The Bond of Sisterhood

Just as Elizabeth took in her unexpectedly pregnant cousin Mary, World Relief Spokane knows that women are uniquely capable of helping other women in need. That’s the idea behind our Women Who Stand program, which recognizes that refugee women are especially vulnerable. They face the same challenges in moving to Spokane as their male counterparts while serving in the double role of breadwinner and caregiver. They often have to overcome the trauma of sexual and domestic violence, which they experience at staggering rates when they flee from home or live in refugee camps.

By surrounding women refugees with supportive American women, World Relief converts vulnerability to self-sufficiency. Take the sister-like bond shared by Maren Longhurst and Solange, who were matched by the program. Maren is a local architect who led a team of women from her church in volunteering to come alongside Solange, a refugee from Congo and mother of 3-year-old Benta,

“I loved them immediately,” Maren says of meeting mother and daughter. “We had a connection like we were meeting sisters.” Their instant bond, the cornerstone of Women Who Stand, sustained Solange as she faced the greatest challenge of her new American life. 

A Long Housing Search

Soon after Solange was matched with Maren’s team, her roommate moved out, leaving her unable to meet the rent. Solange found herself caught between Spokane’s airtight rental market and homelessness. Maren’s team led a months-long housing search, made difficult by Solange’s lack of work or credit history.

“Usually by the time we even walked out the door after looking at an apartment it was already under contract with someone else,” said Maren. Solange resorted to sleeping with her daughter on friends’ couches. Maren looked into every form of rental assistance she could find. The easiest way for Solange to qualify was to spend a night in a homeless shelter.

No stranger to struggle, Solange had grown up in a refugee camp from the age of 7. But she was uncomfortable with the idea. She had to bring Benta with her, and she didn’t want to be seen as homeless.

Maren, who found World Relief Spokane while she was doing research for a master’s degree capstone project designing transitional refugee housing, took it hard.

“I cried for three days before that day came,” Maren said. 

A Long Winter

Maren gathered her Women Who Stand team while doing research for her capstone project. She attended a worldwide conference for women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and heeded the call of one speaker to serve refugees close to home. She found World Relief Spokane online, and put out a call on Facebook to the women of her church.

Kim Clark, Lori Konshuck, Carrie Tolley and Maren began meeting with Solange in winter, so they first brought warm coats and boots. Then they cooked for each other. Soon, they enjoyed just hanging out together. Solange took to calling the other women “sweetie” after hearing Lori use the term with her husband.

“We commiserated through the long winter [of 2016-17],” Maren said.

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Solange outside of her new home.

A Long-Awaited Home

The bond supported Solange through her night at the shelter, which she found to be a clean place with private rooms and a caring staff. Maren picked Solange up the next morning. The experience was better than she had expected, and it qualified her for assistance from Catholic Charities to pay for the deposit on the apartment. Solange’s church, Central Seventh Day Adventist, kicked in some more.

With financial assistance in hand, Solange soon found a house of her own where she could raise her daughter independently. She invited the women for dinner.

“I could sense her joy in being able to serve us a meal in her own home,” Maren said.

The women continue to help Solange become self-sufficient. With the help of Carrie, Solange began working as a daycare attendant. She works 5 minutes from her house and can bring Benta with her. She has been attending ESL classes between her shifts and is eyeing a nursing certificate course.

“We’re all mothers,” Maren said, explaining her team’s call to support Solange. “We were all able to put ourselves in her shoes.”

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

If you would like to stand with the vulnerable by befriending a refugee or family, fill out a volunteer application at worldreliefspokane.org/volunteer. 

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Hassan: A friend, father, small business owner, and American citizen

Hassan left Iraq in October 2009, fleeing life-threatening persecution for a refugee camp in Lebanon. After almost three years in Lebanon, Hassan and his family were placed in Spokane in September, 2012.

It was a near-perfect fit.

“I didn’t feel like an outsider,” Hassan said. “The people of Spokane helped me feel welcome.”

Soon after arriving, Hassan started to make Spokane his home. He enrolled in World Relief Spokane’s match-grant program, which enables refugees to be self-sufficient within six months of their arrival in Spokane. Through Jan Greene, the program’s job developer, Hassan found work preparing and cleaning rental homes and apartments.

For as smooth as parts of it were, the transition from Iraq and Lebanon to the United States came with its fair share of challenges as well. Hassan and the rest of his family of six had to learn English, American culture, and even how to navigate the snow that Spokane sees every winter.

Hassan chuckled recalling his first winter in the snow. “We don’t have that in Iraq,” he said.

World Relief Spokane paired Hassan and his family with a family of volunteers, and while they could only do so much about the snow, the Coyle’s gave Hassan and his family a chance to learn English and have American friends.

The families quickly formed a special relationship. They often spend important moments together. Hassan and Majeda, his wife, came to the hospital to visit Bonnie after she gave birth to the Coyle’s youngest daughter. They brought gifts and smiles as the families had an impromptu baby shower in the hospital.

 

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Hassan, Majeda and their children celebrate their citizenship with the Coyle’s and Jan Greene. 

“We describe them as family. The bond we have with them is unlike any other relationship we have,” Danny said.

With the backing of his friends and former manager, Hassan started his own business in May. He hit the ground running and the small business contracts with landlords and property managers to do landscaping and preparatory work for properties all over Spokane.

 

More good news piled up from there. One of Hassan’s daughters, Nabaa, recently earned the Cooper Jones Award, given to a student at Franklin Elementary School with exemplary character.

Then, in December, Hassan and Majeda became American citizens. They took weeks of classes at World Relief Spokane and practiced their English so they could officially join the community that welcomed them five years prior.

“I’m thankful to live in this country,” Hassan said. “I’m happy here.”

Eleven Years, Seven Countries, One Home

Shah and her four children were well-hidden. Sitting inside stacks of crates with just a small hole to let in air, she hoped they would make it. The family of five was forced to sneak into their seventh country in eleven years and all they could do was pray their seventh country would be the right one.

At that moment, Shah probably didn’t even know Spokane, Washington existed. If someone had told her that her four boys would all be 4.0 students or that she would one day be an American citizen, she might have assumed they were lying, crazy, or both.

When Shah tells her family’s story, she tears up a little bit, reminded both of where she’s been, the sacrifices she’s made, and where she is now. Her son, there to translate when Shah’s English falters, smiles and fills in gaps, likely just as impressed with his mother as everyone who knows her.

“We’re thankful to be in Spokane,” Aziz says. “I love it here.”

In 2001, Shah and Aziz (who was a two-year-old at the time) fled the Taliban, crossing the mountainous border together from Afghanistan to Pakistan. They had no travel documents, but tried to make it work. Shah worked small jobs until their lives were threatened again, this time for being an Afghan in Pakistan. The small family took off, heading to China. Shah hitch-hiked across the border, just looking for a place to raise Aziz and her newborn son.

China wasn’t any more fruitful than Pakistan and small family, now four in total, was deported back to Pakistan just two months after Shah birthed her third son. They fled Pakistan once again, this time making their way to Iran, followed by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Each time, the small family seemed to find stability before fleeing government persecution to their new, temporary home.

In Uzbekistan, Shah met a woman who offered to smuggle the family into Russia, tucked in between crates full of fruits and vegetables. Shah’s husband, who had left the family, was in Russia and she agreed, hoping the father of her children could help them.

He didn’t. Shah was forced to split a 100 square foot Moscow apartment with another Afgani refugee family. She picked up leftover food from the market to feed her kids and worked 12 hour days to enroll them in school.

Initially, Shah was denied refugee status because she was still legally married to her abusive husband. After a divorce, and with the help of an American woman at a local human rights organization, she was finally cleared to come to the United States. Shah and her four sons came here through World Relief Spokane in July of 2012.

The family’s struggles weren’t completely resolved when they came to Spokane, but for the first time they had a place to solve their problems. Their case manager enrolled the four children in school, their first stable learning environment. World Relief Spokane’s housing coordinator found them an affordable, safe home and helped the family furnish it with donations from the Spokane community. Shah enrolled in English classes and received medical services to help her overcome the toll that fleeing country after country took on her mental and physical health.

Now, five years later, the family’s situation barely resembles where they were when they came in Spokane. All four boys are 4.0 students, and Aziz is applying for scholarships with the hopes of getting a Bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga or Whitworth.  He will graduate from Mead High School in May.

Just two weeks ago, Shah became a United States citizen after taking weeks of citizenship classes at World Relief Spokane.

At the ceremony, the judge looked out at the newest Americans, smiled, and said, “you are what makes America great.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Join us in supporting refugees like Shah and her children. Become a volunteer or monthly donor.

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

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.

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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 rmandeville@wr.edu. 

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.

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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.

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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.