“What is friendship to you?”
Tigi looks at me for a moment while she thinks about the answer. She seems anxious that she may not be able to express herself fully in English, but she finds the right words.
“Friendship means helping each other when it is good news or bad news. [It means] sharing with your friends, and helping them. Even when there is nothing else to do, you can pray for your friend.”
Tigi has lived in the U.S. for almost three years now. Her husband has a steady job, they have had a baby here, and she is eager to start working again herself. They are involved in a small church with other Africans in the city. Tigi and her family have been building a joyful, humble life for themselves here. It took many people to help them get to where they are today. One of these people is Tigi’s friend Joy.
“I loved Joy on the first day [that I met her].”
Joy didn’t know what exactly to expect the first time she met Tigi and her family. She’d had experience volunteering with foreign-born people, and she knew she loved being around people from other cultures, but being a part of a Good Neighbor team was a bigger commitment. After hearing about World Relief while at her church’s missions conference, Joy said that “the seed was planted. I knew God was calling me to reach the world in Memphis.” Joy was at the airport when Tigi and her family landed in the U.S.
“The first thing I remember about meeting Tigi and her husband is that their smiles were just contagious. I started going to their house once a week to practice English, and they just welcomed me and my family right into their home.”
Joy and Tigi’s relationship grew over time. Soon, they were doing more together than practicing English. Joy recounts some of the fun things they’ve done together: “One time, we took Tigi’s family out for smoothies, which they thought were too sweet. But we also introduced them to Chick-fil-A, which they like a lot!”
It took time for Joy and Tigi’s friendship to grow, though. In addition to the language barrier, they faced other challenges. Tigi remembers when they first arrived in America, before she began staying home with her daughter: “At first, I was working and pregnant, and Joy came to my house. I worked night and she worked in the day, so it was hard to see each other. But it got better when I stopped working. She always asked how I was and how the baby was.”
For Joy, it has been hard at times to relate to Tigi and her experience: “One time, a few months into our relationship, Tigi was upset because she hadn’t gotten to talk to her mom in a long time, who isn’t in America. Before that, I didn’t realize how much she had truly left behind.”
But despite challenges in their unlikely friendship, Tigi and Joy and their families grew closer. They celebrated holidays together. Joy’s own mother was in the delivery room when Tigi delivered her child, which earned Joy’s mom the affectionate nickname “The Doctor” from Tigi and her husband Ibisa. Joy’s dad taught Ibisa how to drive. And the learning has been mutual, according to Joy. “I have learned a lot from them, especially about resilience, joy, and their love for the Lord.” When I asked her what her favorite thing about Joy is, Tigi said, “She likes all my food, which makes me feel loved.”
But the most inspiring part of Tigi and Joy’s story is what happened when Joy got married. In May 2017, Joy and Tigi had known each other for a year and a half, and Joy was deciding who she would invite to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. “I asked myself, ‘Who am I closest to? Which relationships in my life are flourishing?’ It wasn’t even a question, of course I had to ask Tigi!”
To ask Tigi to be in her wedding, Joy gave her a set of earrings shaped like little knots, with a card that said, “Will you help me tie the knot?” which Joy soon learned was an American idiom. “I had to explain what ‘tie the knot’ meant, but once Tigi understood what I was asking, she agreed and was very excited.”
It was Tigi’s first American wedding, and it did not disappoint: “It was very pretty, and I liked my dress. It was mostly the same as an Ethiopian wedding, but it was different because there was no dancing. That is okay, because sometimes there is too much dancing in Africa!”
When Joy first signed up to volunteer with World Relief, she wasn’t expecting to meet one of her future bridesmaids, and when Tigi was assigned to come to America with her family, she probably wasn’t expecting to be in an American wedding so soon. But their story is a testament to the amazing things that can happen when people are willing to get out of their comfort zone and come alongside the vulnerable.
Both Joy and Tigi had words of advice to anyone who might be hesitant to volunteer with refugees. Tigi said, “If it was me, meeting someone from a new place, and a new culture, I would be scared. Joy wasn’t. So don’t be scared. They [refugees] are the same as you. Maybe they have a different culture, language, or color, but that is a gift from God.”
Joy said, “I would say to them [someone fearful of volunteering] that God’s heart is for the nations. It is a mutual learning experience, but refugees are very gracious. They are friends. This whole thing has been a beautiful surprise, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Tigi is family now.”
By Noah Rinehart, Rhodes College Bonner Scholar Intern
In honor of Volunteer Appreciation Week we have been sharing a series of inspiring stories, capturing how are volunteers and immigrant friends together are #loveinaction. If you would like to learn more about volunteering with World Relief, email our Volunteer Coordinator firstname.lastname@example.org.