I heard about Kitti Murray and Refuge Coffee Co. through the wonderful folks at Plywood People. After hearing how she saw a beautifully diverse neighborhood in Clarkston and decided to create a community over coffee to foster conversation and relationships, I knew I had to meet her. I met Kitti early in the morning outside the big, red coffee truck. Her warm smile and hospitable nature welcomed me immediately. I quickly learned that Kitti and her team are a group of loving souls who want to build friendships and provide opportunities for others. Nothing about Kitti or her Refuge Coffee Co. family is self-serving or self-centered. She has shown me what community means in the truest sense. I hope her story inspires you to open your doors, your arms and your ears to your neighbors. A great cup of coffee is a wonderful invitation for building community.
How long have you lived in Atlanta?
A long time. Over 40 years.
How did you learn about the diverse culture of Clarkston?
I don't remember when I first heard about it, but my husband and I led a little house church downtown in our apartment. As a group, we adopted a family from the Congo through World Relief. That really introduced us. We knew the refugees were here, because we knew the people that worked with them. But we really didn't know. It's that thing that you hear in the back of your mind but don't pay attention to. So once we met that family, you see this culture. So that's how we knew about it.
How did you decide to pick up and move and become a part of the community instead of helping from afar?
We were living in an apartment for three years. Our children started having children, and we realized we were probably going to have a lot of grandkids. So we realized that apartment living wasn't going to last much longer. We knew we needed to buy a house.
My husband was planning to teach a class at a seminary on Biblical social justice. He is a "why" kind of guy. If he has a strong why, he can do anything. He began to think – "I just want us to live in a community where we can make a difference." What we know about community development is that you don't do it by yourself. We wanted to be somewhere that there were other people with that same mindset. We made a decision that we would go live wherever the widows, aliens and orphans lived. We'd find a place that was like that, and it would be in Atlanta because we knew we needed to be in Atlanta. Neither of us knew where that was. We looked at each other and said – Ok, we're in. So where is it? We didn't know.
The next week I went out to lunch with a good friend that I don't see that often. We had both worked with World Relief with families here. We both had experience in Clarkston. They had thought about buying a house here to be kind of a host place for people who came to do work here. So I asked her if that had happened. She said, "Oh no. It fell through, but we bought a neighborhood." It sounds like a bigger deal than it is, but they bought a foreclosed development. They had three houses that were mostly built, and they said would you like to buy one of our houses? And we did. That's how we ended up here. It's the kind of place we wanted to be. I don't know why we didn't think of it in the first place.
Out of that, how did Refuge Coffee Co. come to be?
I don't know. I wish I knew. When we moved here my husband and I both had jobs. We both had involvements. So when we moved here we thought we might join a group and do something, but we were going to sit back and observe for a while first. But we immediately met neighbors and got to know people and got to see up close what the needs are – also, how beautiful the different cultures are. We didn't really have plans. We didn't think we would have plans.
I noticed that when we would pray for our neighbors that one of the big things we'd pray about was jobs. The job situation is really tough here. The jobless rate is double the national average. But that doesn't even reflect it very well, because the jobs that most refugees do get, no matter how qualified they are in their own countries, are really bad jobs. The job situation - we would just pray about that and pray about that. But we're not in the business world, and I never thought we'd have anything to do with helping with it.
The other thing was there's lots of little monoethnic restaurants and coffee shops, and they're great. We go to those. But there's no multiethnic gathering place. There's no coffee shop. And I'm a coffee shop lover. That's where we have meetings. That's where I go to get work done. I just love that third environment. There's nothing here. I just kept thinking that if I talk to the right people someone will think it's a great idea and open up a coffee shop. I thought some young hipster, zealous person will do it. Really it was just having a lot of conversations.
One day my husband and I were having a prayer meeting at our house. He said, "Why don't you tell everybody your idea." And everyone just went - you have to do it! I was like, "Oh no, not me." And the thing is that it hasn't been me.
The thing that has made it happen is from the beginning there have been people who have spoken wisdom into and also come onboard to help. Caleb is our director of operations. There is no way we could do it without him. We have a director of job training. These are things I have no idea how to do. What I do know how to do is gather people around an idea.
Can you share stories of impact that you've seen since moving to Clarkston, building relationships with refugees and now opening Refuge Coffee Co.?
Number one – the impact has been on my life. I think we think of people from other countries where almost everybody has a really horrible story - we think of them as victims, poor, inadequate. And none of those things are true. They are some of the richest, most giving, gracious people I've ever met in my life. It's not a poor, underserved community where we're the great saviors. That's not true at all.
Diversity is not a value in other places around the world. So to see people from different countries, that are enemies on their continent, become friends here is really beautiful.
Amina is a good friend of mine. She's one of the first people we ever met. She is Somalian. She watched her entire family get slaughtered in front of her - 10 children, her husband, everybody. She was left for dead, and a Red Cross aid worker came and discovered she had a pulse. There's the typical refugee journey, and she ended up here. She is one of the most giving people I've ever known. She'll contact me, and she'll have something for me to do. But it's for somebody else, never for her. She really cares for people.
I see that a lot here. People that have survived some horrendous things, and yet they are really interested in helping other people. She's phenomenal. She's one of the reasons that Refuge Coffee Co. exists. I took her to Dancing Goats in Decatur, and she said, "We'll never have anything like this in Clarkston." She wasn't complaining. She was just observing. It was one of those moments where I was like – "I'll be darned. Yes, we will."
How has your time and experiences in Clarkston shaped your view of helping people in need? Because like you said, they're not people in need. They are people with stories who are very capable. They're just in a new environment.
I think as Americans in the West, we have so much privilege and are able to jump in and act fast. One of the first things I did when I came to Clarkston was put out a plea on Facebook. I'm a writer, so I can tell the story really well. All these people would respond, and I would just take stuff to people. Because they needed it. It wasn't the best way to go about things. It would make all of us feel good, but it would immediately set up this donor/recipient relationship. It wouldn't be a friendship anymore.
I've learned to really listen to people, and to not just ask how can I help you. People have needs, and I do think it's important to help meet those needs. But figuring out how to do it in a really healthy way. That's what I love about what we're doing. We did a clothing sale with Fab'rik a couple weeks ago, and we could have given all those clothes away. But we felt it needed to be a dignified thing. So we sold everything for $2. It was beautiful. It was so fun. It wasn't just let me give you something for nothing, but let me dignify you by allowing you to pay for this. But I'm going to make it possible for you to pay for it.
What breaks your heart about Clarkston?
It changes day to day. But one statistic that I heard years ago that really applies here is that 85% of immigrants to our country have never been inside of an American home. What breaks my heart is that there are people who come here, and they are isolated and never get to know what it means to live here in community. They never get out of that survival mode. It's tough. They get here, and they have three months worth of money to live on. They have to pay that back, and it's a tough system. They think that America is just working hard. And we work hard, but we also play hard. And we interact.
On the other side of that, what excites you most about Clarkston and the future of Refuge Coffee Co.?
It's easy to have a traffic pattern that never puts you in touch with people who are different than you. That doesn't mean that if you live in the suburbs that your head is in the sand, but it is easy for your head to be in the sand when you don't see people that are different. I love that this community is full of people that are very intentional about why they live here, how they spend their time, who they spend it with. I love that. I feel like that really has impacted this community in a neat way.
I love the people who have these stories that have escaped. I see them turning a corner and building a life here and contributing to us. I would love to see businesses like Refuge Coffee Co. crop up more. Successful, fun businesses that bring Atlanta here.
If you could challenge the citizens of Atlanta to step up and be those friends and neighbors in community, what would your challenge or encouragement be?
As told to Kristen Green on September 4, 2015.