Refugees from countries like Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Eritrea walk up in beautiful, bright colors that only increase the already-glowing cheerfulness of the special community of Clarkston, GA.

They’ve arrived hours early to the Amani Women’s Center in the tiny 1.09 square mile town of Clarkston. A line begins to form as they eagerly await the opportunity to receive new shoes for themselves and their families. The sun shines upon the rainbow of dress patterns in the line, almost creating a spotlight—a spotlight on the beauty of diversity in one place; a spotlight on untold stories; a spotlight on perhaps, what a perfect world could look like.

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Clarkston is informally known as the most diverse square mile in United States because between 2015 and 2019, they ranked first in the United States for resettling the highest number of refugees per capita (APM Research, 2020). But how did this community get here?

Samaritan’s Feet talked to Doris Mukangu, President of at Amani Women’s Center. Doris shared some background on just what these refugees have experienced before walking up to this shoe distribution:

Refugees are coming here from a background of war. Refugees run from those countries, walking for miles to the next country looking for solace and a place to stay. If the next country is not receiving them, they keep on moving until they get somewhere where they are welcome. Along the way, they lose family members, some of them through the war or through other circumstances. During that journey, some children die, some parents die, a lot of things can happen.

When they finally get to a country that is a safe haven, like Kenya in east Africa, they are put in a refugee camp. These camps are deep inside the country, where nobody wants to live. They are makeshift, temporary situations with tents and restrooms outdoors. A lot of things can happen at these camps as families are waiting for any country that will receive them. That waiting period can be about 10 years, of just living in limbo, waiting to be picked by whoever wants to accept you.

There are different countries that say ‘we are happy to welcome you to start a new life,’ and America happens to be one of them. There’s then a rigorous vetting system—in both your temporary and future home—ensuring that you were not involved in any atrocities and that you are a decent human being.

Once you’re able to go to your new country, the United States for example, you have to pay for your plane tickets, or, they pay for the tickets and then you pay it back. A typical refugee family has maybe six family members, so that’s around $7,000. It’s very possible for a refugee family to start out in debt, so these families have to start working immediately.

For those refugees here in Georgia, it is usually working in the meat packing factory. The factory is around two hours from Clarkston and you are most likely carpooling every morning, two hours plus the extra time to pick up the others. It’s not the best of conditions, it’s very harsh, but they want to pay that debt. Most refugees come from a culture where debt is an alien concept. They want to pay it off because they don’t want that hanging over their heads. Also, refugees like to work. They find dignity in working and that makes them happy.

For the first 90 days in the United States, a larger resettlement agency helps refugees find a school for children, apartment, work, etc. After 90 days, there are community organizations, like Amani, that step in. Amani is here to hold their hands until they are on their feet. They want to go to a space where they feel safe, welcomed, and understood. That’s what we offer at Amani, this safe space where they are able to come long after the resettlement agency isn’t able to help them anymore.

These families are coming here with just the clothes on their backs. That’s how they start. I remember one of my experiences visiting a refugee family. They were so hospitable and insisted they wanted to share a meal with me. So they served me the meal, and they were all sitting and looking at me. And I thought ‘what is going on here?’ We weren’t eating together. Come to find out, they only had one plate. So they were waiting for me to finish first, as a guest, and then they would take turns to use that plate. They were that hospitable.

You never know what kind of background a refugee comes from because they always have a smile on their face. Any small thing you do for them, they are so happy and so grateful.

That happiness and gratitude were evident throughout the community. It was seen at an Eritrean restaurant as a refugee proudly cooked a sumptuous traditional meal to share with volunteers serving in her town. It was seen outside of a coffee shop when a young barefoot boy knelt to wipe the dust off the new yellow sneakers of an older friend. And, it was seen at Amani Women’s Center as a girl proudly watched her friend, who came in with old, mismatched shoes, receive a brand new pair.

That line of bright dresses begins moving as the shoe distribution gets underway. Volunteers, some from just one mile down the road and others traveling from over 500 miles away, were excited to give hope and let these families know they are not here all alone.

Frankie, a volunteer who traveled from Little Rock, AR to serve, said, “I think today’s event will show people here that somebody cares about them and that people want to see them excel in life. When you look back at where these refugees came from, maybe walking down dirt roads without shoes, just to know they have a pair of shoes now may make them feel like they’re walking on a cloud.”

Translators moved between stations helping volunteers communicate with recipients. Oftentimes, volunteers needed to measure the feet of both adults and children to determine their correct shoe sizes. Recipients left with their arms filled with Hope Totes and their hearts filled with encouragement.

“This event means so much to the community. Amani is seen as a safe space that the community comes to and for us to be able to provide additional treats, like shoes, to the community, it really adds value to what we’re doing. It connects us even more intimately to the community and tells them that we really care about them and their families,” Mukangu said. “In the spirit of World Refugee Day, to be able to say ‘we’re here to celebrate you and the value you bring to the community,’ it is very special. They feel seen, not just as numbers, but as faces. I think this day will sit on their hearts for a long time.” Refugees have walked through so much in life, and hopefully now, they can walk a little more confidently and comfortably.