It wouldn’t have been a surprise if Ted Terry had gotten overlooked at the NYC Global Mayors Summit. After all, there were mayors from 30 cities around the world. Sao Paulo, Brazil; Ottawa, Canada; Athens, Greece; and Gothenburg, Sweden were all represented.
But Clarkston, Ga.‘s reputation for being the “Ellis Island of the South” had captured enough notoriety that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio felt compelled to claim that five stops on the Manhattan subway line probably have the most ethnically diverse square miles in America.
Mr. Terry, Clarkston’s mayor since 2013 and currently in a race for a new term, quickly disclaimed the widespread assertion that Clarkson’s 1.4 square miles in DeKalb County east of Atlanta, is the most diverse during his luncheon speech to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta downtown on Oct. 17.
“There is no evidence to prove that Clarkston is the most ethnically diverse square mile in America,” he said. But he added that the city does have residents from 40 different nationalities who speak 60 languages.
And he plugged with the seamless ease of a practiced politician the local establishments such the Kathmandu Kitchen & Grill, “the best Himalayan restaurant in town” and the Refuge Coffee Co., which besides serving coffee supports coffee-related job creation, social networking, and commerce.
Clarkston’s unique blend of Southern hospitality and adaptability became widely known with the reporting of Warren St. John, whose book ‘Outcasts United’ and his articles for the New York Times, recounted the evolution of a soccer team of refugee boys.
But the recognition that the city received from the success of the Fugees soccer team now is only part of the story. Mr. Terry didn’t even mention the Fugees and focused during his presentation more on the composition of the community and the growth of the city’s population, which has almost doubled over the past seven years.
“Clarkston is known for receiving refugees since the 1980s,” he said, dating back to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese following the departure of the U.S. military at the end of the Vietnam War.
None other than former President Jimmy Carter formalized the refugee resettlement process with the United Nations by signing the Refugee Act of 1980, which paved the way for refugee camps to open in Thailand from which many Vietnamese made their way to the U.S.
The city’s population has soared from 7,554 in 2010 to almost 13,000 last year according to the U.S. Census as refugees have poured into the city from all corners of the world.
“You can really follow the course of human and world events through the residents of Clarkston,” Mr. Terry said. In the 1980s and 90s Somalis arrived having escaped the brutal civil war in Somalia that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Next to come were the Ethiopians and Eritreans who fled the war between their countries provoked by an irreconcilable border dispute.
The collapse of Yugoslavia also resulted in thousands of refugees from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia to arrive in the U.S. with some finding their way to Clarkston. Since then the aftermath of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in the arrival of Iraqis and Afghanis.
The number of hotspots plagued by wars hasn’t diminished and Clarkson has welcomed Burmese , Bhutanese and Congolese refugees in addition to the Syrians who have made their way through the rigorous screening procedures.
As mayor, Mr. Terry holds up his city as an example of the multicultural future for cities around the world including the United States.
As a campaigner, he has had to face bitter criticisms from those who have asked if the city would adopt Muslim sharia laws, and former residents who didn’t like the rapidly changing character of the town and have left.
And he is perfectly willing to cite higher authorities such as Jesus, who held up the golden rule of “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or Muhammad who is to have said “That which you want for yourself seek for mankind,” or Buddha‘s teaching, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” or even a 1st century rabbi who taught “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor.”
Born in Tallahassee, Fla., and a graduate of the University of Florida, Mr. Terry moved to DeKalb County where he lived for more than a decade and was involved in political work on behalf of the Democratic Party before deciding to run for mayor.
An early campaign stop was to one of the many apartment complexes within the city limits where he met a Vietnamese student who was enrolled in an Emory University health program and introduced him to members of the local Vietnamese community who had never been encouraged to vote by any campaigner before.
From then on, it was, as he told the Kiwanians, a matter of “walking the walk and talking the talk,” which meant upholding American values promoting justice, liberty and equality, but not necessarily espousing big government. “There is a place where government ends and where people have to take over. It can be a battle to create a community upholding the basic principles of America, and it’s not all one or the other,” he said.
Despite it’s multi-ethnic population and the presence of ethnicities and various tribes who might have clashed in their homelands, he called Clarkston “one of the most peaceful places,” and “an example for the rest of the world.”
Such an anomaly became the cynosure of many news organizations in the U.S. as well as abroad. Yet the most meaningful experiences for Mr. Terry, according to his address, have been his encounters with the city’s inhabitants.
Asked by a Kiwanian how recently arrived refugees adapted to American culture., he responded by describing a visit he made on an evening of campaigning to the apartment of a Bhutanese family.
There he was greeted by a barefoot Mom wearing a sari, the Dad returning from having worked a 10-hour shift in a chicken processing plant, the daughter anxious to learn English and then the son who walked in dressed as if he was Justin Bieber and talking colloquial English.
“The older generations have one foot in their countries and wished things were simpler,” he said. Yet they want their children to do well in school and willingly share their traditional music, food, dance and dress. He was positive about the response of the city’s residents to these different traditions, calling it the American-way of inclusion.
The city’s role as a safe haven for newly arrived refugees has been reinforced by the presence of the Friends of Refugees, a nonprofit that has the mission of caring “for refugees through relationships and opportunities that provide for their well-being, education and employment as they become contributing members of society.”
The organization dates back to the mid-1990s through the efforts of local residents led by the efforts of Pat Maddox, a former resident who had left the city but returned and set about providing necessary resources for the newly arrived.
Starting as a small collaborative, community effort, 10 years later it became a formal nonprofit and now is responsible for numerous programs assisting different aspects of the refugees’ lives.
In keeping with his commitment to “walking the walk and talking the talk,” Mr. Terry decided that he should sponsor a newly arrived family from Syria himself. He outlined for the Kiwanians the responsibilities of finding an apartment and furnishings, gathering clothing and raising funds to help the newly arrived get established — tasks that he encouraged others to undertake as well.
To participate in Clarkston’s refugee resettlement project, contact the Friends of Refugees by clicking here.
To learn about other Kiwanis Club of Atlanta programs, click here.