On a pleasantly cool Saturday morning in September, 54 people came together in the fellowship hall at Comer United Methodist Church to meet their neighbors and share stories about immigration.
With hot coffee, and plates of fresh chocolate croissants from the Comerian Bakery, cookies provided by church members and homemade sticky rice provided by Karen neighbors, participants sat at round tables to meet their neighbors and talk about how their families came to this country. Some people’s families had been in the U.S. for generations while others had been there for less than a decade, but everyone had a story to tell.
This was the second Community Conversation hosted this year by the Comer New Neighbor’s Network. Since 2017, Jennifer Drago-Smith has been operating the New Neighbor’s Network, a small non-profit in Comer that provides support for dozens of families living in and around Comer who arrived in this country as refugees. There are so many things that are challenging when adjusting to life in a new country like accessing education and medical services, understanding laws, and navigating the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. It is particularly challenging for families with children who have physical and developmental disabilities. With support from a grant from the Georgia Council on Disabilities, the New Neighbor's Network hosted welcoming dialogues in August and September to help neighbors get to know one another better and to think about how disability intersects with all aspects of life, including immigration and citizenship.
After a period of guided conversation and sharing within groups of four or five people, the group focused their attention on the keynote speaker, a Comer neighbor named Naw Chee. More than 20 years ago, Naw Chee’s family had to hide in the jungle when their Karen village in Myanmar was attacked by Burmese soldiers. Her sister, Naw Wah, was a healthy seven-month-old baby, but she contracted malaria and had a high fever and seizures. Without proper medical care, she suffered permanent developmental disabilities. Naw Chee spoke to the gathering about the multiple medical visits and challenges that her family has had to overcome first in a Thai refugee camp and now in the U.S. She expressed how thankful they are to have access to hospitals and medicine in the United States that make their life a little brighter. Drago-Smith explained how The New Neighbor’s Network helped Naw Chee to become a new citizen and then go through the lengthy process in applying on behalf of her sister so that Naw Wah could also become a U.S. citizen.
Joe Gunby, the pastor of Comer and Colbert Methodist churches, said he was glad the Comer church had the space to host this event.
“It was so good to see so many people in one place in Comer,” he said. “There were folks that had similar experiences to my own, who were born and raised in the South, as well as people with such different experiences than my own, who were born in refugee camps and, of course, it helps that the food was really good.”
More importantly, he saw it as an opportunity to partner with a local organization doing important work in the community.
“The church is here for the life of the world and that means paying attention to our neighbors and asking, ‘How can we serve you?’”
Organizers say it may seem overly simple to host conversations, but it is in conversations that people get to know people they might not normally interact with and learn what they need, what they have to share and what they have in common. The event closed with a brainstorming session about more ways to bring people together. People offered suggestions for community cultural celebrations, conversations about work, food, gardening and skill sharing. The New Neighbor’s Network is applying for another mini grant to for more community gatherings and they are open to suggested topics, times and locations.
On Oct. 24, the New Neighbors Network will bring a small delegation of Comer neighbors to meet other non-profits and organizations from across the state who are hosting similar conversations in their communities. The Welcoming Dialogues summit will be from 10-5 pm at the Clarkston Community Center in Clarkston. Registration is free and open to the public and transportation to and from Comer will be provided. Email the NewNeighborsNetwork@gmail.com if you are interested in attending the Welcoming Dialogues Summit in Clarkston, or if you would like to offer suggestions for future dialogues in Madison County.