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Life with Gracie: A campaign to pour more coffee and help more refugees

The White House had just let it be known that it would not host an Iftar dinner to commemorate Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.

It was a break with an annual tradition begun under President Bill Clinton and continued by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama that Muslims in metro Atlanta found hard to digest.

And so when local leaders decided to host a dinner here, they immediately thought of Refuge Coffee Co. and reached out to Kitti Murray, its founder.

In the years since she launched the nonprofit on a busy Clarkston street corner, Refuge has become the personification of Clarkston’s welcome mat and its truck the gathering place for community.

RELATED: A coffee truck with a mission

Murray gladly offered up the space, and one night in June, 400 people gathered for a potluck dinner of “shakrieh” (chicken and rice) and “tabbouleh” (salad), fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, entertainment, and, of course, plenty of cups of coffee.

“It was a beautiful night,” the 60-year-old grandmother said.

More than anything, it was the unfolding of what Murray envisioned when just three years ago she turned a 1986 red Chevy step van into a training ground for refugees seeking to start over.

The idea came to her sometime in 2012, soon after moving to Clarkston and noticing the absence of multiethnic coffee shops in her neighborhood. A coffee shop, she thought, could provide a neutral place for residents to gather and perhaps form friendships and more importantly provide badly needed jobs to the area.

Maybe, someday, she thought.

After nearly two years of talking and waiting for something to happen, Murray began creating a board of directors, and raising money and awareness about the need for jobs, particularly for Clarkston’s ever-growing refugee community.

She and her team set up a crowdfunding campaign and raised $50,000, then another $35,000, enough to move from idea to coffee truck and set up business once a week at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Market Street. Within a month, the truck was operating there on Wednesdays and Fridays; every Tuesday at the Cobb Galleria; and at other times on television and movie sets, private events and weddings.

RELATED: Clarkston event celebrates ‘America’s most diverse square mile’

She hadn’t counted on expanding further, but when the corner property fell into foreclosure, it forced Murray’s hand: buy the roughly half-acre property or find another location to do business.

Refuge had initially rented the space for $1 a month. It was a great deal.

When the property owner retired and closed his business in October 2015, it allowed space for Refuge to grow a little. Then last fall, he called to let Murray know the property had gone into foreclosure.

Refuge was given a month to vacate the premises and then was extended a lease option. When a buyer expressed interest in the property, Refuge decided to make an offer and eventually entered into a contract with the bank.

The nonprofit recently launched a capital campaign but has so far raised only $198,000 of the $460,000 it needs for the purchase. It has until Aug. 14 to raise the additional amount.

“We have a lender who has agreed to loan the balance, but we’d really like to pay cash for the property,” Murray said. “Every dollar we raise now to purchase our place in the heart of Clarkston means more time, energy and funding can go directly to our mission of providing employment and job training to resettled refugees and immigrants, as well as a gathering place of welcome for everyone in Atlanta.”

RELATED: Rethinking coffee supply chain

That doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to staying if the campaign isn’t successful. They are. The stability of the job training program and the refugees it helps are just that important.

Three years ago, Refuge Coffee Co. employed two refugees. Today it has 10 employees who man two trucks and a barista cart six days a week.

“That space has become the de facto town center of Clarkston,” Murray said. “It is where the community gathers, where people from outside Clarkston come to meet, where other nonprofits hold meetings and events.”

And sometimes when national leaders let the community down as they did at Ramadan, it is where community takes place.

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