Gheorghe and Elena Turcin fled Romania for the United States in 1982. They ended up in Spokane, sponsored by a church. They knew no English, received public assistance and lived in a poor section of town.
Despite their circumstances, they attended college and worked full time. Now, more than a decade later, Elena is a nurse and Gheorghe works for Washington state as a community corrections officer. They have built a home in a nice section of Spokane. Gheorghe helped with the labor.
He has a message for the more than 3,000 Russian-speaking immigrants who have moved to Spokane in the last six years. “Look at welfare as a steppingstone only. Focus on a certain career. Integrate into the community. Learn the language.”
The Russian-speaking immigrants’ “journey of faith” has been recounted in two special sections in our newspaper. The final installment runs today. They are the city’s largest immigrant group, yet remain relatively unknown. Because exposure has been limited, the new immigrants have yet to be stereotyped as burden or blessing.
This is a pivotal time for the immigrants. They will either be woven into Spokane, or they will be resented as a drain on the stressed social service system. Between 640 and 800 Russian adults and children live on public assistance. They have large families; payments and benefits can exceed more than $1,000 a month. Under communism, jobs were handed to them. Some have said: “Just show me where I can work for $15 or $20 an hour and I will go to work.”
Now is the time for the message to get out to the newcomers that, like it or not, the Inland Northwest suffers from compassion fatigue. Welfare reform is a priority for many, not just a Scrooge-like few. If the immigrants come in expecting to be taken care of, they are setting themselves up for rejection.
The immigrants and the church groups sponsoring them must peer back in history to the successful paths other immigrants have walked in Spokane. Read about the Italians, Irish, Japanese, Chinese who filtered in early in this century. They took whatever jobs they could. They put their entire family to work. They learned the language. They sacrificed to educate their children.
Granted, there are not as many unskilled, good-paying jobs now as then. The railroads are all built. But service jobs exist, as do opportunities to learn English, to pursue education the way Gheorghe and Elena Turcin did.
Spokane has a unique opportunity to learn the culture and traditions of our Russian-speaking newcomers, and to help as they adjust. We will all be richer for it. But it is up to the immigrants to set the tone, for the relationship and for the future.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Rebecca Nappi/For the editorial board