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Serving Up Coffee and Hope

Kathryn Murray '78

English Literature

Founder of Refugee Coffee, Kathryn “Kitti” Smith Murray ’78

“This is so much more than a coffee shop.”

It is an early autumn day, and the customer speaking those words wears a smile and an expression of gratitude. He is describing Refuge Coffee Co., an independent coffee shop located in downtown Clarkston, Georgia.

Coffee is served from a bright red food truck that sits in the parking lot of a former gas station. Customers can sit outside at picnic tables or can find a small table or comfortable chair inside the converted space. With its eclectic artwork and a nice assortment of odds and ends, it is not surprising to see how charmingly unique the space is from a typical coffee shop, because Refuge Coffee is anything but typical. Those serving the coffee are from faraway places such as Ethiopia, Morocco, Eritrea and Syria, with the 11 employees speaking a total of nine languages. They are all refugees who relocated to the suburban Atlanta city of Clarkston to find a better life, and the coffee shop where they work is giving them an opportunity to do so through gaining professional experience and skills.

Leela Basnet, a new employee at Refuge Coffee whose family fled religious persecution in Bhutan many years ago, is happy for this opportunity. “I’m enjoying all that my co-workers are teaching me. It is fun to work with people of different backgrounds, to have conversations with people from different cultures to improve my English, and to help others by interpreting,” says Basnet, who hopes one day to become an immigration lawyer.

two women making coffee

refuge coffee truck

Refuge Coffee, built with equal parts of heart and hope, is the fruition of the vision of founder and CEO Kathryn “Kitti” Smith Murray ’78. She and her husband, Bill, moved to Clarkston several years ago, and Murray found herself lamenting the fact that the city did not have a place to sit and drink coffee.“Clarkston needed a coffee shop,” Murray says. “That’s how the idea formed. But it has turned into something much more than we ever imagined.”

Clarkston may have lacked a place to linger over lattes, but it had no shortage of refugees. In fact, a CNN report called it “the most diverse city in America.” That’s because thousands from Africa and the Middle East have relocated to Clarkston since 2000 as part of a federal government resettlement program. An estimated 55 languages are spoken in this city with a population of about 12,000. Seeing the need, part of Murray’s idea was to provide job training to refugees so they could earn a livable wage. “They work with us for one year and then move on to their next steps, whatever those may be,” Murray says. “We work to fashion mentorship and next-step opportunities around their future dream."

The story of how the startup nonprofit came to be could be described as a true grass-roots effort. The Murrays hosted block parties to meet their neighbors and gauge interest in the idea. She talked it up to everyone she knew. And she worked to learn the basics of launching a nonprofit.“It was a lot of hard work and long hours,” she admits. “Our director of operations and I both had eye  twitches for six months.”

In May 2015, Refuge Coffee opened in Clarkston, serving coffee from the truck two days a week. The rest of the time, the truck is deployed to catering gigs, most notably on the sets of Stranger Things, Vampire Diaries, Baby Driver and other movies and TV shows. Catering, Murray says, was the only way the enterprise would work financially.

“Catering was part of the equation from the beginning,” she says. “So we had job training, a coffee shop and a catering business all rolled into a nonprofit that wanted to build community in the process. It was daunting, and I still don’t know how we did it!”

Eventually, the owner of the gas station rented them the inside of the building, which Murray knew would make an ideal gathering space.They cleaned the place out, painted walls, ripped up carpet and installed comfortable seating. The business continued to thrive. Last year, Refuge Coffee added a second truck, allowing the shop to be open six days a week. In October 2017, the nonprofit bought the building.

Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Murray now lives just a few miles down the road from where she went to college. She arrived at Agnes Scott College in 1974 with dreams of becoming a writer. When she visited the Agnes Scott campus, she says, she immediately felt at home. She double-majored in English and creative writing and German.

She met her husband, Bill, then a student at Mercer University, while still at Agnes Scott. They married and moved to Texas, where he attended seminary. Murray worked as a receptionist at a law firm and then as a manager for an apartment complex. They eventually returned to Atlanta and raised four sons. When her youngest was in elementary school, she went back to work as a writer, and she has authored or co-authored several books.

The grandmother of eight calls herself a “hyper welcomer” and “someone who loves to talk.” These skills have been useful in making Refuge Coffee the success it is today and are apparent in how she greets by name everyone who comes in. She credits her Agnes Scott education for honing her communication skills.

“Being able to communicate and distill language to tell our story is so important,” Murray says. “I learned that at Agnes Scott; the school was where I was meant to be. I wanted to make a difference in the world, to impact people and glorify God.”

And that is just what she has done.

*Photo Credit: Tom Meyer

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