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. 

An Eye-Opening Experience

When twenty-seven Gonzaga University freshmen recently filed into the World Relief Spokane office, they were laughing and chatting, trying to make friends like any other brand new college freshmen would. Although many of the students have come to Spokane from faraway places to start a defining chapter in their lives, they bore little resemblance to the refugees that we serve here.

We set out to change that.

The students were brought there by Elly Zykan, a Gonzaga senior, to participate in a refugee simulation, an event designed by World Relief to put Americans in the shoes of refugees and give them a small taste of those trials that refugees face during their vetting process and transition to living in Spokane.

Elly described an afternoon of powerful experiences. During our simulations, each participant spends time going through several key steps in the refugee resettlement process in the hopes of making refugees’ experience more real to Americans and spurring participants into action.

Participants are broken up into four families; taking on the biographies of people who resettled in Spokane. During their experience simulation participants go to four stations: United Nations interview, medical screening, language learning, and food & shelter.

For Elly, the station that drove home the refugees’ experience was the United Nations interview. Participants enter an office one at a time for a security interview with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The rest sit outside the office in silence, unable to make sure their remembrance of events lines up. If the memories don’t, their journey to America becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. All they can do is give the most honest account of what they remember.

“I felt anxious and panicked when I realized that each one of my family members was going to have to go into the interview alone. We just had to hope that we were all saying the ‘right’ things to do well.” – Elly

The experience is familiar to refugees, who interview with the United Nations to ensure their refugee status before also doing multiple interviews with United States’ security agencies.

“I remember that the interview wasn’t easy. They were asking lots of tricky questions that were hard to answer” – Emmanuel Kassa, Former refugee and World Relief Spokane volunteer

For refugees, the interviews can come after spending weeks, months, or years simply trying to stay safe. Then, they return to the same homes or camps to await the UN decision. In the simulation, Elly and her family did the same, experiencing simulated trials that many refugees face.

Students at the Language station learning Kazakh.

After the interviews, Elly’s family had to construct a shelter for themselves, sift through dirty rice, and attempt to learn Kazakh without any translation from English. Each station adds another layer of the refugee experience for participants until they understand, as much as an American can, the experience of their friends and neighbors.

“Our hope is that increased understanding of the refugee experience will translate into empathy and action on behalf of refugees.” – Richard Mandeville, World Relief Spokane Refugee Simulation Coordinator

“The people and places that I see on the news don’t feel so far away from home anymore. I feel like my eyes are open to these stories,” – Elly

Here at World Relief Spokane we hope that people from all walks of life will find simulations to open a window on the refugee experience like it did for Elly and her classmates. We hope that after a simulation, when people see refugees in their neighborhoods or on the news, they won’t see a statistic. Our goal is to help participants see what motivates our staff and volunteers to serve: people.

If you’d like to schedule a refugee simulation for your group, church, or workplace email Richard Mandeville at 

Andrew Goodwin, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant, wrote this post. 

Staff Profile: Empathy drives Sajida Nelson to help refugees become Americans

On Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that fell on September 1 in 2017, a conversation with World Relief Match Grant Specialist Sajida Nelson was interrupted by a co-worker. A former client, he said, was in the lobby. She was distraught and needed some help.

“This is more important,” Sajida said as she got up and moved toward the door, than talking about herself. Her empty office, one of the few at World Relief not shared by several staff, hints at her life as an immigrant.


On the wall, American wedding portraits and Christmas cards. A shot of Sajida smiling while she hugs a very large bulldog. On her chair, a thick gold and red scarf that would be at home in the market in her native Iraq.

Sajida grew up in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that is most familiar to Americans as the site of crucial battles during the 2003 invasion and, until the summer of 2017, as a stronghold for the Islamic State.

For Sajida, Mosul is a historic center of the Chaldean Catholic Church in which she grew up.

“It was a simple place to be kids,” she said. “It worsened when the war came.” Despite the war’s hardships, it provided Sajida, a skilled English speaker, with the chance to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Military. “At first it was for money, but after the first couple months I wanted to help people who left their own homes and families to do something good for my country,” she said.

When Sajida returned from calming down the woman in the lobby, she explained that part of her job is helping clients through the emotional and financial challenges of American life. Her program, Match Grant, imparts financial skills that lead to self-sufficiency.

Sajida connects with her clients’ challenges because of the more than 2 years she spent in Sweden, alone and waiting to come to the United States. “I was basically a refugee in Sweden,” she said. “I know what they’re feeling.”

She recalled one client who wanted to move to Sacramento, CA. She helped him think about the cost of moving, of leaving an apartment and renting a new one, switching utilities, the loss of income while he found a new job, and the fact that his working family in Sacramento may not have time to help him. “He decided to stay, work and save money to move later,” she said.

Sajida began volunteering at World Relief only 2 months after she arrived to Spokane in 2010. Unlike World Relief’s clients, she came to the United States using a fiancé(e) visa (hence the wedding photos on her wall). She learned about World Relief and wanted to help others in situations that were similar to hers.

Sajida at World Relief Spokane circa 2011.

“It always brought joy to me to know that I am of help,” Sajida said. Six months later, the match grant specialist position opened, and Sajida got the job. Ever since, she has used her experience as a refugee and her ever-growing knowledge of what it is to be an American to help her refugee clients. She holds orientations to help refugees understand their benefits, connects them with medical services and bill payment, and still does some interpreting here and there.

The work “to me is a way to give back to the community,” said Sajida. It’s a community Sajida fully became a part of just a few years ago when she took the oath of citizenship. “Becoming citizen of this great nation was amazing feeling,” She said. “This is a country that would stand for you in any place or situation.”

Sajida’s journey to America and work here connect in many ways, and perhaps the most powerful is when refugees become a part of the American community just like she did.

“It’s been amazing to witness the gratefulness of my clients whom became citizens and for them to want and share this moment with me,” Sajida said. “It’s the most amazing and important day of their lives to be recognized as American citizens and not just refugees.”

If you want to help Sajida and the World Relief Staff continue making these moments possible, we would love for you to fill out a volunteer application or become one of our monthly donors.

This blog post was written by Ben Shedlock, a World Relief Spokane volunteer.

We Need You to Advocate for Refugees

President Trump is considering setting an appallingly low refugee admission number.

We can’t let that happen. As Christians and Americans, we must stand for the vulnerable and the voiceless.

World Relief Spokane is engaging in an advocacy campaign to encourage the President and our Congressional Representatives to set the refugee admissions limit at 75,000 people or more. The money to resettle that many refugees is already in the appropriations budget, so the government is prepared to welcome that many people if the President sets that number for admissions.

Here’s what you can do:

Call your Congressperson, both Senators and the President.

  • For Spokane natives, that means Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (202-225-2006), Maria Cantwell (202-224-3441), Patty Murray (202-224-2621), and President Trump (202-456-1111).
  • If you’re not a Spokane native, call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your representatives.
  • If you’re nervous or not sure what to say, we have a short script below as well as some additional facts further down this post about refugees in America.
    • Script for Congresspeople and Senators: “I’m [NAME], your constituent from [CITY/TOWN]. I strongly support refugee resettlement and am deeply concerned by reports that President Trump may set the refugee admissions goal for next year at less than 50,000. I urge you to do everything in your power to see that the administration resettle at least 75,000 refugees in 2018.The money to take in 75,000 refugees is already in the Congressional budget. My community welcomes refugees, and I urge you to reflect the best of our American values of compassion and hospitality.”
    • Script for the President: I’m [NAME] from [CITY/TOWN]. I strongly support refugee resettlement and am deeply concerned by reports that President Trump may set the refugee admissions goal for next year at less than 50,000. I urge the President to decide resettle at least 75,000 refugees in 2018. The money to take in 75,000 refugees is already in the Congressional budget. My community welcomes refugees, and I urge you to reflect the best of our American values of compassion and hospitality.
  • If this is your first time calling Congress or the President, thank you! Your support for refugees means the world to us and to them.

Write a letter to your Congressperson, both Senators and the President.

  • Handwritten letters from real constituents matter. Our government represents us, and the time spent writing a letter reflects how much this matters to you.
  • Use the same information from the calls, tell a personal story, or include some facts. Anything helps.
  • Mail your letters to the addresses below.
U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers
1314 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Senator Patty Murray
154 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Senator Maria Cantwell
511 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
President Donald J. Trump
The White House.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500.
Put your Twitter account to good use.
  • Tweet at your representatives and tell them to publicly support a refugee admissions limit of 75,000 people.
  • Retweet @WRSpokane and @WorldRelief as we call for a 75,000 person limit.
  • Share articles, op-eds, and other important information with your followers
  • Let us know you called or wrote letters. Direct message or tweet at us to tell us you called. We love hearing about your involvement.

Like and Share our Facebook posts.

  • Kindly tell your friends and family to call in support of refugees.
  • Share articles, photos, and videos encouraging friends to support refugees.
  • Let us know you called! Send us a picture of your letter! We love hearing from you.

Before posting facts about refugee resettlement for your calls, we simply would like to say thank you for your support of World Relief and your support of refugees. Every call, letter, and tweet matters to the moms, dads, and kids around the world who need your help.

Refugee Resettlement Facts

Linked below are two helpful, factual articles about refugees. The first is about how refugees contribute to the U.S. economy. The second revolves around the refugee vetting process. Both links are followed by highlights from the articles.

  • Refugees contribute to the American economy
    • Refugees paid nearly $21 billion in taxes in 2015
    • 13 percent of refugees start their own business, compared to 9 percent of native born citizens
    • Refugees added $56 billion in spending power at American businesses in 2015
    • 84 percent of refugees become American citizens
  • Bringing Refugees to America is safe
    • The Cato Institute’s research puts the annual risk of a refugee-committed terrorist killing on U.S. soil at 1 in 3.6 billion, which is about 1,000 times less likely than being killed by a lightning strike.
    • We do know who these refugees are. They go through a multi-step process that generally lasts anywhere between 18 months to 3 years, and includes fingerprinting, biometrics, retina scans, and multiple interviews by different agencies, including the United Nations, State Department contractors, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
    • The refugee admission process is the most thorough of all entry processes into the U.S.


Little Moments: “Beautiful”

As you can see in the photo above, our office recently got a makeover. With a bit of help from Sun City Church, the World Relief lobby got a new paint job, and we decided to take our redecorating a step further by adding some of our favorite photos from past years to the area. You might recognize one of them from a prior post on this blog. We put the photos up on the wall behind the desk to convey a simple message to our friends: This will be you.

Two days ago a family with a little girl walked in to our office. They were there for an appointment during their resettlement period, which is their first 90 days in the United States. If you’ve never talked to a family during that period, they usually have some mixed emotions. There’s excitement to be safe and secure in their new homes but it comes with nervousness and uncertainty at this new place as well. New lives are hard. This little girl walked in to our office, pointed at the photo on the upper right side of the group, smiled, and said, “Beautiful!”

We choose to share this small moment with you because the moments we celebrate aren’t just the stories that come to nice and tidy endings. The little moments along the way are worth celebrating too. Sometimes, a little girl walks in to our office, sees a photo, and realizes that’s who she wants to be. That’s what we do at World Relief. More than anything else, we remind each of our friends that they’re a beautiful part of our community and a beautiful gift of God. Every person who learns that, or even part of that, is worth celebrating, and we hope you’ll join us in doing so.

Staff Feature: Diana Borisova

It’s difficult, and sometimes impossible to understand something until we’ve done it. As much as we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, they don’t always fit. We can sense how uncomfortable they are or see that someone can use a replacement pair, but it’s tough to get someone else until we’ve worn the same pair as them.

Diana Borisova has worn the shoes of the refugees she works with every day at World Relief Spokane. It’s part of the reason she’s a great case manager.


Diana’s family fled a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, entering Russia as refugees. She met her husband while in the country, and discovered just days after their wedding that her husband’s family had applied to be resettled in America.

As Christians in Russia and (formerly) the Soviet Union, her husband’s family had been persecuted for years and feared for their lives and well-being. Members of the family had lost jobs and been refused services by members of the Soviet and Russian governments. Diana’s mother-in-law had nearly been removed from her parents because they were Christians.

After a series of interviews, background checks, and applications which spanned four years, the family was sent to Spokane in August 2005. Diana and her husband had recently become parents as well. So in addition to learning English, understanding American culture, and potentially finding a job, Diana was also a full-time Mom.

“I started my life in Spokane with a baby in my arms, zero English, and almost no friends,” Diana said. “I started my life here just like everyone else.”

Many of Diana’s refugees come to Spokane in similar situations. Whether it’s a single mother who needs to learn English or a individual man looking for a job to pay for rent and utilities, Diana has an anecdote for each person who comes through the door.

For a refugee who held a degree or certification in their home country but found it didn’t hold weight here, Diana can tell them about her experience having to return to school despite being a certified nurse in Russia. If a client finds they don’t understand their English classes, Diana tells them stories about her struggles in the exact same classrooms.


“I just love them,” Diana said. “I know a little bit about how they feel.”

The stories, strange hours, and hard work are all about giving back to a community which welcomed Diana twelve years ago. Her father-in-law planted a church in Spokane that now supports refugees through Good Neighbor Teams. Diana’s first experience serving through World Relief came on those teams. She said her team worked with a Sudanese family of nine and “spoiled them a lot.”

The experience motivated her to apply at World Relief when a job opened up as a case manager last year. With nearly a year of using her experience to teach her clients the ins and outs of America, Diana’s motivation to serve has stayed the same.

“I fell in love with refugees,” Diana said. “I just want serve them.”