Clarkston Community Center Senior Refugee Program

For shepherding older refugees into American life
Groundbreakers 2016
Vatiera Guragai of Bhutan is one of the program’s participants.

Photograph by Kaylinn Gilstrap

Four years after leaving his homeland of Bhutan, Bhupal Katwal, 62, still struggled to find the English words to explain the religious bigotry that propelled him to journey across the globe.

“My religion is Hindu. Hindu, no. Buddhist,” he said, shaking his head. But then Katwal smiled. “U.S., free country.”

The cornerstone of Katwal’s new life in America is the Senior Refugee Program at the Clarkston Community Center, which opened in 1994. Clarkston, a tiny city of just one square mile, has resettled thousands of refugees from dozens of countries in the past two decades, earning it the nickname “Ellis Island of the South.”

Not long after the city’s community center opened, the staff recognized that older refugees face unique hurdles in adapting to a different culture. “They’re the last [in the family] to get any kind of services,” says director Cindy Bowden. “They’re the last to learn English. They’re the last to get involved in the community. It’s important to offer them an avenue to belonging.”

To that end, the center provides free ESL instruction for older refugees and also refers them to caseworkers who can help with practical matters like obtaining healthcare and using a computer. This fall Bowden is developing a wheelchair-accessible garden that will host activities that unite older refugees with American-born seniors.

Teresa Hatten has been a teacher at the community center for five years, and her English lessons include discussion of differences. “We talk about the mosque, the church, the temple, the synagogue,” she says. One Christmas a student pointed to the sky to show Hatten that she believed in God. She came from a country fraught with religious turmoil. “She said, ‘Teacher, I love you.’”

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This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.