For former refugees, hard work pays off

Yesterday afternoon, “Pomp and Circumstance” played as students from Lewis and Clark High School walked out of Spokane Veterans Arena. The new alumni posed for photos with family and friends, smiled, and celebrated. Among those many students are a cadre of recent additions to the Spokane community: former refugees.

Moses and Rebecca are two students in that group, both graduating from Lewis and Clark and choosing to further their education elsewhere. Their stories are nothing short of inspiring.

Rebecca came to the United States four years ago from Rwanda by way of Malawi. She started at Lewis and Clark as a freshman four years ago where the school system was much different than her experience in East Africa.

Rebecca had to handle six longer classes instead of 12 short ones, make new friends, learn more English, and pick up on a brand new culture. In the face of all of those challenges, it would have been easy to quit. She wouldn’t.

She asked questions when she struggled in English and Math, and got more comfortable in the subjects as she grew. By the time her junior year rolled around, Rebecca said she knew, “I’ve got this.”

That determination paid off yesterday when she received her degree, and it will continue to serve her well when she continues her education at Spokane Community College next fall. Rebecca’s brother currently goes to Spokane CC, and both plan to head to four-year universities after earning their Associates degrees right here at home.

“I didn’t quit,” Rebecca said. “I’m proud to be willing to ask questions and get help.”

Rebecca’s hard work paid off as she accepted her degree yesterday.

Moses’ story is equally heartwarming. He and his family fled from war in Congo, and came to the United States two years ago. Moses’ transition to Spokane was equally tough, but he said he’s found a home here alongside his mom, four brothers, and sister.

Just like it is for any student, the first day at a new school was probably the most difficult, but the nervousness is amplified even more when everything is changing. In contrast to a student moving from within the United States to Spokane, coming from the Congo meant Moses had to use his second-best language and acclimate to a new system of schooling.

“I was scared,” Moses said. “Everything was new back then.”

After and finding new friends and growing into the Spokane school system, Moses says he’s glad to be here. When asked if he considers Spokane to be home, there’s not even an ounce of hesitation before an enthusiastic “Yes!” rings into your eardrums. He says every teacher is his favorite one, and loves to talk about his friends.

Moses celebrates as his determination pays off.


Now, the transition comes to a fitting end, with Moses and his twin brother Elijah having been handed their diplomas just a couple hours ago. He’s excited, and extremely thankful.

“I want to thank World Relief, he said. “We wouldn’t be here without them.”


Staff Feature: Brian Mwesigwa

Meet Brian Mwesigwa, Health Care Specialist, World Relief Spokane

I am from Kenya; I was born in Kenya. My dad is Ugandan and my mom is Kenyan. I grew up in Kenya and moved here when I was seventeen, almost eighteen. I went to college and graduated in 2011, then took a two-year break and later went to grad school. I studied Public Health in college. I did an internship here with the health care team and then I moved from Spokane, in 2015, to Seattle and did some contract jobs. I had an opportunity to work here, at World Relief, so I moved back in the summer of 2016.

In my job, we work with refugees, specifically when it comes to their health. Ranging from health insurance, health screenings, referrals, surgery, anything under the umbrella of health in general is what we deal with.

I think the best part of this job is just coming to work and working with clients. Some will tell you “thank you so much for what you’ve done for me,” or just a simple appreciation; it has so much weight.  It surpasses anything when someone comes and tells you “I really appreciate what you’ve done for me.” Seeing that this person’s life has been affected in a positive way because of what we have done is very humbling.

The other part of the job I like is that World Relief is a place of work where things are constantly changing, so you are always learning new things. It is never constant, and it is never dull. Today you learn one thing and tomorrow you are confronted with something else, and then you have to learn more. Learning is relative to people. The kind of learning I am referring to is not just about the job itself, but you also learn so much from the clients. They challenge you, they inspire you, and they make you appreciate the little things that you take for granted. That is what I like about this job, the constant change, and the continued process of learning.

We do so much for our clients, but sometimes because of the nature of people, not just refugees, sometimes they feel like we are not doing enough sometimes. It can be frustrating, but understandable. I think most of our clients come from environments where they have been promised a lot of things, and nothing was fulfilled. They are told, “oh tomorrow a truck will come with a bag of rice,” and nothing comes. Or people just making false promises. When they come here, they will have that mindset. They have to go through a learning process, in America everything is a learning process and a system. For example, people from where I come from, if you are sick you just walk to a hospital, and say I have a headache, and they will see you right away. You can walk to any pharmacy without prescription.

I think in America, I’ve been here long enough to understand that we have a tendency to worry about what affects us, but not about what happens in the rest of the world. It is nobody’s fault. We have this notion that America is the greatest country in the world, which it is, I love America and this is my home. I think we have not taken the initiative to open our minds to things that happen outside of our country. Refugees are people like you and me, they are smart, intelligent, and have so much wisdom. They are loving people, they have goals, and so much education.

Where I come from, I was not a refugee, but most of the things refugees have gone through, I have either gone through it or seen it. Most of the countries refugees come from, the way their government is structured, it allows you as an individual to walk the extra mile, because not everything is given to you. For example, when I was in school back home, in order to prepare for an exam the teacher only gives you 25 percent of the material and you have to work for the other 75 percent. Teachers give you notes and books, but they don’t tell you what the exam will cover and there is no study guide. There is nothing to help you prepare.

From the time kids are in fifth grade, they are already out of the house and in boarding school. When you are away from your parents, you learn to be independent, you learn to develop skills and tools that will help you be successful. I want people to know that refugees are resilient because of what they have gone through and because of the environment where they grew up. They can go through any kind of situation in life and make it through anything.

I have always wanted to work with minority groups and the most vulnerable. Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to work in either a hospital back home or places where they don’t have adequate medical facilities or providers. I grew up in an area where malaria was horrible, I have had malaria several times and I saw people dying just because they don’t have adequate transportation to the hospital. Both of my parents are trained nurses back home, but they cannot practice it here. Growing up in that environment always inspires me to go back home, not just home, but anywhere struggling. Even if that means South America or the Middle East or anywhere that experiences a kind of plight. My passion is to work for the most vulnerable and not just advocate for them, but make sure they access services. That is what inspired me to work for World Relief and that is why I am here today.


“We are Human. We are Brothers. We are Friends”

Ali is a refugee from Iraq. He moved to Spokane, Washington thirteen months ago with his wife, two-year-old son, his mother and his brother. Living every moment in fear of death, he applied for refugee status in an act of desperation to find a safe life for his family. Over two and a half years later, his family finally made it through the vetting process to come to the United States. The screening process for refugees includes refugee status approval from the UN, two security checks, an in-person interview, medical screening, and multiple airport checks; a process that takes on average 18 months to three years.

Life in Iraq

While living in Iraq, Ali worked for an American company that provided humanitarian outreach for Iraqi citizens in need, a cause Ali strongly believes in. When asked what it is like to live every day in fear of death, he responded, “In Iraq, it’s not every day it’s every minute. Every moment you can feel the danger. You can’t talk or explain or share any ideas with anyone. You can’t write any posts on your account of Facebook or Twitter because you worry that anyone can read what you think or what you want, and then make a problem in your life. It’s very difficult.”

Ali found contentment in his job, but his ties with America put his life and his family’s lives at risk. Ali and his brother were the target of several violently aggressive attacks while still living in Iraq. The attacks continued to intensify, and in 2012 his brother was taken hostage by a sector of the militia. By what Ali describes as pure luck, his brother was rescued and his life was spared. Though now safe in the U.S., Ali’s experience in his home country left him deeply shaken, “I’m still afraid to write anything, to speak anything. I live in America, but I still have worries from Iraq that come with me,” he explained.

Religious and Intellectual Oppression

Ali faced oppression in many forms while living in Iraq. In addition to the risks posed by his job, Ali held viewpoints that made him unpopular, “I believe religion is a personal thing, it’s not to share with others. It doesn’t matter what my religion or race is. I think that doesn’t matter for anybody.” Religious freedom is not a widely supported value amongst those in power in Iraq, and his beliefs put his life even further at risk. The hope of religious and intellectual freedom is one of the many reasons Ali loves his new home, “America is not like any country in the world. I know and I believe the American people are very kind people. They are very smart people, open-minded people, and I believe that.”

Ali identifies as Sunni Muslim, but his mother is Shia Muslim. Because of his mother’s beliefs, the Sunni’s did not accept Ali. The Shia’s also rejected Ali because of his own beliefs. Increasing religious tensions and isolation created even more problems for Ali in Iraq. His wife’s family is highly educated, open-minded, religiously tolerant and still living in Iraq, forcing his wife into a constant state of worry. Her worries escalated with President Trump’s new Executive Order.

Life in America

Ali is hopeful for his new life in America. “I want to be a good citizen. I want to help other people here. I want to build myself and my family and build my new society in America.” While he still harbors worries about the refugee situation in the U.S., he stands firm in his belief in America and American citizens, “I want to tell everyone here: we are human, we are brothers, we are friends.”

Ali is especially happy to live in America for the sake of his son. With a widening smile, Ali explained how his son is teaching himself English through television shows and interacting with kids his age. He believes he is making a better life for his son, but he is facing a different kind of worry in the U.S., a worry based on his son’s name of Muhammed. The Iraqi roots of the name Muhammed cause Ali concern about whether his son will face prejudice and unfair treatment, especially in school. However, he repeatedly stated his belief in America and the American people, and refusal to lose hope.

Ali is currently employed at Walmart and working towards transferring his engineering credentials from Iraqi to American standards. He uses the library for resources to help further his certifications. “I believe refugees want to build this society and share with the American people. They want to build this country, protect this country, and live with these people in safety.”

Mark Finney, Director, World Relief Spokane

Meet Mark Finney, World Relief Spokane’s New Director

Q: How were you first involved with World Relief and what brought you to the organization?

A: I first came here as a case manager, or resettlement specialist, in the Reception & Placement office. I knew about World Relief from my previous work in the community and I was very interested in World Relief Spokane as the hub of the international, multicultural element of the local community. I grew up in the area and so I realize there has not always been a lot of diversity in Spokane. When I moved back a little over a year ago I noticed a difference. I started asking questions and several people said the rally-with-refs-lr-3change is largely related to refugees coming through World Relief. I have a passion for multicultural work, so when I found myself looking for a job, I wanted to get involved with World Relief Spokane.

Q: Tell me a little about your academic and work background.

A: Most of my academic and work training is related to ministry. I completed my bachelor’s in communication at Whitworth and spent a couple years as a youth pastor. I went on to grad school, seminary, and got a masters degree in theology. I worked at the same time at a church doing pastoral ministry and stayed there for a couple more years after my degree as well—including a year serving as a pastor in Thailand. I had a hard time getting launched into a ministry career after the recession, though, and I eventually got a job actually working for the seminary I had attended doing administration. During that time I also started a PhD in theology. I stayed in admin, business, leadership and ministry work all at the same time.

We moved back to Spokane in December 2015, to plant a church with my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. Some things changed after I got here so the church plant did not work out, and that’s what led me to World Relief.

I have leadership and administrative experience, and I think like a pastor. That is part of what I bring to this job; I want to be an effective organizational leader and I want to think pastorally for how we can create a healthy, mission-minded Christian community in this office. I also want to empower local churches in Spokane.

Q: As a previous case manager, what is one memory that you will never forget?

A: There are a lot of them! I think meeting people at the airport is one of the most powerful moments. Being there to welcome new refugees and seeing them walk down the stairs and into America for the first time is a very powerful experience. Another thing I will never forget, and hope to continue to do often, is share meals with refugees. In their homes or mine, an amazing connection happens when you share some food, some stories, and some laughter. It makes me realize how small the world is and how we are all so similar. Even if we come from completely different places, or speak different languages, we are all made of the same stuff.

Q: What is your favorite part about working at World Relief?

A: The staff. There are great people that work here and I love interacting with them on a daily basis. I also love that this is meaningful and important work. I have a deep conviction that what we do at World Relief Spokane really, really matters. There are thousands of refugees in Spokane who are almost invisible in our community. Our office has the opportunity to give voice to their stories. We have an opportunity to shape the Spokane community’s understanding and perception of refugees–those who want to come to America and those who are already here. That feels to me to be very important in this critical, contentious time.

Closing statement:

I would like to end by reasserting our mission: we are an evangelical Christian nonprofit organization that is committed to standing with the vulnerable. We do this largely because that is the model given by Jesus. We believe Jesus stood with and for us in our moments of greatest need, and he calls us to do the same for other people. That’s why World Relief Spokane exists and that’s why we are going to continue to serve our community. We are going to help churches grow as they seek to get more involved with refugees, and to help refugees who are here (or who will come here) to have the support and love of the faith community and the larger city of Spokane.

Staff Feature: Synthia Barry

Meet Synthia Barry, Match Grant Specialist, World Relief Spokane

My name is Synthia Barry. I am from Burkina Faso located in West Africa. I was born and raised in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. I have four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. I have lived in Spokane for about three years, and I live with my husband who is also from Burkina Faso. I moved to the U.S. in 2010 right after I graduated from high school. My brother was already living in Seattle at the time.

I speak French plus two other dialects from my country. As most of our refugee clients, I didn’t have
img_4158much English upon arrival. I started as a level three, taking English classes for about a year or so. After ESL, I started college right away at North Seattle Community College. Two years later, I graduated with an Associate Degree in Business Administration. After graduation, I was immediately accepted at Eastern Washington University, then moved to Spokane. It has now been three years since I moved to Spokane, and last June I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Business Operations Management.

I always like to keep myself busy, and I am always up for learning new things. For instance, while I was taking English classes, I was also volunteering in a nursing home, spending time with the elderly. A few months later, I got certified and worked for two years as a certified nurse assistant while also completing community college. Once in Spokane, I had to focus on my bachelor’s degree.

I got a job as a community manager, managing an 18-unit apartment for three years now. I have plans to go back to school and complete my MBA, but for now I enjoy working with World Relief. Working there is a blessing for me. I have always been a big fan of diversity and working with people in poverty, helping and empowering people to help themselves. I believe I got that heart from my mom who is a social worker. She works for one of our children hospitals back home. I remember volunteering with her each time I was on school break. I was helping with small tasks, such as food distribution, recording donations, distribution of toys, and sometimes babysitting. Actually, working with our refugees reminds me a little of that time.

Working as a caseworker is a significant task, but it is also very rewarding. Refugees come to America with so many different experiences, after being forced to flee for their lives. I am a Match Grant specialist, working with both case management and job development. Our main goal is to make our clients self-sufficient and not rely on the government money. My job can be very intense and overwhelming, but so rewarding. We see life changing moves and our brave refugees are successfully rebuilding their lives in the U.S.

I love telling people I have the best job ever, which is to help our refugees start their new life in America. I am also proud to say that I have made amazing friends among them. They invite me to their house, share their food with me, read me words in their language, tell me about their culture, and I do the same. They have become family to not only me, but also to all these people who let them touch their heart. I love America so much. We have people from so many different backgrounds. Let’s all appreciate each other, learn from each other, and most of all love each other.

Staff Feature: Ude Mbolekwa

img_2125Meet Ude Mbolekwa, LEP Job Developer, World Relief Spokane

I was born in South Africa, I am South African. At the age of four I moved to Mozambique and that’s where I grew up as a missionary kid. We moved there in 1996 and my mom became a missionary full time in 1999 working with World Relief. So ever since a young kid I was involved with World Relief, but it was a different mission then because they were working with locals in the community and my mom worked mostly with children. They would do clubs every week, meeting with the kids and doing bible lessons. So I stayed in Mozambique for 13 to 14 years and I did all my schooling there. In 2012, I came to the States to pursue my intercultural degree from Moody. When I found out there was a World Relief here in Spokane it wasn’t hard for me to get connected with it because I had been involved with World Relief pretty much my whole life. I started volunteering here at World Relief spring semester of 2013. I worked with families just kind of helping them get acclimated here to Spokane, helping them with English and with the kids. I did that for pretty much my whole 4 years at Moody, and then my last 2 years I helped with teaching the citizenship class. That was pretty much my involvement initially. I graduated in May 2016 and then I had to do an internship to complete my requirements for my bachelors. World Relief was one of my options for the internship, so I interned with the employment department and then at the end of the internship a job position opened up and that just flowed. It worked out very well.

My favorite part of my job is everything essentially. Getting to meet all the people that I’m working with or helping with employment. For me I just feel like it’s a small small small part of helping the refugees when they come here. My favorite part would be seeing that whole process come together and them finally having a stable job, hopefully, by the end of it. The hardest part of the job is seeing needs with the refugees that cannot be met at the time, like for example with jobs. I know that a refugee needs a job as soon as possible, but then I know that this refugee has barriers that need to be taken care. Maybe English is a big barrier, or the skills that they need to get a job is a big barrier and then it is hard to find a placement for them because of those barriers. So that is something difficult to try and work through, just balancing out that they need a job but they cannot yet get a job because of those barriers. So it’s been hard to try and navigate through those waters.

Behind my heart for working for refugees is that I have a strong strong strong desire for people to offer belonging since I grew up in a different culture in Mozambique. I was still South African at heart, so I knew my identity. One of the things that drew me to start working with refugees was that you have these people who all of the sudden were told to leave their country, to pack up your clothes and just leave, and then at the end of the day you pretty much don’t belong anywhere. They live in camps, some of them live their whole lives in camps, and they essentially don’t have an identity. Like they don’t belong to anybody or to any country. So helping them even when they come here to the States, just with employment or helping them get started with their life again is a beautiful thing for me. Essentially, after five years they become American citizens, and they can finally belong to a community again and be Americans or whatever country they are in that they are restarting at. For me that’s something that I would like people to know about refugees, that they are also people and they should belong somewhere as well, not just in limbo, in refugee camps, in between countries trying to find a place to belong.

My passion, while having grown up as a missionary kid, is just helping people who are vulnerable or don’t have the means to help themselves. I wanted to work with orphans and widows back in East Africa because those are pretty much a marginalized group of people who people don’t want to work with or they don’t have many resources. Just helping those in need and who don’t have that many resources or connections to get the help that they need. I guess that would be encompassing, including my passion with helping them find their identity or a place to belong and helping people get back on their feet.


Staff Feature: Saw Gary

Meet Saw Gary, Resettlement Specialist, World Relief Spokane: IMG_3029
I was born in Burma with eight brothers and sisters. When I was twelve years old we fled to Thailand to seek asylum. We didn’t make it to a camp, but instead lived on the border of Burma and Thailand in a small village. We were not considered Thai so we didn’t receive the same help that other asylum seekers in the area were getting. If you make it into a Thai camp you get daily amenities like food, water and shelter, but in the village where we stayed it was difficult to provide for everyone. We had nowhere to go. If we went back to Burma we would be killed. My brother and I traveled to Bangkok where we eventually received asylum status. I was just sixteen at the time. Traveling a great distance with nowhere to stay and my safety at risk was scary. It was possible for us to get arrested at any time and deported back to Burma. We ended up staying at a church that helped us throughout our time in Bangkok. We were resettled to Minneapolis, where I graduated high school and eventually found a job. I was eager to do something with refugees and with language. I speak seven languages, which helped me find a job at World Relief Minneapolis as an employment specialist. After some time working there, I got married and moved to Spokane, where I again began working for World Relief.
I really enjoy the job because at one point I was in their position. It’s hard, but I can encourage them that they’ll get there eventually. I am a refugee, so giving back and helping other refugees is the best thing I can do. Sometimes people get distracted by the things they see on the news, but it’s so important to get to know refugees personally, connect with them and hear their stories. Their stories touch so many. When someone relocates to a new place it’s hard in the beginning, but finally that person is safe. They have a car and a job and they can stand on their own. It is amazing to see and be a part of.