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Clarkston Summit Lays Foundation For Deeper Community Engagement

On Nov. 10, more than 250 members of the Clarkston refugee and immigrant communities, Emory and Georgia State University (GSU) researchers and volunteers, and community organization representatives met at GSU’s Clarkston campus to learn from each other and lay a foundation for future engagement around multiple important issues affecting these communities.

This conference, dubbed the Clarkston Summit, was the kick-off event for the recently established Refugee & Immigrant Health and Wellness Alliance (RIHWA), a partnership among the Emory Global Health Institute (EGHI), Georgia State University, Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, the DeKalb County Board of Health, numerous refugee resettlement agencies, and many other organizations working with refugees and immigrants in Clarkston.

Heval Kelli, MD, a Kurdish refugee from Syria who came to Clarkston after 9/11 and is now a cardiology fellow at Emory, first envisioned the Summit in 2016 with Mary Helen O’Connor, director for the Center for Community Engagement at GSU’s Perimeter College. Parminder Suchdev, EGHI associate director and professor of medicine and public health at Emory University, discussed with Kelli the idea of an Emory collaboration on the project in 2017. In May 2018, Kelli, O’Connor, and Suchdev revisited the idea for the Summit, and it took flight.

“Ever since we met in a Clarkston grocery store more than two years ago, Heval and I have dreamed of creating an event like the Summit. We firmly believed that bringing all of the assets of the community together would result in stronger collaborations and ultimately better support for all community members. As co-chairs of the Summit, we are both thrilled with the feedback we are receiving from the participants and are excited about what’s next,” says O’ Connor.

The Summit began with a plenary session and panel discussion that included Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and City Councilman Awet Eyasu, 11Alive News reporter Neima Abdulahi, and CDC researcher Martin Cetron.

Cetron, an expert in international migration, explained the current status of migration to the U.S. and other parts of the world and the role that the CDC plays in ensuring that all refugees who resettle in the U.S. are healthy. He explained that the U.S. receives a small proportion of refugees relative to other countries. In his remarks, Mayor Terry suggested that Clarkston is a future glimpse of America given its diversity and the strength that this diversity brings to the community.

Councilman Eyasu and Abdulahi both came to the U.S. as refugees and provided their perspectives on arriving in the U.S. and learning to live in a new culture. Eyasu described his journey from refugee to Clarkston City Councilman and that Clarkston’s motto, “Where Possibilities Grow,” is emblematic of the life he has been able to lead.

Abdulahi, who was born in Somalia and resettled in Decatur, Ga. as an elementary school student knowing no English, described how her family would spend weekends in Clarkston because it felt comfortable and a little bit like home. During her remarks, she also indicated that the biggest challenge for her was learning what resources were available and finding mentors to guide and push her.

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