Until my friend and Number One Volunteer, Karen, came up with the brilliant name Refuge Coffee, I spent half a day seriously considering another name for the shop we plan to open in our community.
Ellis Island Coffee.
Refuge Coffee makes more sense, and sounds better, too. But Ellis Island Coffee had a certain charm. And it gave the idea of refuge a specific geography. I pictured our shop as a caffeinated, hipster Lady Liberty, torch in one hand, beckoning the majority refugee population of Clarkston, Georgia: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”
Ellis Island welcomed over twelve million immigrants to our country between 1892 and 1954, a number that dwarfs the mere thousands Hartsfield International Airport has welcomed and shuttled straight to Clarkston in the past decade. Ellis Island is synonymous with American hospitality, just like our coffee shop will be. As befits an island, Ellis Island was merely one stop in the immigrant relocation process.
But what a stop it was. A 305 foot Neo-classical Greek goddess presided over the proceedings, greeting boatloads of people with a poem called
The New Colossus. Pretty daunting, don’t you think?
It wasn’t long before I began to wonder if this was who we wanted to be. A refuge is indeed a place on the map, but was an island the right sense of place for our place? I wasn’t so sure. And then there was “the wretched refuse” part. That cinched it.
The thing is, a refugee who flees poverty, famine, or war, may truly feel like flotsam on the tide. But this is a feeling, not an identity. Nobody deserves to be compared to litter. An island may have been a necessary port of call for newcomers to our country… but it was a temporary one.
I can think of several organizations in Clarkston that function beautifully as islands. They make ingress to our community smoother and more humane for refugees than it would be otherwise. They do this with all the dignity of Lady Liberty and none of her intimidating pageantry. Most of these organizations offer services to refugees in the critical first three months after a family arrives here.
And then the refugee gets kicked off the island, as they say in reality television. The adjustment time is over. Too soon, many might assert. There’s only so much an island can do, only so many people it can support. Like Ellis Island, newcomers must move on to make room for more newcomers. If you consider it this way, Ellis Island is a terrible name for a Coffee Shop. Who orders a latte when they are tired and poor? When they are tired of running from children with guns? When they are so poor that they miss a week’s worth of meals? When they are desperate and helpless?
We are very aware, having observed this over and over, that once refugees get settled here in Clarkston, they have different needs, the kinds that an island cannot meet. Although we are grateful for the Ellis Islands in Clarkston, we want to give our neighbors the next metaphor. One in which they are not wretched masses. One that says, “Yes, we have something good to offer you here, but you have something equally valuable to offer to us.”
We want our form of refuge to look more like a road than an island. In fact, I have a specific, ancient, well-traveled road in mind.
The Silk Road.
“The Silk Road” refers to several trade and cultural transmission routes that existed between the West and the East over a 1,600 year time period. (Yes, I know it refers to the internet underground source for drugs and other illegal products, but it belonged to Marco Polo long before the bit coin existed.) These pathways linked people groups together, each destination bringing something of value to the other. From China to Rome, from Persia to Arabia, travelers introduced their counterparts to ideas and goods and art. Unlike an island, this road did not have boundaries. It had the capacity to expand, and it did. It was not a place where one needy group fell into the embrace of a benevolent one. Need and supply worked both ways. Again, very un-island-like.
If we are going to create a refuge in the form of a Coffee Shop, this is the kind of refuge we want to be. The kind where the insiders welcome the outsiders with so much grace and dignity that our differences enrich us far more than they divide us.
Come, we want to say to our neighbors in Clarkston, find refuge here. Find a welcome fit for family and for royalty, because that is who you are. And while you are here, let’s engage in commerce between our cultures. Let’s trade stories and goods and art and ideas. Let’s travel together. Because, when it comes down to it, we’re all refugees.