Clarkston, Georgia, is known as the most diverse square mile in the United States (U.S.). Thirty years ago, Clarkston was described as a mostly-white American town, but for a generation, it has been designated as a refugee resettlement center with a white population of less than 20 percent. Myself and seven other Keene State College students traveled to Clarkston to take part in service and education-based activities in the area of refugee resettlement in the U.S. and across the globe through the Alternative Break (AB) program.
After an 18-hour drive, the eight of us rolled up in a Dodge Charger and Ford Expedition to a church where we would be living for the week. Our team was hosted by Something New, an organization dedicated to spreading positivity and an overall message of love being greater than fear. Each evening, the volunteers from Something New hosted events for us and other participating universities, such as an opening rally, a chance to learn group dances, trivia night and a closing celebration. Within these events, KSC came in first place out of five other colleges in trivia night, and one of our team members came out on top in a ping pong championship.
Our service projects began early each morning, the first being at Jolly Elementary School, where the population of refugee students is exceptionally high. Additionally, the eight of us were placed in classrooms at the International Community School. The charter elementary school was founded 15 years ago to address the educational conditions of the thousands of refugees from all over the world who were relocated in DeKalb County, Georgia. Many of the students at both of these schools do not speak any English, or only speak a small amount, and are given all the standard assignments any ordinary English-speaking student is given. In order to help with the language barriers, those who are English Language Learners (ELL) take English classes, whereas the rest of the students take Spanish or French.
Language barriers aren’t the only issues these students face every day though, for the immigration ban took effect Jan. 27 of this year.
The day after the immigration ban was placed on those trying to enter the United States from other countries, one sign was placed in the grass in front of the International Community School that read, “Stay Strong Neighbors. You are ALL welcome here.” The day following the first sign, hundreds filled the school’s front yard with messages welcoming and ensuring the safety of all families in the neighborhood and community the school is located in.
Different from the International Community School, we were given the chance to observe at Legacy Academy, a homeschool cooperative with a population of about 50 students. This school is more focused on a mission where all students are encouraged to express, love and embrace themselves, as well as each other. Here, most of the teachers are volunteers who come and teach a few times a week, and the students are not separated by grade, but by age group and ability. On days when the students take elective classes, such as freedom class (music and dance) and art, each class is made up of students from kindergarten to eighteen years old high school aged, allowing them all to learn from each other.
At one point throughout the week, we participated in Non-Violence Training, which was constructed using many of the values and ideas Martin Luther King Jr. had during his peaceful protests during the Civil Rights Movement. The training allowed reflection and insight into our own personal thoughts and actions and allowed for us to inspire change not only for ourselves, but in our home communities as well.
Following the training, we listened to a panel of people involved in refugee services throughout Clarkston, which was facilitated by 11Alive Atlanta news anchor Cheryl Preheim. “Salam Neighbor,” a documentary about a refugee camp in Jordan, was shown after the panel to give a closer look into what life is like for those who are forced to leave their homes. On average, individuals and families stay in refugee camps like the one in Jordan for 17 years of their life until they are able to be relocated, and even still, that dream is seldom promising.
For our final day of service, we volunteered at Global Growers, which is an organization dedicated to helping refugee families plant, grow and harvest crops like they did in their home community before they were relocated to the U.S.. Half of our group weeded and spread mulch, while the other half built a gazebo near the entrance of the garden.
In our “free” time, which there wasn’t much of, we attended The National Center for Human and Civil Rights, containing information regarding the many achievements during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the worldwide human rights movement. The museum contained a sit-in exhibit, which simulated what it felt like for a colored person to sit in at a lunch counter during the non-violent protests during the Civil Rights Movement. I was required to sit at the counter with my hands on the table and headphones over my head to listen to the yelling, banging and various forms of harassment people of color were forced to deal with in the 1960s.
When there was finally time for exploring Atlanta, our team took a ride on the 20-story ferris wheel right by Olympic Park, where the 1996 Summer Olympic games were held. Many of us shopped at Atlantic Station, and we were all able to try some authentic southern food. The fried chicken with sweet potato pancakes definitely lived up to its expectations.
Overall, Alternative Breaks are the most fulfilling, rewarding and educational experiences I’ve ever participated in. Many of us in New Hampshire live in a bubble, where we tend not to see the real-world issues facing so many people in different parts of our own country. Alternative Break is the perfect way to get personal with those issues, learn about them and bring them back to our home communities to inspire change. Tropical vacations are the way to go for some people, but there is no other way I’d rather spend spring break than immersing myself in service.
Jess can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org