OPINION: An unlikely friendship forged during, well, coffee breaks

Walt Anderson, once leery of immigrants, is now good friends with Syrian Ahmad Alzoukani. They connected through their ties to Refuge Coffee in Clarkston. (Courtesy of Ali Ghbis)
Walt Anderson, once leery of immigrants, is now good friends with Syrian Ahmad Alzoukani. They connected through their ties to Refuge Coffee in Clarkston. (Courtesy of Ali Ghbis)

Credit: Courtesy of Ali Ghbis

Credit: Courtesy of Ali Ghbis

The two men couldn’t have been more different. One was from small-town North Carolina and the other from war-torn Syria. If not for Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston and more specifically the preconceived notions of one of them, chances are good they’d still be strangers.

I’ll let Walt Anderson explain.

In 2015, he and his wife Caroline decided to move their family from Calabash, North Carolina, their home for more than 10 years, so he could pursue his dream of owning a Chick-fil-A franchise one day.

After church one Sunday, Doug and Karen Guess invited the Andersons and their two daughters, Alex and Emma, out to lunch.

Over salad and pizza, they traded stories about family, faith and the North Carolina connections they shared.

Before parting that day, Karen Guess invited Caroline to an upcoming book club discussion. It was there that Caroline met Kitti Murray, founder of Refuge Coffee Co., a neutral place for residents to gather and perhaps form friendships, and more importantly provide badly needed job training.

ExploreA coffee truck with a mission

The women hit it off and Caroline, Alex and Emma became regular volunteers at the nonprofit. That was all fine and good until she began sharing stories of the people she met there from places she and her husband had only heard about in the news.

Both had spent nearly their entire lives in the segregated South and among people of like minds. Clarkston, the most diverse square mile in all of America, was the exact opposite.

Each year, some 2,500 refugees settle here. At last count, those refugees represented 145 countries and 761 ethnic groups. More than half of them fled here from violence.

Leon Shombana, who settled in Clarkston in 2003 after fleeing a civil war in his homeland, now has a job, thanks to Refuge Coffee Co. The nonprofit was founded by Kitti Murray, who wanted to provide a place for residents to gather and jobs for those newly arrived. (Handout)
Leon Shombana, who settled in Clarkston in 2003 after fleeing a civil war in his homeland, now has a job, thanks to Refuge Coffee Co. The nonprofit was founded by Kitti Murray, who wanted to provide a place for residents to gather and jobs for those newly arrived. (Handout)

Walt Anderson, 39, of Lawrenceville didn’t say anything but was starting to wonder.

“All I was hearing in the news was how refugee groups were being infiltrated by terrorists,” he said. “They weren’t safe.”

Then one day, Caroline arrived singing the praises of Ahmad Alzoukani, a Syrian refugee and student of Refuge Coffee’s job training program.

“He’s such a lovely person,” she told her husband.

Anderson could no longer hold his peace.

“Wait a minute,” he told his wife. “This is not safe. I need you to take me to this place.”

Days later, Anderson accompanied his wife to Speak Refuge, an open mic event. There was music and dancing, the spoken word and, of course, plenty of coffee.

That night, Anderson met Alzoukani and a host of other regulars at Refuge Coffee.

ExploreA campaign to pour more coffee and help more refugees

“As I began to form relationships, the biases and prejudices, I didn’t even know I had, began to melt away,” he said.

Anderson began volunteering alongside his wife. He was struck by the young Syrian’s work ethic. He felt like Coach Phil Jackson watching Michael Jordan on the basketball court.

“I marveled at how he worked and anticipated the needs of the customers,” he said. “I began to realize we’re all made of the same flesh and blood with the same dreams and aspirations. As I spent more time at Refuge Coffee, the refugee crisis began to have flesh placed around it. It ceased being an issue for me to debate and became a relationship in which to engage.”

Alzoukani would eventually complete the training program and leave to work in a local hair salon. In 2017, Anderson joined the Refuge Coffee staff part time as job training coordinator. Last year, after his Chick-fil-A dream darkened, he was named COO and then president/COO.

Alzoukani returned in 2017 as the full-time catering manager. Last year, he was promoted to general manager.

The men soon formed an unlikely friendship, one they believe offers a sense of hope as this country continues to grapple with its differences over immigration.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Alzoukani, a native of Damascus, made his way to the States in 2015, after becoming weary of the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

“I wasn’t worried I’d get shot or be killed in a bombing,” he said. “I was from the south. My biggest fear was disappearing and no one would know where I was.”

As fate would have it, the family’s home came under attack and in 2013 Ahmad fled with his parents and three of his nine siblings, first to a different neighborhood, then to Jordan, Lebanon and back to Syria.

“It was becoming increasingly dangerous,” he said.

In September 2015, just three months after Refuge Coffee opened for business, he left Damascus headed for Clarkston.

Soon thereafter, he found himself at the corner of East Ponce de Leon Avenue and Market Street having a cup of coffee and talking with Kitti Murray.

“I knew no English,” he said. “I could barely say hello.”

But he listened and learned Refuge Coffee was looking for a truck driver and applied for the job.

“A week later, they called,” he said. “That was my first job in the United States.”

His first memory of Walt Anderson was at a weekly staff meeting. He made note of his business smarts and gentle nature.

It never occurred to him that Anderson might hold any prejudices related to him. He held no preconceived notions about Americans.

“We have different opinions, but everyone I met was very nice and gentle with me,” Alzoukani said.

The more the two men talked, the less they felt like strangers or even colleagues.

They are friends but they call each other family.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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