By Steve Hendrix
June 5, 2018
Chris Buckley walks out to his porch, where the doormat once greeted customers at a Subway, and looks up and down the empty street.
“I admit it, I’m nervous,” he says, lighting a cigarette with heavily tattooed hands.
His densely coloured arms — and much of his body — are a paisley record of his many hates. KKK symbols dot his left knuckles, another surrounds his navel; an anti-government militia tag covers his neck. Most prominent is the big word in Arabic emblazoned on the back of his forearm: “Infidel.”
“I wanted them to know I was the one the imam warned them about,” he says, looking down at the mark he himself tattooed on his skin during a hot, angry week in Helmand province. It was one of three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, during which the former Army sergeant fired thousands of rounds at an enemy he learned to despise.
Admitting to nerves doesn’t come easily to a man who built his life denying fear, who thrived in combat, who never hesitated to snort or swallow any abusable substance, who burned crosses in public.
But months of halting transformation have led to this moment and the arrival of an unlikely guest. Buckley, a machine mechanic at a carpet mill, lights his second Marlboro in 10 minutes, blowing blue smoke into the warm spring morning.
“I worry that he’s going to be disappointed,” Buckley says, scanning the road, seeing nothing out his front door but the back of a Family Dollar store and a line of overflowing donated-clothing bins.
Leaving the door open, he paces back into the apartment, one of three carved out of a single-family home, where his two kids sleep on a frameless mattress in the only bedroom. Buckley and his wife, Melissa, sleep in the living room, next to the bathroom that has no door and a kitchen with only a dorm fridge. When Buckley is off probation for drug possession in February they hope to move to a better place.
Melissa, buttoning the collar of the floral dress her husband asked her to wear, is more concerned about his reaction than the visitor he’s waiting for. The last time he got close to a Muslim, he shoved the man into a rack of potato chips in his own gas station.
She had spent years with that version of her husband, the onetime imperial nighthawk of the Georgia White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who despised “towel heads,” swore Barack Obama was a Muslim agent and believed terrorists were pouring into the country disguised as refugees.
She was still getting to know this version, the one who had invited one of those refugees to their home.
“What if it’s like the gas station all over again?” she asks, arranging a peony bloom in a plastic sippy cup.
“He’s here,” Buckley calls, flipping his cigarette as a black Mercedes sedan pulls under the pine trees.
Out steps a tall man with stylish glasses and glossy black hair. Like Buckley, he’s 34. He has a nice car now that he is a doctor in Atlanta, two hours south, but he grew up in Kurdish refugee camps and apartments as bleak as the one he’s about to enter in this small town in the North Georgia hills. It’s the reason he’s here, to see what a Kurd might have in common with an ex-Klansman.
“Are you ready for your blind date?” asks Heval Mohamed Kelli, his hand out, the faded shades of Syria faint in his accent.
Few days before Kelli’s visit, the Buckleys were on the couch that doubles as their bed watching a home movie of sorts. It was a 2015 documentary about the Klan streaming on Netflix.
In it, Buckley stands in a black hooded robe, red Klan cross on his chest, white rope around his waist. Next to him, 4-year-old Chris Jr. — C.J., the same boy now running in and out of the living room with a gray puppy at his heels — was standing in a matching pre-K version of the robe.
Buckley throws a Sieg Heil salute.
“White power!” shouts the father.
“White power!” repeats the son, his little arm extended to the sky. It comes out “pie-er” in his pint-size voice.
As a nighthawk, Buckley was the black-robed enforcer of the Klan’s code. In dark barns and back fields, he taught his Klan brothers how to use and conceal weapons, close-quarters fighting, surveillance, and secrecy.
“Anything to keep your people safe,” he says.
He won’t describe many of his activities because he doesn’t want to be prosecuted. He will say he had his men break into a house to reclaim Klan robes and material from a member who had left the group. They leafleted neighbourhoods, black and white, with fliers meant to both intimidate and recruit.
They carried weapons of all kinds — knives to assault rifles — hidden under the robes. At supposedly peaceful rallies, most Klansmen were armed and many were high, he said. Buckley was a daily meth user during his time in the robe.
“Look at him tweaking right there,” Buckley says, pointing a perspiring Klansman in the documentary who chews his lip compulsively as he describes how a small brigade of white militia could “take the Negroid population out in a weekend.”
Buckley was particularly accomplished at burning crosses, sometimes on farms and secluded lots, but often in public view. He torched a towering cross near the highway leading into Summerville, Ga., a glowing warning to the town’s growing populations of Latinos and African Americans.
Buckley learned hate, and violence, during a tumultuous childhood in Cleveland. His father would return from days-long benders and routinely whip Buckley for any misdeeds he might have committed in his absence. Feminism was stupid, homosexuality was wrong, and whites only dated whites.
Buckley, who joined the Army when he was a high school junior, had black comrades in the military, but not friends. He remembers the guy in his last deployment who was mixed race. He called him “Halfrican.” “It wasn’t a big deal to me or him,” Buckley said.
Muslims, though, were a big deal. Seeing an attacker beneath every Niqab wasn’t just self-protection, it was training.
“Every paper target I ever shot was a Muslim,” Buckley said. “Every bit of bayonet training or hand-to-hand combat, it was other soldiers dressed up like Muslims.”
The hatred outlasted the uniform. Buckley left the Army after 13 years following a Humvee accident that left him with a broken back and an addiction to painkillers. When the doctors eventually cut him off, he started buying on the street. Soon came cocaine, mushrooms and “the love of my life,” meth. He was eventually using two grams a day and spending hundreds a week on his habit.
He wasn’t the man I married,” says Melissa, who met Buckley when he was part of a unit delivering flood-relief supplies to her remote house in Hazard, Ky.
He would leave for the store and call from jail. His daughter took her first steps when he was on a three-week bender. The family bounced between Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, places where conservative outrage was building over same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter and refugees “pouring into the country.”
“You start noticing all these tensions,” Buckley says, “and you feel like you have to pick a side.”
In the spring of 2015, he picked one. He came home one day to find his sister-in-law’s black pot dealer sitting on his couch. He kicked the man out, declared his home a white sanctuary and started Googling “protecting the white race.” It took him minutes to find the Klan.
At first, Melissa didn’t object because she thought it might offer her floundering husband a path to stability. One of her granddaddies was a Pentecostal preacher, the other a moonshiner, and neither seemed incompatible with Klan teachings.
Then one day in a WalMart parking lot, a group of black women berated Melissa and the kids as she unlocked their car, a Nissan Pathfinder painted hood-to-trunk with a Confederate flag.
At the same WalMart months later, C.J. tugged at his father’s T-shirt shirt in the checkout line. “Look out, Daddy, there’s a big n—– behind you,” he said. Buckley turned to see a beefy African American man behind him with a gallon of milk.
Buckley gave an embarrassed shrug. “Kids, huh?” he said. The man didn’t smile.
Melissa began to see Klan life as a threat to her children. Her slur-spouting son was due to start school soon. Something had to change. It was her turn to Google.
“How do I get my husband out of a hate group?” she typed. The result: Arno Michaelis.
A recovered Nazi skinhead-turned-Buddhist, Michaelis has built a national reputation as a “warrior for peace.” His most recent book, “The Gift of Our Wounds,” was written with the son of a Sikh man killed by a white supremacist in Wisconsin. He runs an informal underground railroad for racists who want out.
“Melissa was done with the Klan and worried about Chris’s safety,” Michaelis recalls in an interview. “I told her I thought we could help.”
“We” was a planned A&E reality television series about rescuing Klan members. Though the show never aired, Michaelis was involved at the time, and Melissa agreed to participate. The producers contacted Buckley separately, asking if he wanted to appear in a documentary about the Klan.
“They didn’t tell me the point was to get me out,” Buckley says.
In the summer of 2016, he was tossing a baseball with C.J. — and high on meth — when Melissa, Michaelis and a cameraman walked into the yard. It didn’t go well. Michaelis said he was there to help. Buckley promptly told them to get off his property.
“I knew it was going to be a long process,” Michaelis says.
It took months. Buckley would agree to talk; Michaelis would listen to his racist rhetoric, gently push back and remind him that he’d been in his shoes.
The worst came when Michaelis heard young C.J. talking about Obama as a Muslim who wanted to cut their heads off. Buckley agreed with his son. “If Obama could get away with it, he absolutely would murder us, or any Christians,” he asserted.
“You really think the leader of the free world would cut your head off?” Michaelis asked. But then he laughed. Buckley exploded, flipping the kitchen table.
“You’re going to come into my house and laugh at my beliefs,” he recalls shouting. “No, sir. Get the hell out!”
“I [screwed] up,” Michaelis says now. “I was condescending. It was all boiling down to Muslims. He wasn’t ready to go there.”
But after four months, with Melissa threatening to leave with the kids, Buckley agreed to give Michaelis his Klan patch. He wanted out. Buckley called his Klan chapter’s imperial wizard — one of his closest friends. The two argued for an hour, but Buckley stood his ground. He was leaving.
“Do I need to watch my back?” Buckley asked.
The imperial wizard didn’t respond.
A few weeks later, the Klan leader asked whether they could talk things over, have some beers. He picked Buckley up in his truck, drove him down a wooded road where the headlights soon illuminated four robed Klansmen waiting to beat him. Buckley said he waded in willingly; it was Klan law, and he felt he owed them that much. “Hell, I trained three of them,” he said.
Buckley talks now of the hate draining away. Hoping to fill the vacuum with empathy, Michaelis took Buckley on a compassion tour of homeless shelters and gang rehab centres in Los Angeles. At one, Buckley began a conversation with an African American woman that ended with him sobbing in her arms, apologizing for all the pain he had inflicted.
“That’s when I knew Chris wouldn’t be going back to the Klan,” Michaelis says.
But there still were the drugs.
Buckley’s addiction had gotten worse. He was busted for possession. He smashed all the groceries against the house one sleepless night, went into seizures another. He would stay clean for a week and then relapse for two.
It was only after being arrested again last summer for felony possession that he got a serious start on sobriety. He detoxed during his four-month sentence and then opted for an intensive probationary rehab program. One week turned into a month, a month into 177 days and counting.
He has become a model participant, his thick workbook filled with completed essays and check marks for each sober day.
“Sometimes he and C.J. will be right there on the rug doing their homework together,” Melissa says.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Buckley says.
Michaelis did too. Early in 2018, he thought Buckley was ready for the last lesson.
“Chris, I want you to meet my guy Heval.”
‘You got what you need?’
They’ve been talking for almost four months — exchanging messages and phone calls — when Heval Mohamed Kelli steps onto the porch. Buckley holds out his hand, but the shake instantly gives way to a hug. Not a bro hug, but a full chest-to-chest embrace, Kelli’s Ray-Bans against Buckley’s yin-yang earlobe plugs.
Kelli then embraces Melissa. C.J. and Miera, 3, run in and stare.
“I brought something, I hope you’re not offended,” Kelli says, stepping out and pulling two large Ross bags from his trunk. Among the loot, a remote control car and a Play-Doh Fun Factory.
“It’s a Kurdish custom to bring gifts,” he explains.
“It’s very nice,” Melissa says.
There is no tour. Kelli can see the entire apartment from just inside the door. It is similar to the place his family lived in for their first 12 years in United States. And that had been an upgrade from the resettlement camp in Herscheid.
“In Germany, we had one bathroom for four families,” Kelli says.
He was 12 when his family fled Syria after his father, an Aleppo lawyer, got crosswise with a regime that persecuted the Kurdish minority. After six years in Germany, they were granted asylum in the United States in 2001. They landed in Clarkston, an Atlanta suburb that is home to one of the country’s biggest refugee communities.
“I came 10 days after 9/11,” he tells Buckley.
“I had just finished basic training,” Buckley responds.
Kelli was 18 and didn’t speak English. But he drilled himself in vocabulary as he washed dishes at a Mediterranean restaurant. He soon graduated from Clarkston High School and then from Georgia State University. When Kelli finished up at the Morehouse School of Medicine, he bought his family a new house on a pond.
Now Kelli is finishing a cardiology fellowship at Emory University and planning a career split between medicines and giving back to all the communities he credits with propelling him from poverty to prestige.
He has started a mentorship program at Georgia State to help other refugee kids navigate college. He works monthly at the short-staffed Atlanta VA hospital, saying he’s humbled to serve those who served his adopted country, and volunteers at numerous clinics providing free care to the underserved. And he spends part of every day in Clarkston visiting refugee families and acting as their liaison to the American culture he has mastered and loves.
Two days before meeting Buckley, he was in the parking lot of Refuge Coffee, still in surgical scrubs, greeting Clarkston’s version of the United Nations: Bosnians and Burmese, Nepalese and Bhutanese, Kurds from Iraq and Syria, the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“Salaam Alaikum,” he said to an Afghan man in a white beard and white robes. “Salaam” he called to Mother Amina, an 89-year-old Somali woman waving from the sidewalk.
After the 2016 election, Kelli adopted a new mission: meeting as many Trump supporters as he could and offering himself as an ambassador for Islam, for refugees, for Syrians, Kurds, the brown, the poor, all the hated “others” who helped fuel the president’s rise. With a ready smile and open ears, he found success.
Last year, after Trump cancelled the White House’s Ramadan dinner, Kelli organized a public Iftar — the meal Muslims use to break their dawn-to-dusk fasting during the holy month of Ramadan — at Refuge Coffee. He invited one of his patients, an Iraq War veteran. The man came with friends, 15 bearded, motorcycle-vest-wearing vets amid a crowd of hijab-wearing Muslims. More than 400 people attended the dinner; they are planning a second one in June and expect double the crowd.
He wants Buckley to be among them.
This is why Michaelis, who met Kelli at an anti-Islamophobia conference, wanted the two to meet. If anyone could get the former Klansman to an iftar dinner, it’s the affable Kurd with a deep love for Americans of all stripes.
“That would be something,” Buckley says when Kelli brings it up, looking at Melissa. It’s complicated. His probation requires him to be home by 7 p.m. without special permission. He works weekends at the carpet mill.
“We will see,” Kelli says. No pressure.
Before going to lunch at the Dari Dip (fried green tomatoes, country-fried steak, hand-scooped ice cream), where Melissa has just gotten a job as a waitress, they take Kelli across the street to show him the Haven.
Started as an informal church next to an insurance agency, the five-room former office has become a busy day shelter for Walker County’s neediest and poorest. The homeless, hungry, struggling addicts of all races find their way in for donated hot dishes warmed in hand-me-down slow cookers, a nap by the fireplace, and help with county assistance forms.
“You got what you need, bro?” Buckley says to the dishevelled African American on a bench by the door. The man only nods silently over his plate of spaghetti.
Buckley says the Haven has filled the time that meth used to consume. He works in its small garden, serves food, runs errands some days and Narcotics Anonymous meetings on others.
Kelli takes in the New Testament passages on the walls, talks to the volunteers, including a Jew-turned-Baptist preacher bringing by some pork barbecue.
“I’m a big fan of Jesus,” Kelli says. “Like our prophet, Muhammad, he mastered the art of serving the other.”
Tanya Nave, one of the Haven founders, tells Kelli how Buckley became a Haven mainstay after first refusing their help several months earlier. The family had been living at a dive motel where volunteers handed out sandwiches. Buckley always refused, sometimes rudely.
“I told my volunteers, ‘Don’t knock on Room 13,’ ” Nave says.
He changed. He learned to accept help and then to give it.
“Now I feel like this place is my purpose,” Buckley says.
On many issues, Buckley remains the firebrand re-poster of conservative memes on Facebook. He defiantly — proudly — spanks his kids in public (“I look for the cameras in WalMart”). His first phone talk with Kelli was a 45-minute defense of gun rights (The only restriction he supports is barring those being treated for mental illness from buying guns). He complains that he must rely on a translation app to communicate with his Latino colleagues.
But while he wants those workers to learn English, he doesn’t hate them as he once did. He calls Martin Luther King Jr. a hero. He befriends those he once despised.
“What do you want to do [next], Chris?” Kelli asks as they leave the Haven.
They talk about making speeches together, about Michaelis’s work extricating Klan members. It all seems possible, and thrilling.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” Buckley says. “I just want to do good to make up for all the bad.”
Later, after hugs and goodbyes for the Muslim refugee he now calls “brother,” Buckley stands in his muddy yard, lights a Marlboro and watches C.J. playing with the remote control car Kelli gave him.
“I know one thing I’d like to do,” he says through the smoke. “Go to that Ramadan dinner.”