Coin-operated “amusement” machines take in $1.2 million a month in Clarkston. Mayor Ted Terry says the machines have ruined the lives of many residents. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Refugee city’s gambling addiction has tragic consequences

Once he gambled away his family’s rent money in a single day. Another time, he lost $1,800 he made selling his car. The Eritrean immigrant even lost a job after an overnight binge made him late for his shift.

Despite all that he lost, Akalu said he still feels the lure of video gambling machines. Each time he goes near them, he feels the urge to play again.

“You’re always thinking about how to get your money back,” said Akalu, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his family’s privacy.

And in tiny Clarkston, a city renowned across the globe for welcoming refugees, giving in to that urge is as easy as strolling to the corner store.

Its 1.4 square miles are home to some 20 state-sanctioned video gambling locations, and city officials, refugee service providers, residents and community leaders say that these newcomers rank among their most eager customers, bankrolling much of the $1.2 million or more that state data shows the area’s coin-operated machines take in during a single month.

These immigrants’ isolation and history of trauma make them perfect candidates for gambling addictions, experts say, while their working-class incomes mean that a loss of just a few hundred dollars can throw them into financial turmoil.

“We’ve had people die and peoples’ lives being ruined,” said Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry.

Terry has made news for seeking to decriminalize marijuana in Clarkston, but he and other city leaders considered the city’s gambling problem so serious that they tried to ban certain alcohol sales at video machine locations after learning that refugees were falling into dire financial straits. Gambling contributed to at least one refugee suicide in recent years, and local leaders say the death toll may be higher.

But the state Supreme Court struck down the city’s ban in March, ruling that the state law does not provide for it. Industry advocates say the video terminals do not cause trouble when operators follow the rules.

“These [immigrant] populations exist in other locations in Georgia, and if the games are used properly we have not seen any real problems with that,” said Les Schneider, an attorney for the industry group Georgia Amusement and Music Operators Association.

Refugees are left to their own devices to get help. It’s a burden they shouldn’t have to bear, said Shyam Sriram, a University of California at Santa Barbara PhD candidate, who learned about Clarkston’s problem while researching high suicide rates among Bhutanese refugees.

“In our zeal to come up with extra sources of income in Georgia we forget who these things affect,” Sriram said. “They always affect people who are poorer and more marginalized.”

Games are easy to find

In Clarkston, banks of video gambling machines sit beside dusty shelves of unsold DVDs at a Vietnamese video store, behind black curtains at a Bhutanese restaurant, and at other mom and pop eateries and shops that line the roads in this town of nearly 13,000 residents. Lone players sit at terminals at a 24-hour gas station, or in darkened stores on sunny mornings.

For these store owners, getting into the video gambling business can be cheap. They sign deals with owners of the terminals, known as master license holders, to place them in their stores. In exchange, they get half of the profits, minus the state’s cut. A gas station can install a half-dozen of them without hiring additional staff.

Areas where lower-income immigrants live can be good places to do business, said Hiruy Tesfay, who runs master license holder A & S Investment Enterprise, which has machines in Clarkston.

“Foreigners work,” said Tesfay, an Eritrean-American whose family moved to the U.S. when he was young to escape a bloody domestic conflict. He said he sometimes worries about the machines’ most frequent players, who are immigrants seeking a break from their new lives in a country where families tend to drift apart and paying the bills requires nonstop work.

“They use it to shut off their brains for a while instead of dealing with reality,” Tesfay said.

“The people who play a lot tend to be lonely,” he added. “America is a pretty lonely place.”

The pace and simplicity of the games can be mesmerizing, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Natasha Dow Schüll, whose book “Addiction by Design” explores how slot machine design encourages addictive behavior. A push of a button sends digitized wheels spinning. Another push and a few taps on the screen tell you if you’ve won. One more push and the game begins again.

“Just because these machines are legal doesn’t mean that they aren’t harmful,” she said.

If you don’t own a car, there’s little else to do in Clarkston, said Akalu, who said he started gambling less than a year after his 2010 arrival and within months began cashing his entire paycheck to play. His wife became angry, his five children rarely saw him and he drank so much he was arrested for drunk driving, he said through an interpreter. Yet losing money made him want to play more.

“I don’t know what it is. It just pulls you in,” Akalu said.

One owner fined for payouts

Technically considered “amusement” machines, video gambling consoles are classified with ski ball and claw machines as games of skill under state law, even though experts said they can be as addictive as Las Vegas slots. In Georgia, they make hundreds of millions in revenue, and industry-backed legislation that gave a cut of the profits to the popular HOPE scholarship have also strengthened its status as a form of legal gambling.

State law bars operators from paying out cash winnings, limiting rewards to credits for nominally priced merchandise.

The 2013 regulations have meant that it’s harder to find stores that flout the rules. But the industry has a long reputation for playing fast and loose, and critics wonder if it has truly changed its ways. Gamblers say it remains possible in Clarkston to find stores that hand out cash winnings.

Clarkston Food Mart was fined $11,000 and lost its license in late March after a clerk told a lottery inspector that the store awarded cash. Store representative Mohammed Rahman said the case was a misunderstanding caused by an inexperienced clerk. His aunt is listed as owner, but she speaks no English, he said, and was not involved in its operations. It lost money, so she sold the convenience store in March after owning it for less than a year.

“We’re working people,” Rahman said. “We’re just trying to pay our bills. That’s it.”

On a recent morning, Clarkston Food Mart customers continued to play at its bank of machines. Shaju Mathew, CEO of the store’s master license holder Fun Games, said the terminals have since been deactivated.

Mathew said his machines are a form of entertainment, nothing more. Customers can choose whether to play.

“It’s like when kids go to Chuck E. Cheese’s,” Mathew said. “They have video games there.”

‘It’s like alcoholism or drug addiction’

Gambling problems may be common in Clarkston, but it’s rare to spot them before the damage is done. Eritrean-American City Councilman Awet ‘Howard’ Eyasu said his uncle lost his home because of gambling. Somali American Community Center CEO and President Omar Shekhey spotted people from his homeland at the terminals, even though Islam, their religion, forbids it. Locals have seen elderly refugees beg for money for food, but spend it on gambling instead.

In the hard-hit Bhutanese community, such troubles are well-guarded secrets. Mongal Gurung said he was so close to his oldest brother Purna that he considered him his best friend, yet he only learned of Purna’s gambling through a mutual friend.

The brothers had survived nearly two decades in a refugee camp and the deaths of their parents before arriving in Clarkston. Mongal said he warned Purna, a new father, that he had better things to do than gamble.

“You need to slow down,” Mongal recalled telling him. “It’s not a place you need to be spending money.”

In early 2013, Purna was found bleeding to death on his bathroom floor of self-inflicted wounds to his wrists and abdomen. His wife told investigators that Purna had been out of work and was three months behind on rent, a police report states.

Mongal said he is still unsure exactly what role gambling played in Purna’s death, or how often his brother gambled, but a visit to a Clarkston gas station can be a reminder of how addictive the games can be.

“They forget everything,” he said of the gamblers. “They forget food to eat and water to drink.”

“It’s like alcoholism or drug addiction,” game owner Tesfay said. It troubles him so much that he’s considered going into another line of work.

But the income is good, he said, and added that it would be hard to replace.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.