Coffee Truck Offers Refugees a Second Chance
Written by Branden Camp, Damita Glaude, Anna Streetman
Photos and Video by Branden Camp
CLARKSTON, Ga.– A small red truck sits in the parking lot of what looks like the footprint of an old mechanics shop. Inside, two baristas prepare lattes and coffee for its local residents in Clarkston, Georgia.
The side of Refuge Coffee’s truck reads “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.” Atlanta has seen a rise in food trucks as the city’s urban culture continues to evolve. Refuge Coffee’s truck has risen up to meet a more practical and pressing need.
Kitti Murray is Refuge Coffee’s founder and CEO, or chief excitement officer, as she likes to refer to herself.
Murray and her husband moved to Clarkston a little over 4 years ago.
“We wanted to live in a place that was strategic, that had, you know, great need, but also great diversity and community,” Murray said.
Caleb Goodrum, director of operations at Refuge Coffee, said Clarkston is a unique resource to Atlanta because of cultural and ethnic diversity. The city is a little over a square mile. Over half of Clarkston’s 7,000 something residents are immigrants from another country.
According to the U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action’s website, a total of 3,252,492 refugees have been admitted into the United States from 1975 to 2015.
The Obama administration recently announced that the U.S. has agreed to help 10,000 Syrian refugees resettle following the ongoing conflicts in Syria. Clarkston, known as the refugee town in Georgia, openly welcomes refugees to resettle in its small town. As you cross into its city limits the sign reads “small town, big heart.”
Murray said she saw two needs that surfaced. She saw a lack of community between cultures and need for jobs. Murray said Refuge Coffee’s mission has evolved. She said they want to provide job training, create a place for people to gather and tell a more beautiful refugee story.
Murray said the opening of Refuge Coffee, was the perfect opportunity to connect with more refugees and provide them with education and job opportunities. The coffee truck acts as a safe haven for the refugees and is also beneficial for introducing locals to other cultures
She wanted to build a place where people from all cultures can come together. She said Americans should take the time to meet a refugee.
“These are a people of great value,” Murray said.
Customer Jenny Cochran, a frequent visitor at Refuge, sat with a friend over drinks. Cochran said that coffee is often a way of bringing cultures together. The popular coffee truck is becoming integral in building a cultural hub in Clarkston.
“For folks who are not refugees, it’s a great introduction to the refugee community without feeling inundated with all this different culture around you,” Cochran said.
Cochran works as a program director for Embrace Refugee Birth Support, which is a program of a non-profit called Friends of Refugees.
Lack of jobs is not the only uphill battle refugees face when coming to the U.S..
Pregnant refugee women are faced with the daunting challenge of having a child in a foreign country with a foreign medical system.
Cochran stepped up to serve this unique need.
“I just started thinking what it would be like to have a baby in a country where you don’t understand the medical system, don’t understand the culture and don’t speak the language,” Cochran said. “Research shows that women need support, especially if she’s trying to navigate a whole new culture and medical system.”
She has been assisting pregnant refugee women for 6 years now. The Embrace Refugee Birth Support program provides refugee women with education and support before and after the baby is born. Cochran said the most important thing is letting these women know they have options and a community to rely on.
Throughout the morning, customers made their way to the truck to order a drink.
Inside, Syrian refugee Ahmad Alzoukani steamed milk for a vanilla latte. In broken, but clear English, Alzoukani says he plans to stay here in America.
“I have job here, I can do anything here,” Alzoukani said.
Before immigrating to America, Alzoukani worked as a pharmacist in Syria.
“You see professionals getting the worst jobs,” Murray said.
Refugee Leon Shombana, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Refuge Coffee’s mission is to improve and help refugees to find a career. Refuge Coffee’s one-year training program was created to help refugee’s transition into American culture and help them find a job.
Murray said Refuge Coffee wants refugees to find jobs and even one day see more refugee-owned businesses in Clarkston.
In respect to transitioning to the American lifestyle, Shombana said it “isn’t easy. It’s hard.”
“So many things are different,” he said. “The lifestyle in America is so fast. Everything must be done immediately. And nobody speaks your language.”
Shombana said the biggest problem refugees have once they have reached the United States is not being able to speak English.
“The refugees, so many can’t speak English,” he said. “Sometimes, when they go to say a word, they are afraid. They think, ‘This word isn’t proper. They are going to laugh at me. Let me be quiet.’ They can’t go anywhere without bringing a translator.”
Shombana said working at Refuge Coffee helped him learn the American culture, and helped him improve his English.
“I came here speaking a little English, but working here gave me a big improvement,” Shombana said. “Here we have English lessons, and we talk to all of the customers in English. That is another way of learning.”
“It makes me to communicate often with people,” Shombana said. “And then from there, I learn so many things.“
Goodrum, said it is rewarding seeing the refugees interact naturally with Americans while working.
“Going forward, that’s going to be really probably the win of Refuge Coffee is getting to know the culture from the vantage point of the truck,” Goodrum said.