This is how Natalia Kuhn (nicknamed Natasha) describes the pendulum of emotions she experiences in her work every day, wiping away tears. Especially this time of year, when the Christmas Bureau is in full swing.
Natalia and I both shed lots of tears during this interview. You see, many of the folks Natalia helps with her work at the Christmas Bureau are the same folks we work with at our jobs teaching English to immigrants and refugees in the evenings at Spokane Community College.
That’s where I first met Natalia, just over a year ago when I started the teaching job, a job where I learn even more than I teach.
If I could choose one word to describe my first impression of Natalia it would be “strength.” Although small in stature, Natalia has a strong presence and a strong voice, which comes in handy as a teacher. My students and I often laugh as we hear what sounds like yelling coming through our shared classroom wall. But it’s just Natalia trying especially hard to get a grammar point across to her students. I jokingly told my students how lucky they were to get not only my grammar lessons, but Natalia’s as well.
What became clear later, however, was that behind that intensity, Natalia’s strong exterior encompassed a heart of gold, a spirit of compassion, and the kindest and most generous soul.
Last year, one November evening before class, Natalia was even more intense and excited than usual. She approached me and the other evening teachers in the hallway and asked us to please bring our students to her classroom during break time. She showed us her flyers, explaining that she volunteered at the Christmas Bureau and wanted to explain to all of the students how they could have a more joyful Christmas.
Many of the immigrant and refugee students we teach have newly arrived in Spokane and are still getting established. Many gave up everything they had back in their home countries to live in safety, like the many Ukrainians who have fled the war in their country. Many have young children. The Christmas Bureau helps our students, and others who need help, have a merrier Christmas.
The Christmas Bureau is an annual holiday assistance program coordinated by Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, Volunteers of America, and the Spokesman-Review. The program is supported by community donations and volunteers like Natalia. Every year in December, the Christmas Bureau helps people in need by providing grocery vouchers as well as books and toys for children.
When Natalia gave her presentation to the evening English students, she explained about what the Christmas Bureau provides. She also helped them understand the documents required in order to receive the vouchers and toys. When your English is very limited, it’s almost impossible to understand these requirements without Natalia’s explanation.
This is a tiny fraction of Natalia’s volunteer work with the Christmas Bureau. Natalia devotes countless hours on site during the event serving as an interpreter for Eastern Europeans, mostly Ukrainians, who speak or understand Russian. Natalia is fluent in Russian. In fact, Russian is Natalia’s native language. She moved to Spokane from near St. Petersburg in Russia in 2005 after marrying an American.
At the urging of her husband, she began volunteering with the Christmas Bureau in 2006, its very first year. “I loved it!” she tells me. “It’s so…..,” she thinks for a second to find the word in English, “rewarding!”
It’s the heartwarming side of the swing of the pendulum. Then the pendulum swings the other way.
“But it’s also heartbreaking. We have people who come wearing broken glasses because they don’t have money to get them fixed. Someone might walk here because they don’t have money for the bus. Or they cry to me because they miss their family and country and want to go home. We cry together. It’s the hardest job in my life.” Natalia and I both tear up again.
Natalia has participated in the Christmas program 25 years since that first event in 2005. The only year she didn’t volunteer was the year it was canceled due to Covid.
As if her work with the Christmas Bureau wasn’t enough, Natalia started volunteering with World Relief this past June. Her friend called and asked for help with interpreting when World Relief became overwhelmed with new arrivals from Ukraine. Natalia jumped right in. The applications to get assistance from World Relief are especially complicated, which is where Natalia can be of invaluable help. As an immigrant herself, she can also give advice and suggestions for adapting to a new culture.
Natalia has also started volunteering at Thrive International, the nonprofit organization that is currently helping new Ukrainian refugees in Spokane.
If it seems ironic that a Russian is providing so much assistance to Ukrainians as war is being waged between the two countries, that’s no accident.
“I feel so guilty for what my country is doing,” Natalia chokes up again. “It’s my life calling now to help these people. I love them all. And it’s karma. If I help others, maybe somebody will help my children, my brother.” Her son and his family fled to Turkey when Russian men were conscripted into the military. Natalia is currently supporting them.
Natalia’s sadness was heartbreaking for me to hear and write about, yet so very heartwarming at the same time. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the far-reaching devastating effects of war, especially at Christmas time. But it’s heartwarming and inspiring to learn of someone so devoted to helping those in need. It’s heartwarming that Natalia/Natasha is helping make Christmas more joyful and a bit brighter. Most importantly, it’s heartwarming to know that at least some Ukrainians will be safe and warm this Christmas.