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Manzanita House equips immigrants to grow roots in Spokane

Brielle Balazs, Samantha Walters and Patricia Castaneda stand beside art of manzanita plant. Photo courtesy of Manzanita House

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

In its first year, the staff of the recently incorporated Manzanita House in Spokane have worked hard to accomplish their mission "to embrace, equip and empower immigrants through access to culturally informed essential services and facilitate connections to grow deeper roots and thrive in Spokane."

Inspired by the resilience of the manzanita plant that withstands and thrives in the wake of wildfires, Spokane organizers chose the name Manzanita House because they both see and seek to nurture resiliency in the immigrant community.

What has this meant?

Building on personal experiences and experiences working with World Relief, Manzanita House included two refugees on its initial board of directors.

Three others have become staff members. Patricia Castaneda, an immigrant on the original board, is the executive director. Brielle Balazs is the development director, and Samuel Smith is the immigration attorney and the director of Manzanita Immigrant Legal Aid.

Other staff members are Estella Orellana, an immigrant from Mexico working as a Department of Justice accredited representative, Daryoosh Kabeen, an immigrant from Afghanistan working as administrative specialist with Samuel, and Samantha Walters, the language program coordinator with Lamyaa Mohhamad from Iraq, who is the Arabic lead teacher.

They operate out of second-floor offices they rent from Knox Presbyterian Church in North Central Spokane.

The board quickly identified three gaps in services for refugees and immigrants: legal aid, culturally appropriate access to needed services, and community outreach to ensure that immigrants and refugees have the resources needed to live in Spokane.

In a little over a year of operation, they have developed four programs to respond to what the immigrant and refugee community identified as needs.

"We have legal aid, of course, and then community outreach activities, our language program and a program entitled Cultural Education and Implementation Program," Patricia said.

They continue to recruit volunteers to help with activities. 

Three of the programs—legal aid, language education and community outreach—are now in operation.

Brielle first highlighted their legal aid program. Recently they became officially a Department of Justice-accredited organization, which means Manzanita Immigrant Legal Aid will be able to help more clients with their immigration cases. It also is now offering Citizenship Assistance, available for free to many clients through a new grant.

As of January, with one immigration attorney and one paralegal, they served 385 persons from 49 countries, more than one quarter of them being new arrivals from Afghanistan.

"The cost has been one-fourth to one-third of what these services would normally have cost," she pointed out.

They also have partnered with others to offer multiple asylum clinics and workshops that several hundred people have attended.

Second, Patricia explained their unique language program.

Instead of teaching English, they teach children of refugees and immigrants their heritage language.

As families with young children arrive, the children begin to attend school and make new friends. The children quickly learn English and begin to assimilate into their new culture, Patricia said. 

As time progresses, the children lose their ability to understand their parents' language and become less able to communicate in that language, leading to communication difficulties within the family compounded by cultural differences.

"This past summer we had a pilot program of eight weeks for Arabic at the Northeast Community Center, run completely by volunteers," she said. "When the eight weeks were over, the participants asked: 'When are we going to start again?' So, we knew the pilot was a success and we had a good thing going."

They held a second Arabic language program early in January 2023, enrolling 36 children in Arabic speaking families. Those attending were from six countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Libya.

Growing out of that program, Women's Teatime was born as a space for mothers, grandmothers and all women from the Arabic speaking communities to be together. It is a welcoming space to practice conversational English, hear from community partners and access resources—creating connections, building community and strengthening families.

Further, because they plan now to expand the program to other languages, such as Dari and Pashto for Afghani immigrants, and Karen for immigrants from Myanmar and Thailand, they have also hired Samantha as the language program coordinator to ensure the program's quality.

Their third program is community outreach, which has been done in partnership with other organizations in Spokane that work with immigrants and refugees: Thrive Center, Refugee and Immigrant Connections and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

With these organizations and others, they held a collaborative coat drive to give away more than 700 coats.

Activities they use to help new arrivals feel welcome include resource fairs, a soccer tournament for young people and community block parties.

"We support any humanitarian or family-based immigration services for immigrants and refugees," Brielle said.

Patricia described the fourth program Manzanita House is developing—the Cultural Education and Implementation Program (CEIP). 

"We want to work with partners in Spokane to assure that those who serve immigrants and refugees are culturally informed in ways that allow their services to be truly beneficial to their clients," she pointed out.

To this end they will be working with CHAS community health clinics to provide education and resources.

"It is not enough to simply provide language translation," Patricia said. "We also need to be sure that what happens is culturally appropriate."

As a startup organization working with immigrants and refugees, Manzanita House has received significant funding from grants and private donors, such as the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund.

Group Health Foundation has awarded a three-year grant for operations allowing Manzanita House to hire permanent staff.

The Washington State Bar Association has assisted with their legal aid operations.

Avista helped them offer their pilot Arabic class last summer.

The Department of Health supported their efforts at COVID outreach and education to immigrant and refugee communities.

Patricia expressed gratitude to these organizations for helping the immigrant and refugee communities of Spokane have the services they need "to become productive and happy in their new country."

Patricia grew up in a family with eight children in Venezuela. She came into this work because she was an immigrant who left Venezuela in 1997. She first lived for five years in England.

"I always wanted to help people," she said. "I started in tourism, helping people with travel. Then I earned a bachelor's degree in business, including management and marketing."

From England, she went to Florida and North Carolina.

"In each place, I started nonprofits to help Spanish-speaking people have a better life and become good citizens," said Patricia, who has earned a certificate of leadership from Gonzaga since coming to Spokane.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2023