Volunteers Nancy Montgomery and Peter Jennings share their journeys as active World Relief Triad partners working to build relationships with Afghan immigrants through producing a message of holistic, sustainable change and welcome to their community.
The Journey to Volunteering
For Good Neighbor Team members Nancy Montgomery and Peter Jennings, they can trace their desire to serve refugees and immigrants to before their time at World Relief. Nancy says that her first experience was working with Syrian refugees in Athens, Greece in 2017. “That was my first experience with any type of work with refugees,” she says. From there, her curiosity was sparked when she came back home. “ I had already done the training a few years ago, so I signed up willingly to welcome a new Afghan couple in 2021,” Nancy says. By February 2022, Nancy’s “Good Neighbor Team” of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had their first dinner meeting with their new friends: the Rahmani’s.
Peter Jennings’ journey dates back a little further than Nancy’s. Born into an American family living in Germany, Peter was able to see through his own parents how love and compassion can transcend cultures and nationalities. When his parents decided to show kindness to a begging woman by providing her a job and a place to stay, Peter used his witness of his parents’ generosity as motivation for serving others.
“The kindness that I saw in my parents to people that you wouldn’t expect–She was German, and we were friends with her right after the war!– That always followed me,” Peter says. “As I moved from country to country with my parents, so many different people welcomed us into their homes. I think we should do the same for refugees and immigrants here.” After Peter applied to partner with World Relief Triad through volunteering in 2016, he decided to reach back out in 2021. He was soon paired with a man who had recently arrived from Afghanistan by the name of Sultani Fraidon.
“Sultani didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Dari. I had an app that was in Persian, but he couldn’t read or understand Persian,” he says. Peter realized that if he wanted to communicate with his new friend, he would need to connect with one of Sultani’s friends who could help interpret. It just so happened that Ali Rahmani, who lived one floor above Sultani and had recently been connected with Nancy Montgomery, spoke both English and Dari.
Holistic Change & Integration
Both Peter and Nancy quickly point out their service to Sultani and the Rahmani’s as based in friendship.
“From the beginning, we’ve learned that it’s about relationships,” Nancy says. “They’re so gracious in always inviting us to stay, eat, and visit.” When asked what her favorite part about volunteering is, she states that losing track of time is one of her favorite parts.
“Something that I think is going to take one hour may take closer to three or four,” she says. “When I’m with them, I want to be very present. I like the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s taught me not to focus as much on my American obsession with my schedule.” There’s also an acknowledgment of the importance of asking lots of questions. The volunteer says that while her new friends ask a lot of questions, she also wants to ask them questions and learn about them. “We see how similar we are as human beings,” she says. She uses the example of talking to Ali’s wife about her daughter and what it’s like to be a mom as a common experience.
“We’ve learned overall, though, that it’s about relationships and not just ‘doing things’ for them,” Nancy states.
Nancy highlights hers, Peter’s, and the rest of the Good Neighbor Team’s focus on independence as a way they help bring their new friends sustainable integration. “Peter taught Sultani and Ali how to ride public transportation and acquired 30-day bus passes for both of them to use going to work and their ESL classes,” she says. “He is also already helping Ali complete the written exam for his driving test. We’re trying to think past the immediate need and focus on what it’s going to take long-term.”
The Community‘s Response as a Place of Welcome
Nancy believes that though the issue is very timely, people would still be moved to get involved. “I think people have an innate interest in serving people who come here at times with just the shirt on their backs.”
Peter can testify to that as he tells the story of how one message to his next-door neighbors on an app received over 194 responses. “I wanted to see if we could get a couple of TVs for these two Afghan families so that they could learn English,” he says. “With 194 responses and only one negative response, I was stunned.”
But perhaps the most amazing moment of welcome from the community happened one day when a couple of the Good Neighbor Team members decided to take Sultani to a local restaurant in Winston-Salem for lunch. With Sultani being a cook, he was excited to hear about the potential job opportunity at the restaurant but was worried about his lack of English. But after the manager of the restaurant reassured him that it would not be a problem, the volunteers left with hope. When Peter returned to the restaurant with Ali’s wife and Sultani later, he had no idea that yet even more generosity and service were about to be provided to them.
“After I helped Sultani fill out the application and we took it over to the restaurant, we met the owner, Ari Ziogas, who began to answer all of our questions and told us his job would include benefits,” Peter says. “Another day soon after that, I was there with Ali’s wife and Sultani again, and an older gentleman came over to give me a $100 bill to give to Ali’s wife.”
“It turns out it was Bob Ziogas, the father of Ari! He told us that, forty years ago he had a similar experience coming from Greece to the U.S.,” says Peter. “What a heartfelt story for him to tell about his life and really have an understanding of what these people are going through. To me, it completes the circle. I was thrilled to see that Sultani was hired, and then to have Ari’s father come out and give the money to Freshta was so encouraging.”
Peter and Nancy both express a desire to see Sultani, Ali, and their families thrive in the United States as the motivation for their service. By helping the community to see their new friends as highly-contributing members of their society and people who have stories and the potential to become close friends, they are bringing true change together.
“To see them getting stronger with every encounter is encouraging,” Nancy says. “The more comfortable they become with us and as the relationship grows, I just see that resilience growing. I think it’s giving them hope that they have friends and a community and they can do this.”
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