Thrive International empowers immigrant communities
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
Considering the theme, "Caring for our Common Home, Now and Forever," Thrive Center executive director Mark Finney asked attendees of his recent workshop at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference what they do when someone shows up on their doorstep.
"We might be tempted to turn them away because there's not enough room in our home. Sometimes, as somebody shows up, we realize they might not have home to return to and by virtue of being someone who has a home, there's a responsibility to decide what to do with folks who might need to share our space for a while," he suggested.
Mark founded Thrive International in February 2022 with the vision of seeing every immigrant in Spokane thrive.
"Spokane is a community where that can happen. We seek to empower multicultural communities to thrive. Empowerment makes a difference," he said in a workshop on "Spo-kraine: Geopolitics and Local Impacts."
Thrive launched before the war in Ukraine, so they didn't anticipate that situation. As that evolved, 100s of Ukrainian families arrived in Spokane. None were eligible to work because the government hadn't provided work authorization, so they were homeless and without income.
In June, Thrive moved into the former Quality Inn on E. 4th Ave., and had 123 furnished rooms of housing to offer Ukrainian and other refugees.
Beyond that, Thrive works with faith communities and other groups to catalyze building more affordable housing, a major challenge in the region.
In exploring the global refugee crisis, Mark reflected on regions that have created the most refugees—Ukraine, Syria and Myanmar. He noted that in 1991 there were 40 million displaced people. By 2021, numbers increased to 80 million people. Now there are 89.3 million. The war in Ukraine added 12 million, making more than 100 million people displaced.
"One of every 87 human beings on the planet is homeless. Many have been chased out of their countries. That is a staggering number," Mark said.
"It's not just an issue that affects politicians making decisions in Washington, D.C., but also it is something that engages all of us, because the scale of the problem can only be addressed if every community recognizes we have a share in this. We must own and choose how to respond to some piece of this," he said.
In March 2022, Mark heard from Slavic friends that Ukrainian refugees were showing up in Spokane after flying from Poland or Eastern Europe to Mexico, where they received a visa on arrival. Some went to the border with Ukrainian documents. Border patrol stamped "humanitarian parole," giving them a year of temporary status.
They came to cities like Spokane with large Slavic populations. Eventually tens of thousands flew to Mexico, crossing the border to the U.S. In April 2022, the U.S. government said, "This is not sustainable."
It called for change and now requires someone in the U.S. to sign documents to sponsor people before they fly directly here through "United for Ukraine."
By November, an estimated 2,000 Ukrainians—of 80,000 coming to the U.S. since the war—had come to Spokane. Mark expects up to 2,000 more will arrive in Spokane in 2023.
In recent years, refugee resettlement agencies in Spokane helped resettle 600 refugees a year. The number arriving in Spokane now is nearly five times the number five years ago, he said.
"To understand how we view refugees, it is important to know how policy makers frame the situation," he said.
"Do we see refugees as competitors, objects of compassion or co-creators?" Mark asked.
"As competitors, refugees seem to compete with us for scarce resources, land, jobs or money," he said, telling of taking a photo of a Rohingya refugee woman and her child while visiting the biggest refugee camp in Cox Bazar in Bangladesh.
The expression on her face invited Mark to reflect on who he is, not just who she is. He wondered how she and her child would be viewed if they came to Spokane: Would they be seen as taking scarce resources, money from WIC, a seat in a classroom? Are they two more mouths to feed with limited resources?
He encountered them in a camp in Bangladesh, where the same number of people who live in the U.S. live in an area the size of Washington State. The government receives some of the aid money to support people who live in the camps, so there is incentive to keep them there, said Mark, who has worked 19 years in community and faith-based nonprofits, focusing since 2016 on refugees displaced by war, violence and persecution.
Another view is to see refugees as objects of compassion.
"My faith tradition from Scripture and Jesus' teachings tells me that part of my responsibility is to care for people, to love my neighbor," he said. "I view refugees as people deserving compassion.
"One challenge is that compassion lacks stamina. Often, even countries that are initially compassionate end up with compassion fatigue," he said.
Viewing refugees with the lens of compassion makes the most sense in a quick-and-easy media society, he said.
Another approach is to view refugees as creators, contributors and innovators.
"We need to see that people bring value. This comes from my faith tradition. It is shared with multiple faith traditions that view humans as inherently made in the image of the Creator," Mark said. "If we are made in the image of the Creator, then we are also creators. We are here to contribute something, not just to consume.
Lydia Pauline, who came as a refugee child to Spokane, is now the manager of Thrive Center, sharing how she uses the language she has spoken since childhood and her experience crossing international boundaries and cultures to serve the recent wave of refugees.
Mark said refugee issues are too often one of the last priorities for lawmakers, because they don't vote or have super PACS.
At the federal level, the Afghan Adjustment Act has stalled in Congress. It would give Afghans with humanitarian parole status a pathway to be permanent residents and eventually citizens. Many Afghans have been here one-and-a-half years.
In the Spokane area, there are at least 500 Afghans out of more than 60,000 throughout the U.S., who would not be able to safely return to their country because the Taliban is in power.
Many at the Thrive Center came from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where most structures—schools, hospitals, churches, workplaces and homes—are rubble, said Mark. It's still a war zone. The people will not be able to go back for years.
It's important at the federal level to create pathways to citizenship for the Ukrainian refugees, he said.
Federal and state funding are issues. Thrive Center received funding from Washington's Commerce Department and multi-sector partnerships of local nonprofits, faith communities, businesses and government.
"We have the ingredients to continue funding in Spokane and need to make sure our legislators keep their eyes on these issues because, once buildings stop being blown up in front of TV cameras, media tend to assume people grow tired of the same stories and refugee issues fall off the map," Mark commented. "We need to continue asking state and federal representatives to provide appropriations for refugees and immigrants."
Mark urges people in faith and nonprofit communities to contact their representatives and city leaders to continue funding for Ukrainians.
Volunteering with Thrive and other refugee organizations helps people make their appeal personal, based on their experiences and relationships, Mark said, encouraging people who travel internationally to meet refugees.
He invites people to make refugees part of their story and then tell that story.
For information, call 553-5606 or visit thriveint.org/thrive-center.