Sean Sheridan

It’s no coincidence Refuge Coffee launched in Clarkston, a town where the UN resettles a few thousand refugees each year. The place is a collective of the displaced, who’ve left jobs, a lifetime’s accumulation of education and wealth, to start over. 

Andy Meek
November 10, 2017

For the owners of the bright red coffee truck parked outside a converted 1960s-era service station on East Ponce de Leon Avenue in Clarkston, Ga., Ahmad Alzoukani might as well have been a model barista plucked straight out of central casting.

Trained as a pharmacist, the 32-year-old from Syria is unfailingly polite and welcomes customers to Refuge Coffee Co.—women in headdresses, soccer moms, hipsters, fellow refugees—with a beatific smile. His lattes are sublime, and at some point Ahmad found himself having become a kind of public face for the small business. The guy peeking out from Refuge’s truck window with a cheerful grin who’s often the first thing customers throughout Atlanta interact with at parties, weddings and on the set of films and TV shows like the new season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”—shot in Atlanta—that get catered by Refuge.

A post on Refuge’s Instagram feed captures Ahmad, with his movie star good looks, winking rakishly at the camera. When he hands you your latte or cappuccino or iced hibiscus tea, you see a man cracking jokes, making small talk, asking you about your day and thanking you for helping Refuge continue its work. There's plenty, of course, that you don't see. Things that would point to why he's even here in the first place, one immigrant among thousands in this small town in Georgia just outside Atlanta, where more than 12,000 people like Ahmad are packed into what’s been called the most ethnically and culturally diverse square mile in the United States.

Refuge Coffee employs some of them, refugees from as far away as the Congo and the Middle East. A few weeks ago, the company bought the old service station property where it’s been renting space. Caleb Goodrum, Refuge’s director of operations, said the plan is to eventually build out a coffee shop inside that space and share that location with other businesses and organizations in Clarkston.

For two years now, Refuge has situated itself inside the beating heart of the town, sometimes referred to as “the Ellis Island of the South.” Founder Kitti Murray started it with a kind of perfect loop in mind. The goal is mentorship and job training for refugees, which Refuge does behind the scenes. And by employing them on the trucks—one truck stays parked, while another is constantly on the road, catering—the one thing feeds the other.

If you could spend a day with Ahmad, you might see him dutifully taking notes in Arabic during a Refuge support staff meeting, as he did on a recent day. The notes were questions he wanted to be sure and ask, about what everyone expects from him as Refuge’s catering manager. Notes that belie the fact he’s learned and still learning English as fast as he can.

“Just to be sure,” he made a point of clarifying one day at work, “when you said I ‘killed it’ or ‘crushed it,’ that’s a good thing, right?” Yes, Ahmad. You crushed it.

He barely knew a word of English when he left Damascus and the terrible war that’s turned his country into a place of violence and death. Now? Now he knows enough of the language to almost convince you, almost, that working for Refuge—on a truck staffed by fellow refugees and immigrants—is something close to the time of his life. He flies the Refuge flag unabashedly high.

“With Refuge, you get a chance to show yourself, who you are. It’s more than a job. I feel I’m working with my family.”

Listen a little closer, though, when he talks about his life, about being an immigrant in this small town in the South, the proverbial stranger in a strange land—and you might find yourself surprised at the takeaway, that he's begun to dream again. Or, maybe it’s that he never stopped.

“I’m someone who is positive, and I don’t look behind,” Ahmad continues. “Always, I look forward. I know it’s not easy to learn a new language, and it’s not easy to create a new home, a new place. I have to work hard to just be where I would like to be. So when I got here, it wasn’t easy, but I had no choice. I had to do it. I’m someone who is positive and looking forward to everything. Like, I cannot say that’s impossible. Nothing is impossible in life.”

Ahmad wants to go back to school. To get a degree so he can be certified to be a pharmacist again here in the States.  For now, he spends his days surrounded by croissants and scones, tendrils of steam, milk being poured, coffee brewing. Helping Refuge tell a story.

That’s what Kitti sees as the point of the whole enterprise, the story. “To kind of tell the rest of the world a more accurate one about refugees. A more beautiful one.” She insists that Refuge is agenda-less, that the only message is all are welcome, adamant that there’s nothing political to see here. But also fully aware that this is 2017, and certain things have occurred, changed, gotten broken. Such that there are times when even a transaction as basic as selling a cup of java can be a powerful statement of belief.

This is what the founder of Refuge Coffee believes. “What I’ve learned is that... making people feel at home, that’s something every human needs. And every human can give others.”

She pauses and muses out loud about the response to tragedies, terrorism, and how that affects the immigrant community. It was a conversation that came only a few days after the recent New York City truck attack, a deadly act of terrorism.

“And if we say we have an agenda of love, then we love the people who are scared, too. [People] who say hateful things. We have to figure out how to love them, too.”

It’s no coincidence she launched Refuge in Clarkston about two-and-a-half years ago, in a town where the UN resettles a few thousand refugees each year. The place is a collective of the displaced, who’ve left jobs, a lifetime’s accumulation of education and wealth, to start over. Who've fled war, oppressive regimes, to come to a place where the language, the culture, almost everything is a barrier to surmount. They bring with them unseen scars.

The per capita income here is less than $20,000. The multiculturalism is smashed right up against the context of Small Town USA. “Women,” Kitti explains, “walk down my street with huge baskets on their heads. Soccer kids run down the street from all these different countries.” From Myanmar, the Congo, Syria. Somalis. Cambodians. They hang on to what they know. They learn what they need, so that they get acclimated to the point where, say, Refuge’s Congolese manager has been known to instruct other employees: “I don’t know what being on time looks like in your country, but here it looks like being here 15 minutes early.”

Goodrum was in the Air Force before working at Refuge. His job entails running the trucks, making sure the staff is paid, everything is scheduled and booked and customer relationships are handled.

But Refuge is also small enough that his day might include talking to a consulting firm about Refuge’s future. Or he might be needed to just—make a latte.

“It’s fun to work alongside a really diverse crew,” he says. “I think diversity, in general, is something I’ve grown to value more and more as I’ve moved into my adult life. My wife is Egyptian, and I came from Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a pretty homogeneous place. It’s pretty white.

“I came into this as, like, a coffee nerd. And I still am. I’m measuring extraction percentages on the coffee and all this stuff and getting jazzed about the flavor. But I do think if you start a coffee shop, and that’s the end goal that you’re striving for - you know, you’re going to come up a little bit empty. Even if it tastes good. So I’ve been grateful to work with refugees and immigrants as like an engine to say, hey, this is why I’m going to get to the truck at 4 a.m. and start brewing coffee. This is why I do it.”

He doesn’t do it, to be sure, to make a political statement. And no, he doesn’t have anything to add—at least on the record—to the talk about walls and nationalism. At the end of the day, it’s a coffee truck. Parked on an ordinary street in a small town. You order your cappuccino. You thank the men and women behind the window. Maybe it adds something to your life. It certainly does for the folks on the other side of the counter. For the folks like Ahmad, the barista who dreams of being a pharmacist again.

It doesn’t have to be said, although you can if you want. Sometimes, just existing, or just selling a good cup of coffee, sometimes that can be the most powerful political statement of all.

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