Eight months ago, the first family seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine arrived in Spokane. That day changed Anna Bondarenko’s life. All of a sudden, every experience– from coming to Spokane as a child with her parents as refugees, to volunteer work in Ukraine– culminated in a way to help Ukrainians escaping war to resettle in Spokane. Anna’s life trajectory led her to the perfect position to help some of our community’s most vulnerable.
Now, eight months later, Anna goes to work every day knowing she’s helping Ukrainian refugees move from “survive to thrive.” And she’s doing so with energy and enthusiasm that’s palpable.
Anna is the assistant director at Thrive International. The nonprofit Thrive Center, a former Quality Inn northeast of downtown Spokane, offers temporary housing for refugees. Thrive gives refugees a place to survive, until they can get work authorization and permanent housing. Through partnerships with investors, developers, landlords, social services agencies, and tenants, Thrive helps refugees find affordable permanent housing in Spokane.
As important as housing is for these newcomers, Thrive provides so much more. Anna and the team at the Thrive Center provide education, training and “create spaces for refugees and citizens to get to know each other.” Refugees are given a place to get from just surviving to thriving and contributing to the community’s “renewal, vibrancy, and growth.” While living at Thrive, they can learn English, figure out the transportation system, get their kids enrolled in school, and hopefully find a job to become financially independent.
“From surviving to thriving” is at the heart of Thrive International’s mission statement, which goes on to attest, “We are here to empower refugee and immigrant communities.” Anna and her team assist the refugees in countless ways to empower them and get them to “thrive.”
It’s a huge undertaking, and a juggling act. Even as I interviewed Anna by phone, she was switching between the English and Russian languages with ease as she fielded questions from the front desk. Many of those questions were about the coat drive event that day, one of the many, many ways that Anna and Thrive International helps refugees get basic needs.
Other basic needs include items for new homes, internet resources for government forms such as work authorization permits or insurance for their cars, or even where to get a car repaired.
In addition to her job at Thrive International, Anna is a member of the Ukrainian Relief Coalition (URC), a volunteer organization of young professionals of Slavic background. Like Anna, all of the volunteer members, including leader Boris Borisov, were brought to the U.S. as children after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite their shared background, the volunteer members only came to know each other at this time.
According to Anna, the URC was literally born from that dinner eight months ago with the first war refugees. “We have five more coming,” the family shared. “What do we do?”
Borisov and the group realized they had a huge opportunity to address the needs of Ukrainian refugees and provide services where none were available. In March of 2022, no government funding was available to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Spokane.
The Ukrainian Relief Coalition sped into action. Capitalizing on the power of social media, URC created a Viber chat group called “Spokane Welcomes You” as a forum to share information and answer questions for Ukrainian new arrivals. And thus came a bit of an upheaval for Anna’s life. While she and the other volunteers still had full time jobs, for the first couple of months they committed countless hours to the chat group.
Initially, Anna and the volunteers had to literally do the footwork to find out the answers to all of the different questions. Where do they go to get TB testing? How do they get fingerprinted for work authorization? Where do we seek medical attention? Anna ran from service to service to figure out how to advise the refugees.
At the same time, Anna describes her work with URC as “the coolest experience ever. It’s so amazing.” She speaks of her fellow URC volunteers with the utmost admiration. “We have total respect for each other.”
The coalition and the chat group have helped enough people now that the members themselves can advise each other, freeing up Anna and the other volunteers’ time to help in other ways. Anna loves that, knowing that the refugees she has helped can now help others. Anna describes this work as a blessing.
“I’ve met so many awesome people. It’s so cool to know you’re making a difference in someone’s life and know they will bless someone’s else’s in return. I’m living the mission. I’m honored to help them thrive.”
The URC was even paramount in the opening of the Thrive Center, which was a result of a partnership between Thrive International and the URC, with funds from Washington State Department of Commerce and some grant money.
At the time, the Thrive Center counts on donations from the public in order to complete its mission and house all of those in need. One way you can help is to attend a gala event at the Thrive Center on Saturday, December 3. The event, called “A Home for the Holidays.” The fundraiser will feature inspiring stories from Thrive Center residents, multicultural live music, appetizers and cocktails, as well as a silent auction. According to the Thrive International website, “During our first six months, we’ve served over 600 people and are giving over 250 refugees A Home for the Holidays.”
To learn more about this fundraiser and other ways to help the Ukrainian refugee community, or to learn about Thrive International, including Women, Youth and Economic Empowerment Programs visit www.thriveint.org