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

‘Our despair is gone’: As conflicts overseas rage, Thrive International adapts to help more refugees find a new life in Spokane

Yana and Kyrylo Kish, from Mariupol, Ukraine, arrived at the front doors to Spokane’s Thrive International last weekend.

“This doesn’t feel like a dormitory, hotel or other temporary housing,” Yana Kish said through a translator. “We feel like we walked into a home.”

The two arrived in Palm Coast, Florida, a year ago where they stayed with a Ukrainian American family. Back home, the two worked as K-9 unit police officers, but they struggled to find jobs in America.

When Yana Kish learned she was pregnant, she knew they needed a change.

After two weeks spent on the wait list and some 2,700 miles of driving to Spokane, the two arrived at the front doors of the old Quality Inn building.

“We were in despair,” Kyrylo Kish said. “But here, because everyone is so warm and welcoming – our despair is gone.”

Other journeys similar to the Kishes’ have been common at Thrive since its founding in February 2022 – the same month Russia invaded Ukraine.

Typically, residents of the ex-hotel comprise Ukrainians.

About 90% of the 200-some residents are from Ukraine but that figure is decreasing.

The nonprofit has begun to accept more refugees from other countries including Afghanistan, Venezuela and some in the Middle East.

Nasri Blakho is one of them.

Broadening reach

“My family and I are comfortable here,” Blakho said in Arabic, through an interpreter. “We feel saved.”

What the United Nations Refugee Agency calls the biggest refugee crisis in history, more than 14 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes since the country descended into civil war in 2011.

Blakho, accompanied by his wife, Roulah Hajmoussa, and his three children, first fled to neighboring Jordan before arriving in Los Angeles about six months ago.

Three months later, they were welcomed by Thrive. Since September, they have leased and lived in a nearby apartment.

Blakho is emotional about the life he left behind.

“I lost my mom, my sister, my brother, my friends and all of the history I had,” he said. “I lost my life.”

In the wake of great loss, he is unwavering.

“I have to go on for the sake of my children,” he said. “We had to work for it, but we have a home here and have found happiness. Now we will start a new life and become stable.”

With help from Thrive and other immigration agencies, Blakho is acclimating to life in the Lilac City.

“My wife and I have jobs, we pay bills, we are saving for a car,” Blakho said. “We are responsible for ourselves.”

His two daughters and son are doing well, too.

“They like this program. They have made friends through the different activities here and have enrolled in high school,” he said. “They feel like they are part of this community.”

Blakho and his wife have formed relationships as well. They have met other practicing Muslims and families from Syria, but he hopes to meet more people.

“I encourage myself to know this entire community,” he said. “We should become friends with a variety of people and learn to respect each other.”

The father of three declined to talk about how Thrive has helped him.

“I don’t want to cry,” he said. “It is like that English saying about fishing: They didn’t give me a fish, they taught me how to.”

The change to take a more diverse group of refugees is purely due to coincidence and circumstance, according to Mark Finney, executive director at Thrive.

When Thrive began, Finney believed Ukrainians were most in need.

“There’s different statutes that immigrants can come to America under, and the Ukrainians came through a category that was initially more limited in things that they get access to,” he said. “For example, most of those who first came were facing a six-month wait before they could get work authorization.”

Ukrainian refugee immigration is less restricted now, Finney said.

“Now, they are getting broader public support, so that’s partially why we’re shifting to provide more of our resources and housing to other communities.”

But welcoming a more diverse cohort of refugees is not a simple task.

Previously, Anna Bondarenko, the nonprofit’s Russian- and English-speaking general manager, was first contact with most new residents. Her language skills, though, are limited to Slovic countries.

If resident populations are diversifying, so must the Thrive staff, which Finney recognizes.

“We recently saw more women from Afghanistan that started to connect with our program,” Finney said. “We found a couple of folks from within the Afghan community that were already recognized as leaders and were happy to join us.”

Just since July, the nonprofit began making an intentional effort to make room for refugees from different countries.

“I think we have at least one or two people from each of the major languages that we anticipate the largest numbers of refugees coming from in the next couple of years,” Finney said. “We want to make sure that we take our time expanding. Every culture presents unique opportunities and challenges.”

When the nonprofit was started, there were just five employees including Finney. Now, there are 23.

But the Thrive building was a hotel, not an office. Adequate working space for the growing number of employees has been limited.

Community aid

Every year, all of Spokane’s credit unions come together to volunteer at or donate to a local organization.

“We call it time and treasure,” said Kathleen Schilb, Horizon Credit Union community engagement manager.

Schilb helped organize the event that pooled over 100 volunteers to renovate the old hotel.

“It was a very joyful day,” she said. “We came to help and they knew exactly what was needed.”

Improvement efforts had four areas of focus: winterizing the exterior, including the community garden; painting over drab, antiquated wallpaper; organizing community donations; and demolishing an area previously used as a bar and dining hall to become administrative offices.

“The basement was wall-to-wall stuff,” Schilb said. “They’re so busy serving the community, they don’t have time to organize.”

The basement was packed with donations from the community, including bicycles, sporting goods, clothing and more.

Volunteers installed 40 shelving units.

Now that the dining hall and bar is cleared, she said a contractor will be hired to build desks for the nonprofit’s workers.

Improvements to the building will help Finney pursue ideas to grow the organization into an economic force.

“I would love to find ways to partner with builders, construction companies or homeowners associations to create a track for newly arriving refugees into the skilled trades,” Finney said.

“Part of our housing shortage is because we don’t have enough skilled laborers; it’s a huge pinch point in the industry right now,” he said. “If we can track refugees in those fields, that can be a part of the solution.”

Finney has begun discussion with construction and subcontracting companies.

“I haven’t cracked the nut on that piece yet, but that’s one of the pieces that I dream about,” he said.

According to Finney, the Thrive team works closely with local organizations to fill gaps in the Spokane labor force.

Providence Sacred Heart recruits Thrive residents to do entry-level jobs like custodial work and has helped to get them certified as nursing assistants.

Numerous construction companies in town are owned by Slovak people and recruit help as well, Finney said. This is the work Kyrylo Kish is doing.

After a workshop held by representatives from Super 8, the hotel company hired eight people on the spot, Finney said.

Other hotels work with Thrive to fill vacant hospitality positions, including the Davenport Hotel, which hired Blakho and Hajmoussa.

This is why it is great to have a pipeline of refugees in a city, according to Finney.

“A lot of people look at refugee immigration as a zero-sum game,” he said. “But that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.”

“You bring a refugee in here and you’re not giving away a slice of the pie, you’re bringing somebody else in who can build a bigger pie for all of us. And it’s really fun to work in that space.”

Finney is also working to build more transitional housing. Plans haven’t been finalized, but he said sometime in 2025, a 44-unit development will be constructed.

“By owning and managing our own apartment buildings, we can keep our costs low and can just run apartments like a business would,” Finney said. “That would be a really fun thing to announce, once that is signed and sealed, because that would be amazing for the community.”

As Thrive continues to grow, so will Spokane’s refugee population.

Blakho has some advice for them.

“When you come, expect different people, different traditions and costumes – accept them,” he said. “This is your new life.”

“You will get financial help from the government but don’t rely on it. When you become financially independent, you will believe in yourself and find confidence in your abilities.”