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Venezuelan immigrant educates newcomers to help them adjust

Morella Pérez Suels applies her skills to meet needs of new immigrants


By Emma Maple

Since June 2022, Morella Pérez Suels has been education services manager at World Relief Spokane, a resettlement agency that serves immigrants and refugees from many communities, countries and cultures.

"When they come, they don't know the system or the culture," said Morella, who arrived as an immigrant seven years ago from Venezuela.

Newcomers have to learn to live in a new culture, she said, noting that the adjustment process is more difficult for those who had traumatic experiences in the country they left.

The World Relief Spokane Education Center, which moved to the City Covenant Church building at 512 S. Bernard in December, helps break down barriers that clients may experience when adjusting to life in the United States.

Morella said the first barrier immigrants experience is learning a new language. Other barriers include learning about the financial systems and technology.

When immigrants first come, they are with the World Relief resettlement department for three months.

During this time, individuals and families are helped to find housing, process paperwork for social security and employment cards, and are accompanied through the health system.

The goal is for them to be self-sufficient, even though Morella acknowledges "it's a great goal" that takes time to achieve.

Halfway through the three-month resettlement process, Morella said, clients have the opportunity to participate in education services, which include classes in finances, computers, sewing, driving, English conversation and housing.

The World Relief Education Center has two types of classes.

First, there are six-to-nine-week courses that delve into material. From 30 to 40 clients participate every quarter. Each client has the opportunity to take one to three courses at a time.

Second, there are one- or two-hour workshops that provide synthesized information, often in partnership with other organizations.

The courses fluctuate based on clients' needs.

World Relief employs community ambassadors for each language group they serve.

These ambassadors help the education center translate classes into a language the clients can understand, so the center provides the class in both English and the client's native language. This also helps clients learn English, because they can compare the material and learn new vocabulary, Morella said.

The Education Center provides resources clients need for the classes, such as sewing machines or computers.

Thus, the center moves refugees beyond the welcoming and resettling services.

"We want clients to know we are here to protect them," she said.

To meet client needs, Morella coordinates resources to create curricula and also relies on the curriculum of the national cultural orientation program the government provides.

Morella's background is in teaching. She received a bachelor's degree in teaching and a master's in management education while living in Venezuela.

She emigrated from Venezuela to the U.S. in 2016. Before that, she visited her sister in New Jersey every year for 20 years.

Morella said Venezuela's economic and political struggles have resulted in around 8 million Venezuelan immigrants who are now spread out around the world.

"I'm not an exception," she said, "I'm another immigrant."

When she came to the U.S. seven years ago, her plan was just to visit her sister for the holidays, but then the situation in Venezuela deteriorated.

For two years, she wanted to return. Her heart remained in Venezuela, but the situation in Venezuela kept getting "worse and worse and worse."

Eventually Morella recognized that she had to make a decision.

She had never considered herself an immigrant, but finally she accepted that she was.

Morella was then in her 50s.

"Being an immigrant when one is in their 20s and when one is in their 50s are radically different experiences," she said, thinking she could not start a career at her age.

Reviewing personal and professional skills, she realized she had 30 years of experience teaching she could use. She also ran her own business in Venezuela and had directed a nonprofit, La Salle de Ciencias Naturales. 

After evaluating her life and skills, she first decided to write a book about mental health, because of her own mental health struggles during her first two years in the U.S.

"I didn't want to be here," she said. "I wanted to be in my own country, doing what I had done for many years."

Morella now realizes she was suffering from depression but didn't know it at the time.

Aware she had the skills to recognize she had been experiencing depression, she began wondering what it would be like for people who aren't able  to figure that out and lose focus on what they want in life. So she wrote about it, because she understood that with the social stigma, no one wants to talk about it.

She also wrote the book, Depresión: Estigma Social, to help make herself known in a country where no one knew her. She felt it was the best way to say who she was.

Once she finished the book, Morella was ready to find the kind of job she wanted to do, something like World Relief.

A friend called her and told her about a position in Spokane that was exactly what Morella was hoping for. So, she went to Spokane for a few days.

She returned to New Jersey and applied for the position with World Relief. She did an interview online, and they asked her to come to Spokane.

Although she had two other job offers, Morella said she was drawn to World Relief's vision and mission.

Three months after she published her book, she got the "job that I was wishing for in my life."

Morella now feels she is working in an organization that can use her professional experience and where she can find fulfillment in helping others. Although she had worked with nonprofits before, she had never worked with immigrants.

"For me, to learn what it means to work with immigrants and refugees filled my heart because I can compare the situation they come from and the situation I was in," she said.

World Relief's mission also matched her Christian faith. She said they pray Monday mornings and try to be the best people they can be.

Morella grew up in a Catholic family but wasn't in the habit of going to church.

During the dark time of her life, she said, "I just started to pray and pray and pray." She went to a church in New Jersey every Sunday, where she would pray while crying, asking for peace and for answers to her questions.

"I just wanted peace." she said. "I didn't have peace, because I'd left behind everything in my life and was doubtful about my future."

This experience helped her recognize that people can't do everything on their own. They sometimes need support and help from other people. Morella became more involved with the church and, "one day, I started to feel peace in my soul and began to understand I was anointed with the presence of the Holy Spirit."

After that, Morella said she told God "Hey, God, I'm here. Use me in the best way possible to serve people. I think it's my mission in life to serve people."

A year later, Morella was at World Relief.

Recently World Relief moved from its former location at 1522 N. Washington to two locations, 512 S. Bernard in the church and 11707 E. Sprague Ave., Suite 106, in the Redwood Plaza.

Both locations offer the same services near where refugees live. The S. Bernard location is near The Imperial Apartments at 120 W. 3rd Ave., a home where newcomers stay six months to a year.

World Relief expects to resettle 700 refugees in 2024.

For information, call 484-9829 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May 2024