“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.” – Emma Lazarus
America’s fabric is sewn together by threads of its delicate people. In a written proclamation, we are the mother of exiles. A melting pot. A place of dreamers. We welcome “the tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” But our history books tell a different story. One of hatred wrought by fear.
How have we, a country built by exiles, continued to hold disdain for those seeking refuge? This is what had me puzzled on a sunny morning as I sat across the table from filmmaker, Erin Bernhardt.
In her latest documentary, Erin hopes to create a dialogue for how our country combats fear through the eyes of Georgia’s culturally rich, Clarkston.
A place that has become home to refugees all over the world, Clarkston, has settled in comfortably as “the most diverse square mile in America.” But it hasn’t always been this way.
“Prior to the Vietnam War we had a constant flow of refugees coming into America with very little process,” explained Erin. “It wasn’t until after the Vietnam War when President Carter signed legislation to help formalize that process. So in 1980, the U.S. passed the Refugee Act and every state got to decide how many Vietnamese refugees they wanted to take and where to put them.”
For Georgia, that place was Clarkston, an exurb tucked in the eastern corner of Atlanta’s outstretched perimeter. A community that has continued to see a surge of refugees, up until recent federal legislation sent that number crashing.
“Most communities like Clarkston throughout the country will house one or two ethnic groups. After that, a new location is chosen. But Clarkston has always been it for us. It’s been a place for refugees to make their new home for the better part of three decades.”
How is it that a place with refugees coming from places of strife, representing every major world religion, blend so well together? This is at the heart of Erin’s film, CLARKSTON: Mother of Exiles (working title), where the crew has been following the lives of three new Americans and a veteran with a contentious past.
“Clarkston is a really unique place. It’s truly one of a kind,” Erin continued. “A major goal of our film is for it not to be one of a kind anymore. For people to see the film and for communities around the world to emulate the good things being done there.”
But is America ready? Can we heal from hatred laid out by the generations before us? For Erin, she hopes that a story like Chris’, a former Klansman and war veteran the film crew follows, can open up conversations on how to temper hatred of the unknown. If someone who has come face-to-face with his own fear, brought on by loss fighting in war-torn countries can, just maybe people with similar stories can remedy their hatred too.
Heval, Bawi, and Amina, the three refugees in the film, face their own amount of fear. The kind that many of us will never fully be able to comprehend. But in Clarkston, in a community sewn together by refugees and those who welcome them, are finding a way to face that fear with love and service.
Clarkston’s embrace of refugees isn’t always exemplified by Americans who have lived in this country for generations. It’s a concept we seem to struggle with today, making us feel more divided, seeded in the underbelly of political turmoil.
Yet, all of us have one thing that unites us – love for our country – even if it’s a new place some of us call home.
In Clarkston, a community of diverse people rally around love over hatred. There is power behind every untold story like those in the film. For refugees in Clarkston, service to their community becomes their comfort.
For Americans who yell the loudest against those who don’t look, or act, or pray like them, are increasingly becoming emboldened. It’s a community fueled by hatred, rather than love. The kind seen during Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.
But when we choose compassion we find people in places like Clarkston. In a collective of people from different walks of life, in corners throughout the world, are lessons to learn.
We all have a choice – love or hate? It’s a divide fought across battle lines. Within the boundaries of the place we call home, it is a war we will continue to fight. Can we heal from hate and find love for those we fear? For Erin, the film strives to heal the wounds of this ideological conundrum that has divided us. Only time will tell which doctrine we choose to live by.
STORYTELLING. ACTION. IMPACT.
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Headline Image: Pouya Ramezani
Crew Image 1 & 2: Tomesha Faxio
Crew Image 3: Pouya Ramezani
Prayer Image: Daniel Kats
Cast Image 1: Pouya Ramezani
Cast Image 2: Kelley Sue Hardin
Cast Image 3: Tomesha Faxio