By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 30, 2019
DECATUR—Grace Lin walked among the crowd making its way from Decatur to Clarkston in the May heat. She replayed in her mind her own family’s escape from ethnic and religious oppression.
“They had to walk all day long. All they used were their legs to go anywhere,” she said about her family fleeing Myanmar in southeast Asia. Her family belongs to the Karen ethnic group, who are targeted by the government in the country, formerly known as Burma.
Lin was among the crowd of some 60 people on a five-mile pilgrimage in support of refugees. Stepping off from St. Thomas More Church Saturday, May 18, the banner-carrying crowd walked along East Ponce de Leon Avenue and the Stone Mountain Trail. Temperatures rose into the 80s under the cloudless bright sky. Students from the Marist School led the “Share the Journey” march.
The destination for the pilgrims was the Refuge Coffee Shop, a converted gas station where art created by refugees hangs on the walls and new arrivals in the country serve as baristas. It is a place for job training, mentorship and English classes for new residents from war-torn parts of the globe.
Clarkston, just east of Atlanta, calls itself the “Ellis Island of the South.”
Lin and her family lived for several years in a refugee camp in Thailand, along with tens of thousands, until finding sanctuary in the United States. With her face shaded from the sun under a white baseball cap, Lin now serves as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the refugee resettlement agency that welcomed her family. The 21-year-old intends to return to college to study nursing after her year of service.
As some people recall milestones of wedding anniversaries and birthdays, she remembers the day she stepped off the plane in Atlanta—Jan. 18, 2013.
Seeing the young people take up the cause of refugees and walk along the side of the road touched her heart.
“This is amazing. They want to feel like the refugees feel,” said Lin. “They have a good life here. They don’t even have to think about it.”
‘Look for our common humanity’
Sophomore Abby Testani helps tutor youngsters from refugee families.
“They are passionate about their future,” she said of the students.
Testani along with others have been amazed at the welcome they have received from adults and children settling into their new country.
“I already have a community, but they made me feel part of theirs,” said Testani, who travels from her home in Buckhead to the Friends of Refugee tutoring center in Clarkston.
For Moira Ujda, she’s seen “fear toward them, unkind attitudes” toward refugees.
“I felt I needed to do something about that. Share the Journey was the way to get involved,” said Ujda.
To replace fear, people need to “look for our common humanity,” said the high school sophomore. Refugees seek safety to live without persecution, she said.
Clare Seymour, a 10th grade student, has been aware of the plight of refugees since grade school. She remembered the courage of Malala Yousafzai, shot for her advocacy to educate girls in defiance of the Taliban. Yousafzai earned the Nobel Peace Prize after fleeing to Great Britain for recovery and to live in safety.
For Seymour, refugees are not helpless but “working so hard to change their stories. They are making their own difference in the world.”
140 refugees to be resettled by CCA
Frances McBrayer, who leads the refugee resettlement program for Catholic Charities Atlanta, walked alongside the students. They were dressed in bright blue T-shirts with a quote of Pope Francis, saying walking for others “declares we are one human family.”
The public demonstration of support energizes people who work with refugees, she said. “These are people that are important to us,” said McBrayer.
Her agency is forecast to resettle about 140 individuals in metro Atlanta in the 2019 fiscal year, she said.
With the Trump Administration, the United States has curtailed the effort to resettle refugees to historic lows. The U.S. admitted close to 85,000 refugees at the end of 2016 fiscal year. In 2019, the number is expected to be 30,000.
For people unable to attend demonstrations of support, McBrayer said refugees can be helped by adult tutoring, hosting Catholic Charities speakers at parishes, or purchasing household goods for families to set up a new home.
Marist Chapter of Share the Journey
A refugee immersion experience on the Marist School campus sparked students to embrace the issue. The campus hosted a mock refugee camp. Catholic Charities Atlanta staff members, who lived in camps as refugees, shared their experiences of fleeing violence to finding a haven in a camp to finally be resettled in a new country.
That day encouraged students to focus on the issue.
“They were beyond just charity, fundraising model. They wanted to build relationships, change public opinion, confront anti-immigrant sentiment in the community,” said Marist Campus Minister Bernadette Naro.
The issue of refugees will be spotlighted during the summer break. The whole school is assigned to read “Outcast United,” the story of a refugee soccer team in Clarkston. The coach, Luma Mufleh, will talk to students and staff in the fall.
Founded in 1901, Marist School is one of the oldest Catholic schools in the state. Some 1,100 students are enrolled in the school. There is a wide gap between the experiences of Marist students and their peers with refugee backgrounds.
Naro said the aim is to build bridges between students here and students with refugee backgrounds. “It’s easy to look at the world today in despair and throw up our hands. What can one person do? We have a responsibility to respond,” she said. “The Holy Spirit will meet us.”