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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

More Africans flee persecution for Inland Northwest

Virginia De Leon Staff writer

Over the years, the Inland Northwest has become home to thousands of refugees from all over the world.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, many arrived from Vietnam, where they escaped gunfire, violence and death.

A decade later, when the progressive policies of glasnost and perestroika opened the borders of the former Soviet Union, evangelical Christians flocked to Spokane seeking religious freedom.

While the vast majority of refugees who end up here today are still from Ukraine, Russia and other former Soviet republics, a growing number are coming from the war-torn nations of Africa.

In 2003, 11 Africans moved to Spokane with the help of World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. Last year, that number grew to 68 – about 20 percent of the nonprofit organization’s caseload.

While all refugees struggle with culture shock and language difficulties, the change is especially difficult for those who come from Africa, some say.

Unlike many of the Russian-speaking refugees who usually have family and friends already living in the area, those from Liberia, Congo and other parts of Africa often are the first from their countries to move here. When they arrive, they don’t have the ethnic grocery stores, translators and other support systems that exist for Southeast Asians and other immigrant communities that have been in the Inland Northwest for years.

Many African refugees also stand out more in Spokane because of the color of their skin.

“There’s a lot of confusion and loneliness,” said Agwa Taka, who moved to Spokane from Ethiopia 15 years ago. “American culture is very hard to understand and difficult to get used to.”

For many years, Taka rarely met other Africans in Spokane. The few who resettled in this area ended up moving to Seattle, Portland and other cities with larger African populations, he said.

To help them adjust to life in the United States and to encourage them to stay in Spokane, Taka started bringing the few Africans in the area together. He and Evaristo Mulindangwe, a Rwandan refugee, started a group now known as the African Support Team.

With help from World Relief, they’ve been able to help diversify Spokane by fostering a growing African community.

Shared history

Even if they don’t speak the same language or come from the same parts of the continent, they share a history of persecution in their native countries and often epic stories of escape. And they all have the same challenge: starting all over in a completely foreign environment.

Many are taken aback by the wealth of this country, the new rules they have to follow and the go-go-go lifestyle of many Americans, Taka said.

He and many others from Africa grew up in communities where people took care of one another’s children, left their doors unlocked and shared pretty much everything, including food and tools to fix the houses. Here in the United States, people draw boundaries and are much more private and individualistic, Taka said. Deals are made by signing papers, not by simple handshakes.

Through the support team, refugees have been able to give one another practical advice – where to shop for groceries, how to use the bus system, the wisdom of refraining from making too many long-distance phone calls. They’ve also been able to retain their cultural and ethnic identities, which has become a priority as their children quickly assimilate into American society.

New challenges

Every wave of refugees inevitably brings its own set of challenges, especially to the agencies that help resettle them.

“Working with new refugees is working with the human condition,” said David Holter, executive director of World Relief’s Spokane office. “You are going to be dealing with situations you’ve never dealt with before.”

In the past 10 years, World Relief has resettled thousands of people of different ethnicities, religious backgrounds and cultures. In addition to resettling 331 refugees last year, the local office found jobs for more than 130, provided social services to at least 250 and helped roughly 1,000 people as they dealt with immigration issues. That’s an increase of about 25 percent over previous years.

Working with such a diverse population takes dedicated volunteers.

“Information and empowerment doesn’t happen in 30 days,” Holter said. “It takes a lifetime. We always need people who are willing to become cultural interpreters of American lifestyle, behavior and laws …

“As an American citizen, I’m proud that we offer the opportunity of freedom to those who are oppressed.”

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