Durango Herald: Warren St. John talks refugees and community

September 22nd, 2011

Durango Herald

Author talks refugees and community

‘One person who took the lead raised the ante for everyone’

By Ann Butler

Thursday, September 22, 2011 8:09am

Refugees running for their lives from all the war-torn corners of the world intersect with the residents in a small southern town where they were resettled in author Warren St. John’s book Outcasts United: An American Town, A Refugee Team and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference.

The former New York Times reporter was in town Wednesday to meet with students at Fort Lewis College and share lessons learned while researching the book with the community as part of this year’s Common Reading Experience.

“This isn’t just about the refugee experience, but about our culture, our society,” he said during a presentation at the Community Concert Hall to more than 350 students, faculty, staff and community members, including several book clubs.

Clarkston, Ga., located about 13 miles east of Atlanta, was named a refugee resettlement center in the 1990s and found its population of 7,000 overwhelmed by refugees from Southeast Asia, Bosnia and Kosovo and various nations in Africa.

“It was a little town where nothing ever happened, and they were happy with it,” St. John said, “In five to seven years, it went from little ‘Anytown U.S.A.’ to one of the most eclectically diverse populations anywhere, with students from 55 countries at the high school. All the changes in diversity we’re seeing happening slowly in our country happened there overnight.”

The reason Clarkston residents struggled wasn’t just racism, he said, but fear.

“These were people whose way of life was going away, and they didn’t know where they fit in this new world,” he said.

As difficult as the change was for the residents, it was more traumatic for the refugees, many of whom arrived speaking no English and with no resources. They received 90 days of help from the government, and then they were on their own.

“One subset of refugees was facing the biggest challenge, and that was the teenagers and preteens,” St. John said. “They’re going to public high school and being teased for their accents, so they start wearing their hair the same as their American classmates, wearing their jeans lower on their hips and listening to American music. Then they go home and their mothers are saying they have to honor where they came from.” Read More…