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In an immigrant enclave in Georgia, community members work to combat Covid-19 Open in fullscreen

Brooke Anderson

In an immigrant enclave in Georgia, community members work to combat Covid-19

A signage outside Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 March, 2021

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Home to immigrants from more than 50 countries, the city of Clarkston is known as 'the most diverse square mile in America', but it has been hit hard by Covid-19.
WASHINGTON D.C. (The New Arab) Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mohammed Tamer has been helping to protect his community from the coronavirus.

Nearly every day, he has been distributing personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser and masks in his town of Clarkston, Georgia.

"We showed up, and they were thrilled," says Tamer, a student from Georgia State University, who along with other volunteers has distributed more than 28,000 packages in the area since the beginning of the pandemic. He has lived in the community ever since he and his family from Iraq arrived in the US when he was nine years old.

A vulnerable community

As home to immigrants from more than 50 countries, the city of Clarkston, with a population of around 8,000, has become known as "the most diverse square mile in America" and "the Ellis Island of the South."

This has made it a potential hotspot for Covid-19 transmission, with many residents living in cramped multigenerational homes, often working in frontline jobs such as meatpacking with little – if any – protection.

With that in mind, since the beginning of the pandemic, local residents and organisations have been working tirelessly to ensure the community has personal protective gear, testing and other information needed to prevent the virus transmission.

"We realised early on that Clarkston would be a vulnerable community," says Mary Helen O'Connor, director of the Clarkston Center for Community Engagement, who also teaches English at Perimeter College at Georgia State University.

Indeed, according to the New York Times' Covid-19 case tracker, DeKalb County, where Clarkston is located, is at a very high-risk level, with at least one in 13 residents having been infected.

From the beginning of the outbreak, volunteers were needed who could reach the refugees at their homes and distribute supplies.

"The people who showed up to do that were students from my campus from the refugee community. They'd go out in the summer when it was hot," says O'Connor.

This has made it a potential hotspot for Covid-19 transmission, with many residents living in cramped multigenerational homes, often working in frontline jobs such as meatpacking with little – if any – protection

Addressing vaccine hesitancy through faith and immigrant doctors

A year into the pandemic, and with vaccines becoming available across the US, these same advocates are now addressing vaccine hesitancy in Clarkston. They answer questions and distribute information in multiple languages, and they coordinate with local faith leaders.

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As an Egyptian a doctor who herself is vaccinated, who attends her local mosque, Mona Megahed is well positioned to answer medical questions about vaccine safety and address any religious concerns people might have about getting inoculated – all in Arabic.

Though her organisation, Ethaar, is non-faith-based, most of the families she works with are Muslim. To ease their vaccine concerns, she'll sometimes shows them a YouTube video of their favorite Muslim scholar, or she'll share verses from the Quran that say science should be used for the betterment of society, or she'll turn to a local imam.

"The imam at the Roswell Community Masjid, where I go most often, is great," she says. "We have some great community leaders. Some have shown themselves getting the vaccine on Facebook."

For his part, Imam Arshad Anwar, at the Roswell Community Masjid in Fulton County, is grateful for medical professionals like Megahed, who have been able to reach his diverse congregation with their expertise. He has been working with them throughout the pandemic, and now with the rollout of the vaccine.

"Our faith-based practices allow us to make adjustments based on needs," says Anwar. "You consult people of knowledge when you yourself don't know."

From the beginning of the pandemic, Anwar has strictly followed the health guidelines for his mosque, limiting the number of congregants to 100 outdoors (down from around 600 pre-pandemic), all while wearing masks and standing at least six feet apart (as opposed to shoulder to shoulder), and also checking into the mosque using QR codes for contact tracing. He says there has been no evidence of transmission at the mosque.

He has also hosted online meetings connecting congregants with immigrant doctors.

"That was a game-changer. They're highly viewed and appreciated. There's something about hearing from someone who's like you, and hearing from people from your own community that feels more trustworthy," he says.

Little by little, the area's faith leaders and medical experts are seeing their efforts paying off, as they continue to contend with a range of misinformation campaigns, both online and locally

People have also reached out to him whose friends are hesitant to get vaccinated on religious grounds.

"It's been really frustrating, especially coming from people who haven't spent time and years studying the faith," says Anwar. "Some people are randomly throwing things here and there. I have to say they're understanding that wrong. There's clear information telling us to take care of our health."

He adds, "People don't come at me directly. They know where I stand, and they know they won't survive that argument. What qualifications do you have to make religious verdicts? I have to repeat myself a lot."

Little by little, the area's faith leaders and medical experts are seeing their efforts paying off, as they continue to contend with a range of misinformation campaigns, both online and locally. One woman told Megahed she'd heard that the vaccines contain baby tissue, while another said she worried it would alter her DNA, both of which are untrue.

Breaking information barriers

Meanwhile, much of the misinformation in Georgia is coming from evangelical Christians, many of whom have kept their churches running for much of the pandemic, and as a group are the least likely to get vaccinated, according to a March 2021 Pew Research study. In addition, the Nation of Islam, have been distributing fliers in the area and publishing misinformation on its website warning of health dangers of the vaccines (which has not been proven).

Another barrier to information is a high level of illiteracy among many of the recently arrived refugees. Megahed says that most of the families she works with through her NGO are from Syria, along with some from Somalia and Afghanistan.

Another barrier to information is a high level of illiteracy among many of the recently arrived refugees. Megahed says that most of the families she works with through her NGO are from Syria, along with some from Somalia and Afghanistan

Of the approximately 100 Syrian families she corresponds with, she says 10 are completely illiterate and 40 have a middle school education. She needs to make sure that not only is the information in their native tongue, but also in simple jargon. In addition, many are computer illiterate, a clear barrier for vaccine registration, when the time comes (though Georgia has been among the slower states in its vaccine rollout).

On the other hand, Tamer, the student volunteer, says that technology and social media is important in reaching his age group. He says students are making a TikTok video about public health and vaccine awareness in Arabic that will be coming out soon.

Community involvement key to success

O'Connor says that the immigrants' involvement in the area's coronavirus outreach has been key to its success. All decisions are made with input through a community advisory board.

When members were recently asked to list their top priorities, most put mental health in the top three, a serious problem before the pandemic, and even more so with the long-term unemployment and isolation over the last year.

"We don't want to be an unwelcome institution or academic partner," she says, adding that this is a common problem in her field.

For some residents, this is the home that they made and that they are now building upon.

"We've lived in Clarkston since we got here. It's been great to see the community grow and change. It needed a little more development. It was like a big souk. Now there are new roads. It's the most diverse square mile in America. It's our thing," says Tamer.

"What's so special is all of the volunteering came from us. We're doing the work for our own community."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington D.C., covering US and international politics, business and culture.

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