Kids in One Refugee Community Find Solace in Summer Programs

By Drew Dabney

Originally published: July 1, 2011, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

CLARKSTON, Ga., — Tha Htoo Klo looked at the crime scene from a distance. The man shot was wearing the same color shirt as his brother. The boy said, “I prayed in my heart this is not my brother, but then the detective came and knocked on my door, and he told me — yes, my brother was shot.”

Tha Htoo had escaped the grip of the brutal military junta that rules his native Myanmar. He also survived the refugee camp on the Thai border. Tha Htoo, now 29, has put all these dangers behind him, but after he arrived in this community just east of Atlanta in 2008, he found that safety still eluded him.

His brother, 20-year-old Pa Lee, was gunned down last August. Community activists believe that the shooting was motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment from locals. However, the unidentified assailant(s) were never found.

His is not an unusual story in this town of about 7,000, a place that has become a landing for many a refugee from war-torn countries around the world, something that led The New York Times to call it, “the most diverse square mile in America.” And his plight is similar to that of many American-born youth and their families, struggling with violence in their neighborhoods. But young refugees in Clarkston do face the added burden of confronting dangers in a strange land, where they often have little understanding of the society and the justice system.

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This small Southern town was chosen by refugee resettlement agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), for its low cost of living, its access to public transportation and the fact that it is commuting distance to downtown Atlanta.

For years now, the IRC and others have been helping to make this once rural, white and very Southern place, a home to refugees from Somalia to Bosnia.

In recent years a number of groups have stepped up to help the many refugee children of Clarkston.

The Friends of Refugees, a local non-profit, for example, is running the “Summer Spectacular” camp at a local community center this summer for area youth.

Community leaders say the program and others like it were created out of a concern for the safety of the children.

Scott Kelley, the Friends of Refugees Executive Director, said, “There are gangs in the community — you know kids are on the street, and we want to make sure there is something constructive for them to do.”

There are up to 150 area children in the summer camp, and Kelley has turned away half that many, already, due to limited space.

Eeco Kler, 13, though, has been lucky. Another refugee from Myanmar, and a close friend of Pa Lee, he has been coming to this camp for the past three summers.

The slight-built Eeco, fancies himself a professional soccer player someday, although he says that reading is one of his favorite parts of the camp.

Summer camps can help refugee children, who are often recovering from trauma, say experts.

According to local clinical psychologist Dr. Gus Kaufman, “there is no simple formula,” to helping refugee children. But Kaufman points out that people exposed to violence can become violent to others or themselves, if they do not have a way to deal with it. He believes programs such as Summer Spectacular can help, as can counseling.

It can also ready them for other challenges, such as gaining an education.

This is where non-profit organizations, such as Friends of Refugees and the Clarkston Community Center, step in. Kelley said, “…many of the kids (in the summer camp) are behind in school, or they’re new to America, so we at least want to try to get them caught up.”

During the school year the community center offers an after school program with tutoring in multiple subjects, much of which, in practice, involves teaching English.

The Friends of Refugees camp fills a void in the summer, but unfortunately most of the students from the after school program, during the school year, have not made it into the summer camp. Non-profits in this area must collaborate because of finite resources, but much falls through the cracks in the process, says Kelley.

It is a pivotal time for these children, whose choices can mean life and death, he says.

For Kelley, he’s doing what he can to make life an easier choice for them, but he is also working for what you might refer to as the greater good.

The point of the program after all, as Kelley put it, is to make them “contributing members of our society.”

Getting Around Atlanta…Slowly

By Drew Dabney

Originally published: May 29, 2011, Midtown Patch (opinion piece)

Traffic to Jazz Festival

Atlanta, Ga. — Returning from a trip to Los Angeles this week, the volume of Atlanta’s transportation problems really stood out to me.

LA is especially known for its sprawl and traffic congestion, with famous depictions such as in Steve Martin’s LA Story: “It’s not like New York, where you can meet someone walking down the street.  In LA, you practically have to hit someone with your car. In fact, I know girls who speed just to meet cops.”

However, Atlanta has far surpassed LA in poor planning for transportation issues because we are not developing in accordance with our rapidly growing population and we lack intelligent leadership in City Hall. It is virtually impossible to travel here without a car.  LA even has a public bus and train system that can get you anywhere in LA County.

Atlanta’s options are much more limited.

Complicit in this are a certain demographic of wealthy suburbanites who would rather keep the poor city-dwellers in the city by not allowing MARTA transit in their counties, but are OK with commuting via SUV to Midtown for work everyday.  In addition, lights are poorly timed throughout Peachtree Street for drivers, leading to intense traffic congestion, and there is not a good public transportation alternative.  Even getting to a MARTA train stop on 10th Street from Ansley can be an ordeal.

“If you are trying to get to a part of the city that requires a bus transfer, it could be an all day affair,” said Eric Swymer, a former Midtown artist who has relocated to LA.

Driving from my city apartment to Papi’s restaurant on Ponce de Leon this Saturday afternoon, I was blocked at every turn along Edgewood by the APD for a festival with a tiny turnout.  Cars were backed up, vying for a window to pass one another. It reminded me of a demolition derby. Meanwhile traffic congestion was even more intense beyond Ponce de Leon, as 10th Street was closed for the Jazz Festival.

In an area as dense as the center of Atlanta, why are more people not taking advantage of public transportation?  I think to a foreigner it would seem very bizarre, as I spend as much money to fill my car with gas each week as many people in the world earn in a month.  Meanwhile, I drive a Nissan sedan, while Suburbans and Hummers crowd our city streets and pollute our environment.

Midtown is the most progressive part of Atlanta, with eclectic stores, restaurants, businesses and diversity.  The push for a smarter transportation system has to come from here and be carried into City Hall, which sadly has a history of corruption and backwardness.  Midtown attracts people from all over the metropolitan area to events such as Screen on the Green, Gay Pride, the Dogwood festival, music events, etc.  As anyone who lives in this area can attest, city streets, especially in the vicinity around 10th street and Piedmont Park, are jam-packed.  Residents are aggravated, and frequently have to enlist the help of parking enforcers and tow-truck drivers to keep their driveways free from unwelcome cars.

The bottom-line is this is not going to get better.  We need smarter decisions for a rapidly growing metropolis, which need not be retarded by politics as usual.

Clash Over City Pension Reform Plan

By Drew Dabney

Originally published, June 17, 2011, Midtown Patch

Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean

Atlanta, Ga. — City workers slung curse words at City Council members over a proposed pension reform plan this Wednesday, at an Atlanta City Council Finance Executive Committee meeting (click here for a video of the meeting).

City workers feel that the proposed plan will not be as generous to them as the current one. This upcoming Monday, a vote might be held at City Hall on the plan authored by Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean.

Mayor Kasim Reed is a strong supporter of pension reform (and also an architect of it), and is pushing the Council to vote on the plan soon.

The pension reform plan proposed by Adrean shifts financial responsibility for pensions from taxpayers to city workers. Most workers will add a savings plan to their pension. New employees will get a savings plan and Social Security.

Adrean said in the meeting Wednesday, “If you were hired by the city before January 1, 1984, there is no impact whatsoever on your pension…Additionally there is no impact on anyone who’s already retired. Thirdly, and very importantly, all the benefits you’ve earned today aren’t going anywhere, they’re yours…”

According to the City of Atlanta:

“If nothing is done to change the current pension plans maintained by the City, there could be devastating effects for City operations, including layoffs.  The costs of maintaining and funding the pension plans account for close to 20% of the City’s annual budget and continue to rise.  The pension obligation of the City has now grown to the extent that it has an unfunded actuarial liability gap of $1.5 billion dollars.  The City currently does not have funding to meet about 47% of its pension liability.  These increasing costs are unsustainable.”

Civil Rights Groups Sue Georgia Over Anti-Illegal Immigration Law

By Drew Dabney

Originally published: June 6, 2011, Examiner.com

Georgia state capitol

Atlanta, Ga. — Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a host of Civil Rights groups filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Georgia over its new anti-illegal immigration law, HB 87, claiming that it violates the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution.

The lawsuit states Georgia is interfering with the authority of the federal government in matters of immigration. It was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Georgia followed in the footsteps of Arizona’s SB 1070, when it passed HB 87 in Atlanta this May. Immigration groups and their allies view the laws as engendering racial profiling. HB 87 requires people stopped by police to provide proof of citizenship, if the police ask for it.

Certain counties in metropolitan Atlanta had already implemented and enforced similar reforms, including Gwinnett County. The more progressive Fulton County and City of Atlanta have not, however.

The ACLU and Civil Rights groups are currently involved in nearly identical lawsuits against the State of Arizona, which may provide legal precedent for them in the Georgia case.  Furthermore, the US Justice Department filed a similar lawsuit against the State of Arizona over SB 1070. In that case, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that parts of SB 1070 are unconstitutional, and Arizona is appealing to the US Supreme Court.

The US Justice Department could also file suit against the State of Georgia.

Utah and Alabama have passed anti-immigration legislation, and other states are pursuing similar laws, with the Arizona law as a model. The US government decided to sue Arizona partly to prevent other states from following its example, however the outcome of the various lawsuits embroiling the State of Arizona will likely determine the future of such laws in America.

Development Plans in Works at City Hall

By Drew Dabney

Originally published: June 14, 2011, Midtown Patch

Atlanta City Hall

Atlanta, Ga. — Major potential expenditures for Atlanta’s development were discussed at City Hall Monday evening.

Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd presided over the meeting. The meeting included the topic of expansion of the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) for Atlanta to include the Capital Improvements Program (CIP) and the Short Term Work Program (STWP).

These programs cost a total of $6,059,927,422. Included in these programs are allocations for transportation, which include a $750,000 streetcar feasibility study for the proposed streetcar on Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue.

These discussions occur with the backdrop of a recent $5.6 million accounting error involving funds for this streetcar, according to Creative Loafing. An upcoming vote will be made by the committee and by the City Council to extend the CDP and incorporate the CIP and the STWP in it.

The schedule also included discussion for an $800,000 expenditure for the “Oridan at Willis Mill Housing Urban Enterprise Zone,” which will be a low-income housing project located on the southside of Atlanta, near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Discussion on Ft. McPherson, a US Army base located in East Point which is scheduled to close by this fall, was also on the schedule. A plan for future of the Army base’s golf course is in the works. A number of citizens from the surrounding area expressed interest in the possibility for jobs related to developing the land on the golf course and Ft. McPherson, near a low-income area. Fears were also expressed by residents about too much influence from the private sector in the development of the land, which would be to the detriment of possible city worker jobs. Professor Michael Dobbins of Georgia Tech, a former Commissioner of the Department of Planning, Development, and Conservation for the City of Atlanta, also spoke about the Ft. McPherson development. He expressed interest in planning that would benefit the base and the surrounding community.