Refugees must be self-sustaining

In 1997, Emanuel Ransom was interviewed by The New York Times about refugees being settled in the DeKalb County city of Clarkston. What Ransom, a decades-long resident of the town, told the reporter shames him today.

“A lot of Clarkston residents are being left out totally. Nobody wants to help,” he said of the refugees. “It’s just give me, give me, give me.”

Now Ransom is the Clarkston mayor, the first African-American to hold the post. Even though he has asked the federal government to curb the number of foreigners sent to the community, his opinion of the newcomers has changed. He simply wants Clarkston to be better prepared, to have adequate resources to address an earlier influx of refugees before new ones arrive.

Q: Why did the number of arrivals have to be curtailed?

A: The government was not giving the refugees already here time to assimilate to the lifestyle. The refugees would come to the city asking for resources, and we had no revenues. I asked the government to slow it down, to cut the faucet off so we could fix the pipe. Once you do that, we can put the water on and let it flow. Things have gotten 10 times better. This has given us a chance to breathe.

Q: How is the city’s relationship with the resettlement agencies?

A: We were having a problem with the city not being in communication with the resettlement agencies. Now, we are swapping resources back and forth with each other. It makes for a better relationship. I want the refugees to stay here, open businesses in Clarkston and raise their families.

Q: You didn’t always feel that way.

A: I had that same attitude, "Oh, God, they are going to take our jobs." It's not like that. They are just like American citizens. They have a dream. Where's the best place to make your dream come true but the United States of America? I could spank myself. I am a product of a pastor's son, and my father always told me to look at people for what they are, not who they are. I was looking like a racist, really. I was ashamed of myself. I have spoken to and told the refugee groups that, too. I did a total flip-flop.

Q: Why the about-face?

A: I began learning about the degradation and constraints they came from. State officials told me I needed to see the camps. Two or three years ago, I went to Kenya. It was deplorable. They told me they had been living in camps 10 and 20 years. I couldn't believe it. They were getting their heads and hands cut off in front of their children.

Q: How has the slowdown affected Clarkston?

A: The infrastructure is stable. Cutting the flow is giving us a chance to breathe and concentrate on the refugees here, getting them to be self-sustaining people.