When immigrants and refugees arrive in Spokane, often they can struggle to make connections in their new community. This can be especially true for young people, who find themselves in a school system they don’t understand, speaking a language that is foreign to them.
Gonzaga Prep junior Neharika Sharma and a group of teenagers around the world are hoping to ease that struggle by connecting recent immigrants to local residents through a new nonprofit they founded called Youth Bringing Immigrants Together (YBIT).
Students from the United States and Ukraine were invited to participate in a boot camp hosted by Global Youth Entrepreneurs. There, Sharma was teamed up with Larry Huang, a Taiwanese immigrant living in Vancouver, Washington, Daria Malevka from France and Barbara Potochevska from Ukraine.
Soon, they realized they all had something in common: a family experience with immigration. This inspired them to create a nonprofit organization dedicated to matching local residents with immigrants and refugees to help smooth their transition.
YBIT was selected as the Global Youth Entrepreneur nonprofit competition winner. This competition attracts hundreds of applicants from all over the world.
Students in the United States and Ukraine were paired in groups of four to compete for a $1,000 grant and the opportunity to receive financial advice from Nike CFO Mehran Nikko and former Microsoft VP Dan’l Lewin.
That’s how Sharma, Huang, Malevka and Potochevska connected. Using their shared family experience with immigration, they pitched a nonprofit that pairs locals with immigrants and refugees to make their transition smoother.
“We had to create business pitches, financial and business plans in a week, and it was overwhelming with time differences,” because two of the founders lived in Ukraine, Sharma said.
“Some of us did not have enough time to sleep because the competition was non-stop,” Potochevska added.
Sharma said the group didn’t know the financial aspect of business, so when they were given $1,000, they didn’t know how to use it. As a result, the Nike CFO and Microsoft VP told YBIT about how to start a nonprofit, register it with the government and properly distribute funds.
Not long after YBIT won the grant, COVID-19 took the world by storm. However, this roadblock benefited the building of their nonprofit. It saved the group a lot of money, as they built a positive reputation through social media.
Sharma’s parents immigrated from India to Spokane. She is a junior at Gonzaga Prep and enjoys participating in musical theater and Indian classical dancing. She said that the process took her family about 13 years to immigrate to the United States. In understanding how difficult and taxing this process is for so many, Sharma sought to make this transition easier, especially for families.
When she began working with YBIT, Sharma was surprised to discover that, unlike herself, most immigrants are quick to abandon their culture to assimilate into American life.
“If I had left my culture behind,” she said, “half my life would be gone.”
She said that she tries to prevent this assimilation by posting topics on Instagram that mentees can discuss with their mentors. One week, she instructed mentees to share a recipe native to their culture with their mentors. With this program, Sharma hopes to encourage teens to embrace their uniqueness.
Huang immigrated to Vancouver from Taiwan when he was 3 years old. Huang said that because his family spoke Mandarin Chinese, he struggled to surmount the language barrier. His school enrolled him in the English as a Second Language course, which prompted a difficult adjustment to an unfamiliar environment.
“Facing the language barrier was hard for me. So I signed up for this (Global Youth Enterprises) innovation boot camp and met the YBIT team and from there found this common story in this field,” Huang said.
The team decided the nonprofit would target teens who are desperate to find a home in the community.
“With the stress and responsibilities adults have to carry, it is easy for teens to feel lost in the equation,” Huang said.
Afghan families who fled their homes are continuing to arrive in Spokane as the Taliban gains ground following America’s withdrawal. Sharma said YBIT is “absolutely” looking for opportunities to help out Afghan refugees.
When an immigrant family files their paperwork, they read about resources designed to assist their transition. YBIT presents on immigration agency paperwork as a youth resource. This advertisement is the reason YBIT hosts operations in over 55 nations.
“The language barrier is the most challenging obstacle facing immigrants and refugees,” said Jackson Lino, director of youth programs at World Relief.
All four co-founders echoed Lino’s statement, saying easing the language barrier is YBIT’s top priority. Meeting with a mentor each week allows mentees to become familiar with the language of their new home and provides a unique opportunity for teens to pick up on phrases, slang and nuances to the language they’re learning.
Ahmed Hassan participated in YBIT’s refugee mentee/mentor program. Hassan recently moved from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine to study at university and is no stranger to moving countries. He was born in Germany and has also lived in Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
He said the YBIT team set him up with a buddy and they instantly connected.
“We shared a lot of cultural knowledge and gained a good amount of new things,” Hassan said. “We also both knew different languages, so we also practiced that together.”
In this mentorship, Hassan said he found a place to share his experience and realized that YBIT participants “are one family with the same goals.”
After finishing his mentorship, Hassan was asked to stay on as a volunteer.
“We are doing our best to give the youth any support they need and to help them get involved with any new environment they are in,” he said.
In an attempt to ease communication, the mentors need to be at least bilingual. Huang is the Chinese head of language, Sharma the Hindi head, Malevka the French and Potochevska the Ukrainian.
Aside from fluency in languages, YBIT looks for teenagers who are personable, kind and excited to learn about another culture.
Potochevska lives in central Ukraine and plans to study at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in fall. She understands the hardships that come with immigration because she watched her brother immigrate to Australia. She said the process was “really stressful” for everyone involved.
“For migrants, it is a big cultural difference,” she said. “Just for me, communication with Americans is sometimes hard for me, and sometimes I don’t understand (their) mentality.”
YBIT is excited to welcome a new batch of mentees and mentors for the 2021-22 school year. Their mentee application form is open to youth refugees and immigrants . Applications to become a mentor are closed, but teenagers are welcome to reach out to YBIT for how they can be of assistance. Visit YBIT online at ybitinternational.wixsite.com/ybit.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.