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Classes, tours, workshops and events help integrate refugees into community

Marijke Fakasiieiki introduces refugees to resources.

After 90 days in Spokane, most refugees are housed, in school and have jobs, but many still need to be oriented to and integrated into the community and culture.

Then Refugee Connections Spokane steps in to guide refugees for long-term needs, identifying what they still need to participate more fully in life here.

With relationship-building key, it recruits volunteers to connect with refugees and immigrants.

“Our goals are 1) to teach English so they feel comfortable to interact with people day-to-day; 2) to provide resources so they thrive in their new country, not just survive, and 3) to help them be independent in transportation, shopping, resources and awareness,” said Marijke Fakasiieiki, who began as executive director last August.

Refugee Connections seeks to improve access to resources, train refugees for leadership, organize community activities, advocate for refugees, educate service providers, translate health records, teach refugees about laws, raise community awareness and offer opportunities to connect refugees with the community.

Its programs include Refugee Elder Outreach, English classes, Refugee Kids Connection, Informational Workshops, an American Law and Justice Workshop, Patient Passports and a Harvest Project.

Marijke, who grew up in Spokane but has studied, lived and worked abroad, brings a passion for global understanding.

Global connections were part of her childhood in Fresno, Tekoa and Spokane.  She also studied in Germany and Switzerland, and attended assemblies of the World Council of Churches in 1983 in Vancouver, B.C., 1991 in Canberra, Australia, and 1998 in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

Her global ties led to her relating with the Tongan community for 20 years in the San Francisco area, including meeting her husband, Ikani.  They moved to Spokane after he earned a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union in 2015.

With Refugee Connections, Marijke helps refugees, especially elders, adapt to life in Spokane through cross-cultural experiences, elder services, community tours and workshops.

When refugees make friends, there are more people to advocate for policies to improve their lives, she said.

“Every wave of immigrants and refugees over the more than 200-year U.S. history has stirred discrimination,” Marijke said. 

With the recent upsurge in hate, Marijke listened to concerns when a group of refugees was coming to a gathering at the Community Building and a woman yelled at them and told them to go home.  Marijke encouraged them to share their experience so they would feel safe coming for events.

Refugee Connections welcomes them and wants them to feel at home. 

“Refugees came here because they were persecuted in their homelands based on race, religion or politics, or they helped U.S. troops in war,” said Marijke.  “It’s important to respect their dignity and challenge backlash.”

Especially for elders who may have had limited or no formal education, “it’s important for those who interact with them to learn to say, ‘hello,’ and other simple basic words in their languages, along with teaching English,” she said. 

“With the elders, we are like a senior center, immersing them in our culture,” said Marijke, who interacts with refugees as she drives them in a STA-donated van for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, workshops and field trips.

There are four English classes a month, two with the Karen, Nepali and Arabic speakers and two with the Slavic speakers.  There are 12 students in each class—the number the van holds.

The English classes include cultural and civic content, which is planned three months ahead so they can use the vocabulary they are learning for workshops and field trips.

“In classes, students are encouraged to talk about their home cultures and life experiences,” Marijke said.

She explained that most of the elders here are 60 years or younger, because older people did not survive fleeing or the refugee camps, and because of shorter life expectancy in their homelands.”

Many are 50-year-old grandparents taking care of grandchildren.  Grants, however, are often based on the U.S. life span and are for those 60 or older.

Workshops are held at the Community Building—35 W. Main—where Refugee Connections Spokane has an office.

Four cross-cultural interpreters translate for workshops and tours. Refugee Connections Spokane partners with Gonzaga University and Spokane International Translation to offer a Medical Translator/Interpreter Course to certify volunteers through the Department of Social and Health Services so refugees can better communicate their needs to service providers.

Marijke described some recent workshops and field trips:

In October, SNAP told them about energy assistance and conservation to prepare for winter. Visiting Manito Park, they learned about the importance of parks here.

“In the rose garden, one woman became sad as gardeners gave her and others flowers they were clipping at the end of the season,” Marijke said.  “In Iraq, she had had a rose garden.  It touched her pain of losing her garden, but gave her hope with the realization that we have roses and gardens here.”

In November, Frontier Behavioral Health discussed dressing warmly, shoveling sidewalks and seasonal depression.  The Spokane Salish School told about language preservation.

In a tour of St. John’s Cathedral, a Slavic Baptist woman asked many questions about the worship services.  Arab speakers were impressed by the stained glass and art. The cathedral guide decided to volunteer with Refugee Connections, Marijke said.

In December, they had a potluck, bringing food from their cultures. They also had a workshop led by Mid-City Concerns Meals on Wheels, and visited the Davenport Hotel Christmas tree decorations and an art exhibit. Frontier Behavioral Health introduced them to Family Caregiver Support and Care Cars.

In January and February, they had weekly workshops on life’s journey, aging with dignity and end of life care. On a field trip to the Spokane Public Library, each received a library card.

In February, they received copies of the Patient Passport, in which they can record their medical histories, insurance plan and medications—in such languages as English, Arabic, French, Russian, Swahili, Tigrinya and Spanish.

They visited the Spokane Fire Department to learn about fire safety, and Project Joy musicians introduced them to American folk music.

In March, they learned about shopping for groceries and clothes at Fred Meyer, and visited the Spokane Transit Authority (STA) where they picked up senior bus cards.

In April, there was one workshop with the Spokane Police Department, and another with Catholic Charities on senior food vouchers.

“Many refugees distrust legal authorities based on experiences in their homelands,” Marijke said.  “The workshop helps them understand their rights and liberties.”

Last fall, a Legal Foundation of Washington grant underwrote four legal clinics where immigrants and refugees could learn about five areas of law—family, housing, immigration, naturalization and employment.

In the fall, the Harvest Project connected refugees with farms and gardens where they could harvest—glean—fruits and vegetables to share with low-income neighbors.

Workshops and programs also introduce refugees/immigrants to opportunities for them to volunteer.

In July, Amber Johnsen, who works at an after-school program at Fairchild Air Force Base, started Refugee Kids Connect as a summer then after-school program.

Twenty to 30 children met at Ruth Park near the Atlantic Apartments at 4 p.m., Tuesdays.  After school started, they met at an apartment to do homework and activities. 

Refugee Connections encourages refugees and community members to interact with and learn about the many cultures here, such as Unity in the Community in the summer, and cultural programs, such as the Hmong New Year and a Vietnamese Festival.

Another opportunity is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, June 16, when Refugee Connections, World Relief and dozens of others partners will sponsor World Refugee Day at Nevada Park at 800 E. Joseph.

About 500 come for a naturalization ceremony, children’s activities, performances, a cultural marketplace and community agency booths.

For information, call 209-2384 or visit

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