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Outcasts of Rebel Creek
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Beatrice and her sons spent five years in that camp.
Office of Refugee Resettlement for four one-way plane tickets to the United States. Beatrice repaid the money in three years. The family was assigned to an International Rescue Committee caseworker, who would oversee their resettlement in the United States. On September 28, , the Ziatys made the two-day journey from Abidjan to Atlanta.
Bleary-eyed and disoriented, they met the IRC caseworker at the airport. The cupboards had been stocked with canned goods. The walls were dingy and bare. There were some old sofas to sit on, and mattresses on the floor. The Ziatys stretched out on them and went to sleep. Like all refugees accepted into the United States for resettlement, she would have only three months of government assistance to help her get on her feet, to say nothing of the debt she owed on her plane tickets.
She encouraged them to stay inside until she returned in the evening.
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At five-thirty a. The work there was hard. Maids were expected to clean fifteen to sixteen rooms a day by themselves, and though the shifts were technically eight hours long, in reality it took much longer to clean so many rooms, extra work that occurred, Beatrice said, off the clock. Without her friend to guide her this time, she was on her own. As she rode the bus back through the strange glimmering landscape of Atlanta, she tried to put the fear of the last few years out of her mind. She allowed herself the uncharacteristically optimistic thought that maybe she and her family were finally safe.
The bus heaved to a stop in Clarkston. Beatrice got off, hopeful she had chosen the right stop. She looked around and tried to recall the way back to her apartment. It was easy to get turned around in Clarkston—there were no tall buildings to help her orient herself—and it would take Beatrice the better part of a month to feel confident about the way back to Wyncrest. She set out haltingly along the sidewalk. It was a cool October night filled with the sounds of chirping crickets and the intermittent whoosh of passing cars.
Beatrice heard a noise and looked over her shoulder. A man was following her. She sped up and clutched her bag. Beatrice let go of the bag and braced for a blow that never came. The man ran, and she took off running herself in the opposite direction.
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Eventually she stopped, out of breath, and began to sob between gasps for air. She was tired, and tired of running. A stranger, another man, found her and asked what had happened. He was friendly, and called the police. The officers took Beatrice home and offered to help find the mugger.
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She only knew his accent was African. The incident robbed Beatrice of the hope that her new home would provide her and her family with a sense of security. In Liberia, a neighbor would always look after her kids if she needed to leave them to run an errand or to visit a friend.
There was plenty of gang activity in and around Wyncrest. Gunshots frequently pierced the quiet at night. For all Beatrice knew, the man who mugged her lived in the next building over. So she told the boys and told them again: When you come home from school, go into the apartment, lock the door, and stay inside. He was playing outside alone at dusk when a policeman on patrol stopped and asked him where his parents were. He had to think fast.
Later that evening, Jeremiah told his mother what had happened. She went into a rage, fueled by the anxiety that had been building up for months. Those tracks suture a grassy rise that bisects Clarkston and still carry a dozen or so freight trains a day, which rattle windows and stop traffic. Few, though, in Clarkston complain about the trains with much conviction.
Amid the strip malls, office complexes, fast food joints, and sprawling parking lots of modern-day Atlanta, the sight of lumbering freight cars contributes to a comforting sense that Clarkston has not been entirely swallowed by the creeping sameness of urban sprawl. Indeed, while many small towns around Atlanta have been absorbed into the city or big county governments, Clarkston has retained its independence. Clarkston residents elect their own mayor and city council and have their own police department. A pastoral island of around 7, amid an exurb of some five million people, Clarkston is still, improbably enough, a town.
Clarkston was settled originally by yeoman farmers and railroad men in the years after the Civil War. Back then, Clarkston was sometimes called Goatsville, perhaps because goats were used to keep grass low by the tracks, perhaps as a pejorative by city folks—no one seems quite sure. But the name lives on, by allusion at least, in the mascot of Clarkston High School: the Angoras.
For the better part of the next hundred years, little of consequence happened in Clarkston. It was a typical small southern town, conservative and white, and not too far removed in temperament from the next town over, Stone Mountain, a longtime headquarters of sorts for the Ku Klux Klan and the site of cross burnings as recently as the late s. Folks in Clarkston sent their kids to Clarkston High School, went to services at one of the churches on Church Street, and bought their groceries at a local independent grocery store called Thriftown, which was located in the town shopping center, across the tracks from the churches and City Hall.
Life in Clarkston was simple, and few from the outside world paid the town much note, which suited the residents of Clarkston just fine. The airport brought jobs, and the people working those new jobs needed places to live. They built a series of apartment complexes—mostly two-story affairs with multiple buildings arranged around big, commuter-friendly parking lots. More complexes went up, with idyllic-sounding names only real estate developers could concoct: Kristopher Woods, Brannon Hill, Willow Branch, and Olde Plantation.
Middle-class whites moved in, and over time the population of Clarkston more than doubled. No one paid much attention at the time, but the addition of the apartment complexes had another effect, creating in a sense two Clarkstons. Older Clarkston residents lived on one side of town in roughly old houses, simple gabled structures with front porches and small front yards.
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Working-class newcomers lived in the apartment complexes. In the s whites began to leave the apartments in Clarkston. The migration paralleled the white flight from other old residential neighborhoods close to downtown Atlanta. Crime was rising, and newer suburbs farther from town were roomier and more ethnically homogenous.
Vacancies rose and rents fell. Crime surged. Landlords filled the apartment complexes through government housing programs, which brought in African American tenants, and simultaneously cut back on upkeep, allowing the complexes to fall into disrepair. Pretty soon, Clarkston, or at least the part of Clarkston consisting of apartment complexes, found itself caught in a familiar cycle of urban decay. In the late s, another group of outsiders took note of Clarkston: the nonprofit agencies that resettle the tens of thousands of refugees accepted into the United States each year. The agencies—which include the International Rescue Committee, the organization founded in by Albert Einstein to help bring Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States, as well as World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and others—are contracted by the government to help refugee families settle in to their new lives.
They help find the families schools, jobs, and access to social services. But first they have to find a place for them to live.
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