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Leaving 19-year career brought new purpose, new family

Mandi Cullifer presents a cut of "ahu" (deer) to a member of the Afghan community she serves. The meat was donated by a member of the youth group at her church, Cartersville (Ga.) First Baptist.

TAYLORSVILLE, Ga. (BP) – Days before Christmas, Mandi Cullifer passed from one home to another in a small, close-knit rural community. She had ahu to give out, and plenty of it.

“Ahu” (pronounced ah-WOO) is the Dari word for “deer” and one of many phrases Cullifer has learned since last May when she volunteered to help Afghan refugees resettle in Bartow County, Ga. In a matter of months, Cullifer was assisting with seven families that included 35 individuals, most of them children and teenagers.

Each group’s ride from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was just the beginning. Arranging and handling doctor appointments, shopping trips, housing, GED classes, ESL groups, employment, driver’s licenses and other necessitites joined the process. Families began attending churches. They explored children and student ministry opportunities.

Cullifer serves as the Afghan ministry volunteer coordinator for Cartersville First Baptist Church, but is just one of many in the area and across the country helping resettle tens of thousands of refugees since the Taliban retook power after the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021.

Her own part in the effort began with a feeling, and now includes a group of people she considers an extended family.

“It has given me a deeper perspective,” she said. “I can see myself in the mothers. I can see my kids in their kids. I can see my marriage in their marriage relationships.

“We are so much alike in spite of all our differences. It’s become easier for me to put myself in their shoes.”

An end, and beginning

Members of the Afghan community have started joining in church activities, as some teen boys did in singing Christmas carols to widows.

Cullifer had invested 19 years in teaching, but knew it was coming to an end.

She wasn’t burned out. She wasn’t looking for greener pastures. She was just … looking.

Cullifer and her husband, Scott, had taken their four children on a family mission trip to Africa years earlier. God made it clear they were to go, and it deeply impacted them.

“We came back with a strong desire to pursue missions both at home and abroad, wherever God would lead,” she said.

That led to another mission trip, this time to Ethiopia. Her husband, a lifelong football coach, went with a team to Turkey to coach players there. Cullifer spent her summers leading an outreach to kids and families living in an extended-stay hotel notorious for drug use.

In February 2021 the Cullifers visited Clarkston International Bible Church near Atlanta to learn more about refugee ministry.

“At the time I remember thinking how cool it would be to be able to be involved in such a thing, but quickly dismissed it because refugees didn’t come to Bartow County. It didn’t seem like even a slight possibility of something to pursue,” she said.

About a year ago, she felt God calling her out of the classroom.

“There was nothing logical or sensical about it,” she said. “There had been several circumstances that had moved my heart to feel it was time to step away, but we had no plan or expectations for what could be next. We talked about it and had complete peace that it was the right next move for us.”

Two weeks after school ended, Cullifer spoke with Holly and Scott Holder. The couple from another church had an information booth on their Afghan ministry set up at her church in Cartersville. She expressed interest in helping.

Two days after that, Cullifer received a phone call.

Help from all around

It was Holly Holder. Refugees would be arriving that evening at the airport. Cullifer and her husband rode with Holder to meet them.

Mandi Cullifer carries a translation book of Darsi to English whenever visiting Afghan families, though she has since learned several common words.

“They arrived at midnight – an elderly couple who didn’t understand English and were very tired from a long journey,” Cullifer said.

In the car, they got another call. This one was from the couple’s son, who was in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi and spoke proficient English.

“Through tears he thanked us for taking care of his parents because he was very worried about them being sent on their own,” she said. “They needed so much help.”  

As struck as she has been by the stories and needs of those arriving, Cullifer is just as moved by the sacrifices and gifts of those partnering in the effort.

One Sunday she quietly guided a couple through worship services at Cartersville First Baptist. No announcement was made on their presence, much less their story.

Nevertheless, people noticed. They walked up to Cullifer and handed her money to help. She left with more than $1,000 that day.

Since then, around $15,000 has been donated anonymously through her church.

Mission Georgia, the state missions emphasis arm of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, has given $120,000 to 11 ministries caring for refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine over the last year. Part of that was a $10,000 grant to the Bartow Baptist Association for Afghan resettlement.

“We’re so grateful for the gifts of Georgia Baptists to the Mission Georgia offering that makes this possible,” said Lorna Bius, Mission Georgia mobilizer. “We’re also praying for teams like those in the Bartow Association who are on the frontlines of loving refugees God has brought to Georgia. God’s command to care for the foreigner resonates in the hearts of Georgia Baptists and Mission Georgia works to reflect that.”

Cullifer said the effort of which she is a part began with Holder.

“None of this would be possible without her. She works tirelessly on all sorts of aspects. There are other ladies from other churches who spend a lot of time with the [Afghan] community. Other churches in the county have sent support, invited the refugees to church, put on special game days and events for them and offered transportation and donations.”

New lives in a new country

Contributions come in different ways. Fifteen-year-old Owen Wiggins, a member of the Cartersville First student ministry, took a deer on a hunt with his dad, Stuart. He wanted to donate it.

The processed meat led to shouts of “Ahu!” as Cullifer presented families the opportunity to choose a section.

“Refugee work is challenging because there are so many needs in areas that I simply don’t know anything about,” she said “It takes people from all aspects of knowledge and jobs to help a family start a brand-new life in a brand-new country.”

Cullifer has learned their stories on these visits, alongside enough words to communicate fairly well even with those who speak no English. Afghani hospitality is practically a competition and every step inside a home brings an offer of a snack or meal. As such, Cullifer is very familiar with “mazador” (delicious) and “Ser astom” (I’m full). 

Another word, “family,” has broadened. Her young daughter, Annie, has three older brothers at home, but from tagging along with mom now counts numerous Afghani sisters.

Preparations are underway for more families, including those with relatives already relocated in Bartow County, who will be arriving in 2023.

“Ministry is sometimes very messy,” said Cullifer. “As much as we want everything to go smoothly, it doesn’t always go that way. It is full of unexpected twists that can be stressful. But the beautiful thing I’ve learned is how God is at work in a myriad of ways, big and small.

“I’ve also learned that there’s almost nothing I’ve ever done that has been more rewarding. I’m not just working with refugees; I’m working with friends. As much as I love them, they love me back. They truly care about me and my family.

“Being welcomed into their culture has been just as meaningful as welcoming them into ours.”