugees, is unlikely to fade away anytime soon. Still, the sense that Clarkston could be a beacon for a new kind of America is everywhere in the city, and in the obvious glow of pride worn by the subjects of these photographs.
“I say this a lot, but what I most want people to understand is that we shouldn’t think of refugees as a burden. We should think of them as an investment,” says Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurd. In 2001 Kelli arrived with his family in Clarkston and settled into an apartment near the city center. Space was tight; well into his 20s, Kelli shared a room with his little brother. Money was always short; in high school Kelli washed dishes at a restaurant near Emory to supplement his parents’ income. But he managed to earn decent enough grades to earn entry to Georgia State University and later to medical school at Morehouse. Today he is a fellow in preventative cardiology at Emory University. His brother is finishing his own medical residency.
Every weekend, Kelli returns to Clarkston to volunteer at the free medical clinic, which was set up to cater to the poor and uninsured population. In his spare time, he tutors refugee students at the same high school he attended. “When I was young, people thought a refugee like me could never be a doctor, right?” he told me recently. “Now I want to reach out to these kids and tell them, ‘Look, you can surpass what I did. You can be anything you want to be. You can go further.’ Because that’s the American dream.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue under the headline “Ellis Island South.”
The uprising began in February of 2011 in Daraa, in the southwest of the country, with splashes of red graffiti on school walls and grain silos: “The people want to topple the regime!” By late spring it had spread 300 miles north to the city of Aleppo. Students crowded the streets, demanding the ouster of the autocratic Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose family had for decades kept a brutal stranglehold on the majority Sunni Muslim population. The police pushed back, first with tear gas and batons and later with bullets and shotgun shells. Bodies were left to fester in the sun.
Driving to work every day, Amin,* an employee at an Aleppo mattress factory, encountered roadblock after roadblock, stretching a 15-minute commute into a stressful, hour-long ordeal. “I consider myself to be a simple man,” Amin, a Sunni Muslim, told me recently through an interpreter. “But I could see that life was changing in ways small and big. And I knew it would change more. I thought to myself, Will this be over in one year? Two years? More? And in the meantime, what about my children?”
Amin is sturdy and short, with sloping almond eyes and a low-slung center of gravity that seems to keep him stuck, like a fridge magnet, to the surface of the earth. Growing up middle class in Aleppo, his ambitions had extended only as far as the periphery of the city. He would go into factory work, settle down, and have as many children as God permitted.
In 2001, at 22, he’d been introduced to a young woman named Najma, who had fine features and a shy smile. He was smitten. “I knew that she was the only one I would ever love,” he says. “I never wanted to be apart from her.” A son, Hakim, arrived in 2002, followed by a daughter, Sana; then another son, Ibrahim; a second daughter, Rima; and finally, Kalil.
As the spring of 2011 gave way to the sweltering summer, Amin and Najma engaged in long and spirited discussions with their extended family, most of whom were determined to remain in Aleppo among their own people. The violence was still relatively small-scale and scattered, their families reasoned—a far cry from the devastation and death that would follow. “My five brothers said, ‘Even if we wanted to leave, how would we do it? For us, it’s impossible,’” Amin recalls. “But it was different for me; they knew that I had a way out of Aleppo, and they were supportive.”
In 2007 Amin had spent time in Egypt, working at a mattress factory in Cairo. There he’d struck up a few close friendships, including one with a Syrian-born supervisor. Using Facebook, Amin tracked down the man’s cell phone number and called him in Egypt. To his surprise, the man’s reply was immediate and enthusiastic: A spot had opened up on the floor. If Amin could get himself to Egypt, the job was his.
And my family?
They will have to wait, the supervisor said. That much paperwork—it won’t be easy. It will take time.
He arrived in Cairo the first week of September 2011.
As Amin had feared, outright war swept through Syria, pitting the government, entrenched in the capital of Damascus, against a loose conglomeration of rebel factions, some affiliated with foreign jihadi groups. In the break room at the Cairo mattress factory, where he operated a machine that coiled steel springs, Amin watched the fighting in Aleppo. It was only on the phone with Najma, hearing her frightened voice, that he could be certain that it was not his wife’s corpse that he’d glimpsed on the television set.
Without Amin, Najma and the children moved in with her parents, bunking up in the living room on the couches and on the floor. The fighting had effectively made them prisoners; they could make the short trips to school and to the store, but the threat of being shot kept them off the streets in the afternoons and nights. Najma did her best to distract the children, the oldest of whom was only 11, from the thump of far-off explosions and the sirens that startled them. “They wanted to be playing,” she tells me. “They’d say, ‘Okay, can we go now? How about now?’ And when I’d say, ‘No, not now,’ they’d want an answer. But I didn’t have one.”
If the conflict had earlier veered from street protests to gun battles, now it was entering a new and brutal phase. The Syrian navy was bombarding the coastal city of Latakia. Homs, midway between Damascus and Aleppo, was under siege. And in Aleppo, it was clear that no one, civilian or soldier, young or old, was safe. Amin and Najma felt that it was only through the grace of God that no one in their own family had yet been hurt.
A few weeks after he’d left for Cairo, Najma received a call from Amin. He’d emptied his savings and secured the requisite paperwork and plane fare. The family could join him in Egypt on temporary resident permits. Hanging up the phone, Najma wept. She and her children would escape the war, but they’d be leaving behind the only home they’d ever known, not to mention their extended family. Hakim, the oldest son, remembers what his mother told them as they packed: “We will probably never return.”
In Cairo the family took up residence in a three-room apartment near the factory. For a year and a half, the children did not go to school. A local branch of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Geneva, provided Najma with a swipe card that could be used to purchase food. Even so, it was impossible to save any money; almost all of Amin’s weekly paycheck at the factory—the equivalent of $75—was used for housing and bills. The family had no long-term stability; they were forever one paycheck away from ruin.
And as Amin was keenly aware, their time in Egypt was not unlimited. If at any time the factory decided to downsize or if the Egyptian government launched a crackdown on foreign workers—already there were politicians agitating for it—Amin’s residency would be revoked. Outside the flat, the children found themselves the targets of harassment. “People would say, ‘Dirty Syrian rat, why are you taking our jobs?’” Ibrahim recalls.
Amin and Najma ruled out returning to what was left of their home city. Late 2012 had marked the beginning of the so-called Battle of Aleppo, a protracted siege that would see some of the first use of chemical warfare against civilians. Snipers took up positions in the city square, and government forces dropped barrel bombs—gorged with nails and ball bearings—onto apartment buildings. There was no economy to speak of, no clean water.
Amin’s brothers told him about dogs feasting on human carcasses a block away from where Amin and his family had once lived. You are lucky you escaped, they told him. In December 2011, Najma’s father died. She was unable to return to attend the funeral.
One afternoon Amin opened his Facebook account to find a message from his brother. There’d been a government rocket attack on his neighborhood. His brother had been pulled from the rubble, but his brother’s two young sons—Amin’s nephews—had been killed.
It was around this time that Amin and Najma made up their minds: They needed to escape the Middle East altogether, and the sooner the better.
Since 2011 at least 4.5 million people—close to a quarter of the country’s population—have fled the civil war in Syria. More than 200,000 languish in overcrowded refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq. Others have attempted to flee by land or sea to Europe, often with tragic results. In 2015 a photo of the waterlogged corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who had perished along with his five-year-old brother while attempting to sail with his family from Turkey to Greece, made the cover of newspapers around the globe. Around the same time, an Austrian autobahn worker opened the back doors of an apparently abandoned trailer to find 71 dead Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans inside. It eventually emerged that the traffickers hired to take the refugees further into Europe had failed to modulate the temperature in the trailer; the refugees had all suffocated.
As Paedia Mixon, the head of the nonprofit New American Pathways, told me recently when I met her in her office in Atlanta, the mad scramble to leave Syria has strained governments trying to accommodate refugees. “I’ve been working with refugees for a long time now, and I have never seen a situation like this,” she says. “It is a crisis in every sense of the word.”
Mixon, who is slight and red-haired, started her career at Catholic Charities in Atlanta before moving to the Carter Center, where she focused on peace program development. In 2005 she took a job at what is now New American Pathways, one of five resettlement agencies in Georgia and an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries and the Church World Service, a network of Christian organizations. Operating largely on government grants and an annual budget of $5 million, the 60-odd employees took on 200 new cases last year with families coming from a range of countries: Bhutan, Somalia, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan.
For most of these families, New American Pathways represents the final leg of a long journey that started when they filed a request with the United Nations for refugee status. If the family has demonstrated a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” a security and medical screen is initiated.
Requirements vary depending on the country that will host the refugees. Families wishing to enter the United States, for instance, must pass a multipart evaluation carried out abroad by the State Department. They submit to biometric scans and give blood and DNA samples. Officials interview family members and known associates.
Once the family has received clearance, the files eventually get forwarded to groups like New American Pathways, which help with acclimation in the U.S. “We’ll get this bio in the mail, and it’ll be one page—everything you need to know about somebody in one page, if you can imagine that,” Mixon says. “Then we decide whether to accept or deny the case. We almost always accept. But it could be two months before we see the family. Or two years. Or it could not happen at all—a hitch in the screening process that prevents them from coming.”
The International Organization for Migration loans the family money for travel; stateside, groups like New American Pathways steer the family through a crash course in everything from Social Security and medical insurance enrollment to navigating mass transit. Employment specialists maintain relationships with local factories and warehouses, and they arrange English language instruction and classes on American culture.
“In those first six months, the goal is to get people self-sufficient,” Mixon says. “You want them to understand the community, to be able to navigate on their own. And to be able to work to provide for their families.”
Until last year New American Pathways had never helped resettle a family from Syria. That changed with the escalation of the civil war. “It was obvious just from watching the news that we needed to be prepared,” Mixon says. “We had the capacity; we had several Arabic speakers on staff, and we’d handled cases from Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan.”
In late 2014 the United States committed to increasing the number of Syrian refugees it took in from just 350 that year to 10,000 in 2015. (By comparison, at the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was pledging to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees; Germany has since taken in 250,000.)
Through State Department contacts, New American Pathways signaled it had the capacity and the language skills to handle some of that influx.
The first four Syrian families assigned to New American Pathways began arriving in Atlanta in the spring of last year. In stark contrast to the anti-immigrant furor that would arise in the wake of the fall terrorist attacks in Paris—attacks initially and erroneously linked to Syrian refugees traveling on fake passports—the refugees were greeted warmly. The Facebook page of New American Pathways overflowed with welcoming comments from well-wishers. Donations poured in.
“I know it’s corny to think of us as ‘The City Too Busy to Hate,’ but in some ways I think that there’s some truth to that,” Mixon says. “And there was real empathy—a shared understanding that all parents love their children and have the same hopes and dreams for them. If these parents are willing to put their children on an overcrowded raft and take off into the ocean, then what they’re leaving behind must be so completely horrible.”
Over the course of 2015, New American Pathways processed paperwork for 11 Syrian families. One of the last came in August and landed on the desk of Sarah McCormick, a case manager. Opening the file, she began reading about a laborer named Amin. He and his wife and their five children were seeking refuge in the U.S.
In the end, it had taken almost two years for Amin’s application to the United Nations for refugee status to be approved, during which time Aleppo had collapsed, family members died, and Amin forced himself not to surrender hope. He made countless trips to the IOM’s Cairo office, giving blood, giving hair samples, pressing his thumbs onto an ink pad, handing over the email addresses of friends and family back home.
As a matter of policy, the United Nations does its best to accommodate placement requests. If a refugee has relatives in Canada or Germany, it will try to make arrangements there. But more often, it comes down to capacity. Amin understood this. “I had no hopes about where we would go,” he tells me. “I just wanted it to be somewhere safe, you know?”
Amin was told in the early summer of 2015 that they’d been accepted by the U.S. He spoke no English, and what he knew of the country came only from television shows and movies. But he had heard of America’s reputation as a place where anything was possible, providing you were willing to work hard enough. “I said, ‘God must truly love me to give me a chance like this.’”
Long before dawn on a humid morning last August, Amin and Najma and their five children boarded a bus for the Cairo airport. Kalil, their youngest, was now three and had no idea of what was about to happen, except that it was some kind of adventure.
The family had packed only enough to fit into a few suitcases: clothes, toothbrushes, $300 in cash. Cairo to Italy to Miami to Atlanta. They touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at 11 at night. Twenty-two hours had elapsed since leaving Cairo.
At baggage claim, the family was met by a man named Shakir, a former refugee from Iraq and now a driver for New American Pathways. In Shakir’s van, they sat wide-eyed, hardly daring to speak. The highway was empty and dark, the air soft. Their fatigue seemed, for the moment, far away. “I worried if I fell asleep, it would turn out to be a dream,” Sana says.
A major part of New American Pathways’ resettlement work is to find lodging for refugee families; the organization will furnish the property with donated goods, and federal dollars will pay for several months in rent, but it’s the family’s name on the lease. For Amin’s family, the agency had settled on a condo complex in the city of Clarkston, the center of which has been called “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Long a home to Ethiopian and Somali refugees, the population has in recent years swelled with Iraqi and Afghani transplants fleeing civil war in their countries. According to the young mayor, Ted Terry, Clarkston currently has the highest refugee resettlement rates in the country. (In September, a month after Amin and his family arrived, Terry told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Clarkston is ready to step up and do our part to welcome more Syrians, more Iraqis, more Afghanis to our city.”)
The family’s new apartment lay on the northeast edge of town at the back of a grid of identical structures, maybe 100 in all, with letters and numbers on the sides to distinguish one from the next. Their door, like all the doors, was beige. There was a small crescent of glass at eye level.
Najma remembers Kalil, the youngest, cocking his head to listen; other than the rustle of the trees and the murmur of traffic on a distant freeway, the quiet was complete. Then he nudged open the door and all the children cascaded through, dashing up the stairs, pointing excitedly at the television set, flopping dramatically backward onto the couches.
Amin and Najma were the last across the threshold. They took in the house in segments: downstairs, a small kitchen, a bathroom, a dining room, and a living room with walls scuffed by the last occupants. Upstairs, another bathroom and two bedrooms. There was halal food on the table, frozen chicken in the freezer, linens on the bed, towels in the bathrooms. “I thought,” Najma tells me, “that I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.”
When McCormick, the case manager, showed up at the condo the next day, she found Amin and Najma still in a state of shock. “Are you sure about all this?” the couple asked. “We don’t need to give it back?”
“Yes,” McCormick told them. “This is yours. Everything belongs to you. Except the fridge. You don’t get to keep that.”
Like a pint-sized military detachment, the children lined up in the living room, smiling bashfully at McCormick. They were practically shaking with excitement. McCormick encouraged Amin and Najma to take their time getting settled in. They should unpack, walk around the neighborhood. Get some rest. Amin shook his head. He was ready to work. When could he start?
McCormick had expected this. “Obviously not every refugee family is the same—their experiences vary, their cultures vary,” she tells me. “But what they share is this view of America as a place where no one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. They take that responsibility very seriously.” She assured Amin that they were looking into employment opportunities.
The next week was a frenzied blur. The members of the family were shuttled from office to office to apply for Social Security numbers and Medicaid cards. As refugees, the State Department had granted them legal residency, meaning Amin could work as soon as he received his Social Security number and both he and Najma could hold driver’s licenses. After five years they could all apply for full American citizenship, and with it the right to vote.
In September the four oldest children were enrolled in area schools. They were expected to pick up English quickly, though there were Arabic speakers on staff at the Clarkston schools to help them learn. Najma, too, took classes at New American Pathways and listened to American TV as often as she could. For Amin, it was different; he was the primary breadwinner for the family, and if he had to choose between ESL classes and a paycheck, he’d choose the paycheck.
Luckily an employment specialist had produced a lead; a poultry processing plant in Pendergrass needed more floor workers. The factory had previously hired other New American Pathways families. English was not required. Amin started in mid-October. His shift ran from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., with a one-hour break. His job was to stand in one of the refrigeration units and use a machine to wrap raw chicken in plastic. He left home at 3 p.m. and returned at 3 a.m., crawled into bed, and woke up at 11 to eat breakfast. Pay was about $350 a week after taxes.
In Egypt or Syria, that income level would have placed Amin in the middle class. But here it left him barely solvent, so he relied on food stamps to feed his family. There was also the matter of transportation. Because Amin did not have a car, he carpooled with a coworker, a Somali man. For this privilege, the Somali charged Amin $40 a week.
Amin and his family had not had much time to attend the mosque in Clarkston. But they did meet several members of the Syrian American community in metro Atlanta, one of whom, hearing of Amin’s situation at the chicken plant, gave him a used Dodge Caravan. “I thought, ‘This is an opportunity,’” Amin says. Through New American Pathways, he found an opening at a warehouse a little closer to Clarkston, where he would not be required to work in a refrigeration unit; the cold, he recalls, had aggravated an old knee injury. Instead he would prepare produce for shipping. The pay was $10 less a week, but he could make up for that by charging his coworkers for a ride to work, as the Somali had charged him.
On November 13, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 people in Paris. In the U.S., where Islamophobia was already running high, news of the attacks was heralded by conservatives as proof of the need to keep out migrants from Muslim countries. (In fact, all the known attackers were citizens of Europe, though at least one likely spent time training in Syria.)
In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order intended to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees. “Until the federal government and Congress conducts a thorough review of current screening procedures and background checks, we will take every measure available to us at the state level to ensure the safety of Georgians,” Deal said in a statement.
At New American Pathways, the proposed ban was alarming. “Look, the U.S. refugee program is incredibly cautious,” Mixon tells me. “In the 35-year history of the program, no refugee has ever committed an act of domestic terrorism. It is as safe as it could possibly be. And the Syrians are the most vetted group of immigrants entering the county; the process takes two years. We know very well how long that process takes, incidentally, because the family members waiting abroad are calling us every day. I think for a lot of people in America, there was suddenly this idea that, If we don’t bring refugees here, that’ll make us safe. But ignoring the suffering of four-plus million people is not going to make us safe; it’s just going to put us at far greater risk.”
Mixon sought to assure Muslim clients that they were still welcome here. In late December, Sam Olens, Georgia’s attorney general, issued a formal opinion calling into question the legality of barring “refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program.” Deal subsequently rescinded the ban.
Still, though Mixon says none of the Syrian refugees she knows have experienced direct prejudice, the fear represented by Deal’s proposed ban lingers. When I asked McCormick what she might say, hypothetically, if cornered by someone who supported barring Syrian refugees from entering Georgia, she laughed. “Oh, that’s not a hypothetical,” she said. “I’ve gotten that in person. I’ve seen it online. I respond by saying, ‘I know these refugees personally, and they are not terrorists. They are victims. They are good people escaping a terrible situation. And they just want to be able to contribute. All you have to do is be there for the first time they see their new home, and see that calm and relief settle over their faces. Even without being able to speak Arabic, you understand it because it’s visible.’”
On a bright afternoon this winter, I went with Amin and Najma and their children to a pizzeria in Clarkston. Wedging his new minivan into a corner spot, Amin led his family past a store selling international calling cards and a boutique with an array of colorful head scarves in the window. He nodded politely to the group of Somali men smoking at the curb. At the door, Amin made a point of holding open the door of the pizzeria and saying “please,” in English. I thanked him. “You are welcome,” he said.
Amin and Najma are now 36 and 33, respectively, but Amin in particular looks much older; his scalp and cheeks are covered with salt-and-pepper scruff, and the worry lines on his forehead have deepened into geoform trenches. This may be a product of the long hours he works. But I suspect it’s also a manifestation of the pressure that comes from protecting his children from the effects of the war that has consumed their homeland; he and Najma absorb all that anger and pain so their children don’t have to.
At the restaurant we settled into two booths, Amin and Najma and Kalil at one and the four oldest kids at the other. The pizzeria was halal—literally “permissible” in Arabic—meaning that there was no alcohol available, no pork on the menu, and that all meat had been prepared under the authority of a certified Muslim inspector. In the background an Al Jazeera anchor was detailing a recent government assault on Aleppo: Hundreds were dead. The children kept their attention on their plates.
I gestured at the TV screen. Did they miss Syria?
“I remember having a picnic with my uncles and my nephews,” Sana says. “That is a good memory. And I miss my family.”
Ibrahim chimed in. “I remember eating with my family after Eid,” the holiday that commemorates the end of the Ramadan fasts.
Anything else? In unison, the children shook their heads. They may have missed their family in Syria, but they did not miss Syria itself—certainly not what it has become. Their focus was on America, which they spoke of with a booster’s enthusiasm: All the people were friendly. All the trees were green. “Everything is beautiful,” Sana explained. They had big plans, the four of them. Ibrahim wanted to be a police officer. Rima, an engineer, because she liked to draw. Sana, a pediatrician. And Hakim, a radiologist.
After the children had finished eating, we drove across town to a playground. As soon as the van stopped, the children made a beeline for the swings. The weather was mild, the skies clear. Kalil climbed into the harness, and Sana, standing behind him, pushed him high into the air.
Nearby Amin and Najma listened to Kalil squeal with delight. Najma had her hand on her belly; she’s pregnant again, due in June.
The last time I saw the family, at their condo in Clarkston, Kalil jumped into my lap and held up a black-and-white photograph. It was an ultrasound obtained just a few days before. “Girl,” Kalil said in English.
Born on U.S. soil, the baby will be an American from birth, the first American citizen in the family. Najma was still deciding on a name, but she told me she was leaning toward Noor. In Arabic, it means “light.”
*Fearful that his extended family in Syria might be targeted by the government, Amin asked that he and his family be identified by pseudonyms. In addition, his face and his wife’s face have been obscured.
This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.
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