Nestled off the highway, mere minutes from Atlanta, there’s a town, beckoning to those who want to immerse themselves in what can, at times, feel like another country—another country whose language varies from aisle to aisle in the grocery store and whose dress alters with each passerby.
Atlanta may be known as “The City Too Busy to Hate,” but Clarkston, an oft-overlooked gem, embodies its neighbor’s slogan to the fullest extent. A resettlement refugee community, home to 57 nationalities, it was dubbed “the most diverse square mile in America” for good reason.
Visitors to Clarkston can fill their day with culture, if they know where to go and how to interact respectfully with the locals, a community ever-changing.
“It’s just like anything else, the best way to learn more about your neighbor is going over to your neighbor to speak to your neighbor and invite them over to your house; sitting and eating and fellowshipping with that person—it’s the same thing [with] the community here,” said Amber McCorkle, director of education at Clarkston Community Center. “You have to be a part of it... Not being there to just observe and look at people as if they’re on display.”
Travelers can hop on a bike and take the Stone Mountain Trail from the Centennial Olympic in downtown Atlanta to Clarkston, making a pit-stop at the most popular “gas station” around.
Refuge Coffee Co. may no longer house pumps, but visitors can still refuel here. Strands of lights hang under its awnings, which shelter red food trucks, inscribed with the non-profit’s inspiring mission: “Refuge Coffee Co. is for Clarkston, Georgia. As you enjoy your coffee you are providing a living wage, quality job training and mentorship for a resettled refugee who lives right here in Atlanta’s backyard.”
A playlist of music from around the world drifts from the service station doors, rolled up to let in the afternoon breeze. A woman in a headscarf claps her hand on the shoulder of a man in a flannel shirt, inquiring how he’s been, addressing everyone she passes by name. It’s a typical day at Refuge.
“What I love to say is that we’re in the business of welcome,” said Kitti Murray, founder of Refuge Coffee Co. “I feel like it’s part of what we do—tell a more accurate refugee story to the rest of the world.”
In addition to serving caffeinated beverages, Refuge hosts a slew of events, including Speak Refuge, a Friday night affair featuring local talent, ending in a dance party; Friendsgiving; and a Christmas Market.
“You can learn different cultures while you are here in Clarkston,” said Leon Shombana, manager of Refuge Coffee Co. “You can see, I am from Congo, she comes from Afghanistan, the girl from Syria, you see her over there, another guy is from Sudan, another from Ethiopia. That is how we are, we are multi-cultural.”
Another well-known Clarkston locale stands just down the hill from the coffee company—Thriftown. Here, Reese’s Puffs line the aisle next to masoor dal. One might say this is the real world market, filled with wares as diverse as its clientele.
As with many small-towns, strip malls reign supreme; however, Clarkston’s differ. In the strip that houses Thriftown, visitors find Asian and Ethiopian fare as well as a local favorite, Kathmandu. Lit only by small, colorful lanterns, the restaurant is a staple for Indian-Nepali cuisine. Another strip, Campus Plaza, dubbed Somali Plaza by locals, is a must stop for vibrant scarves—music from its namesake country swirling between the floor-to-ceiling fabric.
Tucked away just down the road and marked with nothing more than a small sign propped in its window, lies Nepali Food Mart. The neatly stocked store is easy to miss, but worth the trouble. Guests who step inside for momo, served with a piquant red-orange sauce, will be hit with a fog of spice as chimes announce their arrival. The mart and kitchen, quiet, interrupted only by slurping, is a peaceful space to unwind.
A visit to this town, so unlike what one typically finds off the gridlock, would be incomplete without a stop at the Clarkston Community Center—similar to community centers found across small-town America in many ways: tic-tac-toe scratched on the pavement outside; yet different in so many others: Curious George stacked alongside Vỡ Lòng Ca Dao in the little free library out front.
“The center now is the hub of the world, basically,” said Luay Sami, director of operations at Clarkston Community Center. “Every day is a different country, different theme, different story. One day you’ll come and it’s African drummers and we have the Uhuru dancers, and some days it’s something from Vietnam going on, so you never get bored.”
Although its goal is to integrate those who’ve lived in Clarkston their entire lives with those who’ve just arrived in America, the center welcomes tourists, encouraging them to participate in programs such as tai chi or the Uhuru drum and dance classes. Events are another draw, standouts include the International Food and Wine Gala and the International Spring Festival, where exotic plants are for sale.
Out-of-towners can also stop by the center to peruse its World Art Market, stocked with handmade works sourced from international and local artists. Striking jewelry, intricately beaded blankets, wooden carvings and woven baskets line the shelves. Proceeds benefit both the artists and the center.
A day in Clarkston ignites a sense of adventure. As travelers explore the town—diversity abound within its 1.4 square miles—the desire to see, hear, smell and taste the world is fulfilled.
Clarkston’s atmosphere is, “Open. Open in the sense [that], all types of things, all types of beliefs and cultures are welcome here,” said McCorkle. “It’s not repressed. You definitely see that people are allowed to be who they are, unapologetically... Everybody here, they’re open with whoever they are, whatever they believe, however they believe. I think because of that, it makes the atmosphere here so inviting and accepting—regardless of who you are, you’re welcome here.”