From Foreigner to Friend



Maria (left) and Liubov (right) celebrating over a finished baking project.


Truly understanding the plight of a refugee can only come from experience; even then, it is almost impossible to emphasize with each individual’s story. Maria Naccarato, World Relief volunteer, spent three years of her life as a foreigner in another country and has only scratched the surface in beginning to understand the depth of a refugee’s strife.

Maria grew up in Spokane-Valley, attending Millwood Presbyterian Church, but went away to the University of Montana to study Wildlife Biology and pursue her love for the outdoors. While she was in school, she struggled with what she saw in the church. I really struggled with seeing the way some Christians talked about how they should live and the way they actually lived,” Maria confessed. 

“Why did they talk about feeding and clothing the poor, but none of these things ever got done?”

This led Maria to begin praying for an opportunity to live out her faith, “God, I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I’ll go wherever you want me to go, just tell what to do.” Maria felt the Lord’s call towards the Russian community, and now, she just needed a way to get involved.

“I took this very seriously and was willing to give up everything in order to pursue this calling.” While finishing college, Maria connected with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in order to get ministry experience and skills to prepare her for her upcoming journey.

Maria used her connection with InterVarsity to get placed as a full-time staff member in Kyrgyzstan, a former republic of the Soviet Union. “I worked in a small town with a local university and was the only foreigner on the ministry staff,” Maria explained. She spent 3 ½ years developing friendships with the locals and building a community through InterVarsity, but admitted that she never felt at home in Kyrgyzstan. Despite learning the language, learning to navigate the town, and even leading Bible studies in Russian, something was always missing.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends.” She wondered, “Are these people my friends because they like me, because I’m American, or because I’m a foreigner and they feel sorry for me?”

Her best memory of her time overseas came when one of her local friends told her,

“I love you–not because of where you came from, but because of who you are.”

Nevertheless, Maria confessed, “The lack of community was really draining. I don’t think I could have done that for too much longer… I wish I would have had more meaningful connections with people while I was there… I missed being able to tell a joke and laugh from my stomach at something only people like me would understand.”

Maria described being in another country as isolating, and also felt as if she was thrust into the spotlight, always being watched. She described her experience as “running in water.”

After so many memories, good and bad, Maria made her way home. Though she was home, she didn’t want to return as a Christian bystander, she wanted to be actively involved; something had to change. After just a month of being back in America, she contacted World Relief Spokane to volunteer.

“I think my experience in Kyrgyzstan made me excited to work with refugees because when you have been a foreigner, when you’ve felt the stress of going to the grocery store without knowing the language, it is easier to have compassion.”

Maria readily admitted that anything she felt, all the insecurities and troubles, are nothing in comparison to what her new friend, Liubov Shevchenko, has gone through.

Maria contacted World Relief Spokane Volunteer Coordinator, Nancy Goodwin, and got connected with Liubov, a refugee from Ukraine. Liubov had been in the country for two years before getting connected with a volunteer. They meet weekly at Liubov’s apartment to talk about life, bake, and share experiences.

Maria’s goal is to help Liubov learn English, but she delightfully added, “I see it a little more as just being a friend to her. She has a large Russian community in the area, but her and her husband have no American friends.” She related, “It’s difficult to be completely surrounded by a culture, but not be able to engage with the people of that culture. I invited them over for Thanksgiving and I got the impression that it was one of the few times they had actually been in an American home.”

Maria excitedly shared, “Liubov is practically a gourmet baker, so in order to teach her English, we have been baking together. As we bake, I have her explain to me, in English, what we need to buy and any instructions, like “rolling out the dough” or “measure this much flour”.” This is great for Liubov, because she is learning English, but also great for Maria, because she gets to learn how to bake.

She continued, “I often spend 2 or 3 hours with Liubov and I never regret my time spent with her. Every time I leave, I always feel encouraged. Part of it is the feeling of helping someone else, but the majority of it comes from my genuine friendship with Liubov.”

“It’s such a blessing to learn from her and be encouraged by her, especially since we both share our faith in Jesus. There are a lot of ways we are different, but there are a lot of ways we are the same.

Maria presents a challenge to anyone interested in serving with World Relief, “Anytime you have the opportunity to be with people that are different than you are it’s worthwhile. This looks like a lot of different things: spending time with people who believe something different, look different, or are from somewhere different. Any time you spend with these people will only add to the person you are. So take the step to volunteer, do it not only for your new friend but for yourself.”

Through Maria’s experience as a foreigner in another country, she understood that some refugees and immigrants are looking for someone to reach out to them. They want someone to love them, not because of where they are from, but because of who they are.

Feel a call to volunteer like Maria and want to befriend refugees like Liubov? Learn more about volunteering with World Relief Spokane at 

Zak Sommers, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Intern, wrote this blog post. 




Faith That Makes a Difference

One of the most important days in the lives of some of our refugees is the day they become a United States citizen. After 5 years of living in the America, they can earn the right to that title and all of the benefits which come with it.

This year, like each of the past six, Lee Branum helped World Relief Spokane clients earn their rights as United States citizens.

“I think the biggest motivating factor was that their faith is a trial for them since they come from a communist country,” Lee said. “I thought I could make a difference”

Lee faced his own trials in a communist country. He served in the 1st Infantry Division, known more commonly as The Big Red One, in Vietnam in 1969. The experience left him with a desire to continue to have an impact on others’ lives.

He has. Twenty-five of Lee’s students have become United States citizens over the past seven years, a fact which Lee cites while sporting a proud grin.

Alongside English lessons, which prospective citizens must take because the test is in English, Lee teaches 10 Eastern European refugees learn the ins and outs of the United States government. Term limits, constitutional freedoms, and American history are all areas students must master before taking their tests.

“The best moments are when I find out they pass their citizenship exams,” he said, smiling. “That’s always a great moment.”

Citizenship means that refugees can petition to be joined by their families, who sometimes are still stranded in a camp overseas. Citizens can also vote, and refugees proudly invest their time and energy into the democracy which welcomed them years ago.

The students’ successes are small rewards for Lee, who sees teaching his classes as an outpouring of his Christian faith. That’s what made volunteering with World Relief a perfect fit: It gave him a chance to serve his country and express his faith.

Lee cites his membership at West Side Nazarene Church as one of the driving factors behind his desire to teach refugees.  “We’re called to serve,” he said. “It’s part of our faith.”

As so often happens when Christians choose to help others, Lee found that his service was spiritually beneficial as well. He’s thankful for the relationships that he and his students still have and still lights up when he talks about them.

“I don’t know how I would want to do this if it weren’t for my faith in Jesus,” Lee said. “I think teaching has been one of the building blocks past Vietnam that’s been so helpful for me.”

One student, a former refugee from Russia, joined the military just like Lee had and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The young man is now earning an undergraduate degree at Whitworth University and the two still talk every few weeks. “He has more ribbons than me,” Lee said. “That guy is my hero.”

The student is also an American citizen now, which comes with more perks than being able to vote and run for office. He’s now a part of a community, both as a Christian and an American. Both have the power to be forces for good, to turn America into more than a place of refuge. They have the power to make it a home.

Few people exemplify this power better than Lee, whose faith propels him to serve the most vulnerable people in the world and whose patriotism moves him to help others become Americans just like him.

Want to help make a difference in a refugee’s life? Fill out a volunteer application or become one of our monthly donors.

This blog post was written by Andrew Goodwin, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant. 

Choosing Love

The Congolese family that the Newtons were hosting didn’t show up until midnight. They didn’t eat the culturally appropriate meal that the Newtons had prepared. And they didn’t come alone. Throngs of Congolese community members came from the airport to show the family to their hosts’ home.

“It felt really welcoming for them,” Lindsey Newton said. Opening their home once fueled the Newtons’ passion to welcome more refugee families, a ministry that they joined through their church, Communitas, which teaches about refugees in the context of Christ the sojourner.

“As Christians, that’s what we are.” Josiah Newton said. “We’re sojourners in a land in which we do not belong.” Thinking about refugees as travelers in new lands held special poignancy for the Newtons, who hosted their first refugee family just 3 months after they moved to Spokane themselves.

“We are called to love them, and it’s something we have to choose to do,” he said. The Newtons hosted two more families and faced challenges like getting Iraqi kids to play in 2 feet of snow and keeping their dog separate from an anxious Somali family.

“It was inconvenient,” he said. “But it made us think more about what their situation might have been.”

The Newtons’ have forged their deepest relationship as the cultural companions to a Syrian family. When newly arrived or especially isolated refugees ask for extra help, World Relief matches them with American friends. The cultural companions meet at least once a week for 6 months to help refugees develop skills and become self sufficient.

Shortly after the Newtons arrived in Spokane, they attended World Relief’s volunteer orientation. They figured the big new house with a finished attic they had just bought would be perfect for hosting newly arrived refugees for the 7-10 days before World Relief finds them permanent housing. Days after the orientation, World Relief asked them if they would be interested in the cultural companion program.

“We said yes,” Lindsey said. “That’s been a really great experience for us.” In November 2016, the Newtons began meeting with the Syrian family, which came to Spokane only 3 months after they did. They have a great deal in common. The mothers are both teachers. Josiah, a nurse, has helped family navigate a thicket of doctor appointments, prescriptions, and medical jargon. And although the kids are different ages, they get along well. Most of all, the family connected over their shared newcomer status.

“The family primarily wants friends,” Lindsey said. “That’s the best thing we can offer them.” Their support was especially valuable over the Ramadan holiday, when the mother missed the celebrations back home. Lindsey provided an ear to hear her friend as she talked about what she missed from her life back home and showed Lindsey pictures of festivities from Syria.

The Newtons let their cultural companions shape the relationship. They help their friends set boundaries by letting them decide if they’ll meet at someone’s house or at the park. They have also helped them learn to say “no” to meeting at certain times if it doesn’t work for them.

“It’s a way that we can choose to love them over ourselves,” Josiah said. But in choosing to love refugees, in opening their home, sharing their time, and becoming vulnerable in friendship, the Newtons have felt their own welcome.

They are usually greeted with a “feast” whenever they visit their companions. They also recalled visiting one of the families that they hosted, who served them a filling and delicious meal that was bought completely with WIC vouchers and food stamps.

“It reminds me of how I need to be generous with what’s been given me,” Josiah said. Their ministry with refugees has also helped the Newtons find community at church. They connect with other volunteers to share experiences and lend support. Lindsey says she has found encouragement in the way her church community supports her friendship with her Syrian companions. Her husband agrees.

“Being involved with refugees here in Spokane has completely changed my view of Spokane, and in such good ways.”

If you’d like to get involved with the refugee community in Spokane, fill out a volunteer application here. We are always looking to serve with people who have a heart for the vulnerable. 

Ben Shedlock, a World Relief Spokane volunteer, wrote this post. 

Quiet Generosity, Big Impact

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:41-44

When we think of generosity, most of us probably envision large donations from athletes, actors, politicians, or the wealthy, usually intending to accomplish an audacious goal like curing a disease or ending world hunger.

The Coyle family sees giving through a different lens; a quieter generosity. When they think of hospitality and generosity, they see refugees.

The Coyles began volunteering with World Relief just over five years ago. The family of five, Danny and Bonnie, as well as their children, Debbie, Michael, and Hadassah, planned on becoming missionaries in India, and hoped they could mentor a Nepali or Bhutanese family; two of the many people groups we resettle in Spokane.

IMG_6635“I guess God had different plans for us,” Danny said with a laugh.

World Relief staff placed the Coyles with an Iraqi family five years ago, and the two families have since become one.

“We’ve just really enjoyed getting to know them; getting to know their culture,” Bonnie says. “We’ve loved becoming their friends.”

The two families are currently celebrating one of the Iraqi family’s daughters, who recently took home the Cooper Jones Award at her sixth grade graduation. The award was a special surprise for the families and recognizes the kindness in the girl that every parent hopes to see in their child.

The daughter’s kindness, as with most children, is likely a reflection of the character she observes in her parents. The Coyles see this in the generosity and hospitality of the multiple refugee families they now mentor. Their giving nature doesn’t make headlines, but it makes an impact.

The family tells plenty of wonderful stories about refugees’ generosity, but one stood out.


When Bonnie gave birth to Hadassah just over three months ago, the family said they were almost overwhelmed because five families showed up at the hospital to celebrate with them.

“As we reflected on that over the next couple weeks, we saw how special it was,” Danny said. “They all brought gifts and just wanted to pour into our lives. It’s always been like that.”

Often, the Coyles will spend hours at the homes of refugee families, where the families make and serve them dinner. Days where the families spend less than a couple hours together are the exception, not the rule. Celebrations of each others triumphs, like the award and impromptu baby shower, are standard.

“I think I’m learning what it means to be hospitable through the way they’ve shown that to me,” Bonnie said.

Bonnie may be understating her family’s impact though. In their five years of volunteering with World Relief, the Coyle’s serve refugees with open hearts and big smiles. In addition to the families they mentor, Danny and Bonnie help refugee children with their homework, taught new arrivals the Spokane bus system, and even set up doctor’s appointments.

They do it for many reasons, including as a way to live their Christian faith. Debbie, Waras and Anhar

“We’re called to love those who are hurting; the least of these,” Danny said. “People are coming out of situations where they’re really desperate, which gives us an opportunity to reflect Christ’s love to them in the way we think he would want us to.”

In that way, the Coyle’s are showing off some generosity of their own. Like their refugee friends, they provide help where they can, within their unique circumstances to make a positive difference.

For them, it doesn’t seem to be about how many copper coins you have. It’s about how they and their refugee friends make them count.

For host family, a little empathy pays big dividends

At World Relief, the help of volunteers gives us the power to serve refugees who make Spokane their home. Without their help, it would be nearly impossible to serve the people to whom we are called, and we are incredibly thankful for them.

Matthew and Laura Crotty decided to volunteer with World Relief in late 2015 after being prompted by separate events which stirred empathy within them to help the most vulnerable.

For Matthew, a military veteran who spent time in the Middle East, fear-inducing statements about Islam in the 2016 presidential primary season prompted involvement. He saw a need to get involved and help those who would be hurt most by the statements. Around the same time, Laura was stirred to action by photos of children who washed up on a Turkish beach.


“Those photos hurt me, as a mother,” Laura said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them and grieving for them.”

Their empathy is part of what drove the Crotty’s to take on one of World Relief’s most unique volunteer roles: hosting refugees for their first nights in America.

The family began welcoming some of the world’s most vulnerable people to Spokane in May just over a year ago. Since then, their house has been a temporary home for families and individuals during their first days or weeks in America.

The Crottys welcomed their first refugees in May 2016. They waited up until 1 a.m. to greet a family of six from Aleppo, Syria. To say they were nervous would be an understatement, but Laura described the experience as “beautiful.” The families communicated via Google Translate and body language for the weeks they were together and have since remained friends.

The Crotty’s kids, Avery, Jay, and Charlie, have been impacted by the experience too. Laura recalled an instance where one of their Syrian friends accidentally messed up one of Jay’s Lego creations. As happens with most children, Jay wasn’t pleased, but Laura found a way to put destruction in perspective. She showed Jay photos of Aleppo. An empathy-building experience to be sure.

“To be able to say to your kid ‘that’s Aleppo, that’s their city’ and see the growth that comes from that conversation is huge,” Laura said. IMG_6332

The kids gained even more than a lesson’s worth of perspective too. They’ve become friends with many of the folks who walked through the Crotty’s door in the last year. The families are still connected in mutual admiration and thankfulness. They share Thanksgiving dinners together and Laura’s mother is their American grandmother.

“It’s hard to let go,” Laura said. “You bond so much when someone is living in your home and communing with you. You really grow to love them.”

The relationships aren’t one-sided either. The Crotty’s say they’ve learned lessons about generosity and gained encouragement from seeing the Spokane community bond together to welcome refugees to the area.

“I think I’ve gained way more from this than they’ve ever gotten from me,” Matthew said.

In that way, it’s pretty amazing what a little bit of empathy can bring you.