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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Difference Makers: Once in the same situation, Anna Bondarenko aids Ukrainian refugees seeking new life in Spokane

Assistant manager Anna Bondarenko works tirelessly for the Thrive Center and the Ukrainian Relief Coalition to help refugees fleeing their war-torn countries to settle in Spokane. She is photographed at the Thrive Center on Dec. 12.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The Ukrainian refugees staying at the Thrive Center always know who to call.

Need help translating an immigration document? Call Anna.

Headed to urgent care? Bring Anna.

A group of teenagers who want to embark on an adventure to see Christmas lights? Anna will take you.

Anna Bondarenko is the assistant manager at the Thrive Center, a hotel run by the nonprofit Thrive International, where refugees, mostly Ukrainians, stay while transitioning to life in Spokane.

Bondarenko, 34, fled religious persecution in the 1990s as the former Soviet Union fell apart. Her family followed relatives to Spokane from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

She remembers arriving to a “beautiful fall” and adjusting to her new life relatively quickly. She has a natural gift for languages, struggling not with English, but with math, at Roosevelt Elementary School.

Learning English so quickly made her the de facto “tongue” of the family, as she translated for her parents.

In high school, she took on Running Start classes and a job at World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency. She began working as a receptionist but quickly was drawn in to the work the agency did resettling refugees.

She became the assistant for the immigration attorney on staff. When the attorney left, Bondarenko became a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited representative, which allowed her to represent clients before the Department of Homeland Security.

She connected with the refugees, having such a similar experience.

“I’ve been there, done that, and I know how you feel,” Bondarenko said she would tell her clients.

Sharing her story and experiences while working with other refugees was a way to show them the path through their current pain and struggle, she said.

In 2014, Bondarenko left World Relief to pursue a degree in political science at Whitworth University. Not long after graduation, she took over as director of what was then Refugee Connections, another resettlement agency in Spokane.

While she loved her work, Bondarenko was ready for a new experience. She moved to the Czech Republic as a volunteer teaching English and helping Russian-speaking people. During her time oversees, she worked in Ukraine at orphanages and at times in prisons, serving where she could.

When she returned to the United States in 2019, she worked in public service jobs.

Then, early this year, Russia attacked Ukraine. Despite not having worked with refugees in years, Bondarenko’s family and friends called asking for her help.

In early March, a family friend asked Bondarenko to come help her relatives who crossed the Mexico border into the United States after fleeing the war and ending up in Spokane.

That family was the first of many to seek refuge in Spokane from the war tearing apart their homeland.

By March 25, Bondarenko was attending meetings of local church leaders, which would morph into the Ukraine Relief Coalition. As she called her friends in government and nonprofit work, it became clear – no one yet had a plan or money to help these refugees.

“Nobody had funding to help people who were crossing the border,” Bondarenko said. “Nobody was there to kind of cover the gap.”

So Bondarenko stepped up.

She created a channel called “Spokane Welcomes You” on the social media app Viber, where she posted resources and Google Doc forms, and matched people with families willing to take them in.

She helped to organize three immigration workshops in March and April to update people on ever-changing government policies.

It was the data and stories from her Viber group that helped the coalition and the recently founded nonprofit, Thrive International, apply for a Washington State Department of Commerce grant. The nonprofit received $1 million.

Part of that money went to opening the Thrive Center. Families began moving in to the hotel in June, where they stay in hotel suites at a fraction of the market rate.

Bondarenko was hired as the assistant manager not long after. She doesn’t perform the typical tasks of a hotel assistant manager. Her job is much bigger and more personal than that.

She will hop on a 6 a.m. call to translate for someone pursuing an expedited work visa, only to help someone locked out of their room after midnight.

She spends so much time at work, Thrive set aside a room for her to ensure she gets some sleep. Her main focus is supporting the residents of the hotel.

“I sometimes feel like I live here,” Bondarenko joked.

She resolves conflict, puts in place processes for things including laundry or parking, organizes community events, keeps the dozens of children living there in line, runs the house group chat, answers immigration questions and is everyone’s go-to translator.

“She is extremely hard-working,” said Lidia Pauline, the general manager of the Thrive Center.

Bondarenko always makes time for moments of meaning, Pauline said.

Last month, after a 12-hour-plus day setting up and attending Thrive’s fundraising gala, a group of teenagers who live at the hotel begged Bondarenko to take them to see nearby Christmas lights.

Still in her heels, Bondarenko was exhausted, she told Pauline, but decided to go.

“Their parents trust Anna,” Pauline said.

If Bondarenko says she’ll take the teens, they can go; if not, they have to stay at the hotel, Pauline said.

Thirty minutes later, Bondarenko was texting Pauline videos of the frolicking teens.

“I would not be experiencing this moment right now if I did not say yes,” Bondarenko told Pauline.

The impact on those teens’ lives is immeasurable, Pauline said.

“She definitely blows me away because she just truly invests in people,” Pauline said.

Thrive International, which was founded by former World Relief Director Mark Finney early this year, was just getting started when the war in Ukraine broke out. Taking on a project as big as the Thrive Center was a huge stretch, said Marshall McLean, communications director.

Bondarenko is one of the key people who makes it all work, McLean said.

“There’s a personal level to her work, like this is a job, you know, but it’s really not. It’s more than that,” McLean said. “It’s kind of the reason why this is working as well as it is, because we have an Anna here, somebody that really embodies the work that we’re doing.”

For Bondarenko, the last year has been one of the best of her life. She’s able to give the experience of finding freedom and safety in Spokane to a new wave of refugees.

“My destiny is to help, to live, to love and to serve,” Bondarenko said. “If I can make somebody’s day better today, then tomorrow is probably going to be a lot brighter.”

How to help the Thrive Center

Thrive Center is located at 110 E. 4th Ave. in Spokane, 99202.

Donations can be made online or via mail.

Learn more about Thrive International at