USMB churches in Spokane respond to crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine is miles away, but close to home for Spokane's Slavic community

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An estimated 100 Ukrainian families, or as many as 400 individuals, have already arrived in Spokane, Washington and Pacific Keep's Ukrainian Relief Coalition is providing resources and support, including immigration workshops. Photo: PKC, taken at the U.S./Mexico border

MAY 1 UPDATE: In early April, Pacific Keep Church pastor Boris Borisov visited Tijuana on the United States/Mexico border, where at the time thousands of Ukrainians, including pregnant women, the elderly and parents with infants, waited to request entry into the United States.

Volunteers from Slavic churches from Sacramento and San Diego organized a welcoming team in Tijuana and set up medical tents, food distribution tents and restrooms in partnership with the local government and vendors. Volunteers also coordinated efforts to transport refugees to and from a nearby gym facility by bus while they waited to be processed.

While most refugees have relatives or friends in the United States, a few lack long-term arrangements, and the Ukrainian Relief Coalition (URC) is collecting a list of people in Spokane willing to host a family if needed, as well as provide transportation, legal service, childcare or furniture. This article has been updated to include new information about resettling Ukrainians in Spokane. 

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, members of Pacific Keep Church, a USMB church plant in Spokane, Washington, experienced grief, anger and shock.

Pastor Boris Borisov describes the congregation as “not specifically Slavic” but a church that as a second-generation church plant of Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church (PSBC) happens to have Slavic people.

“We have a lot of first-generation immigrants—mostly young adults who came here when they were really, really young,” Borisov says. “(The war) hit home really hard because I would say 85 to 90 percent of our church members have somebody they know personally on the ground being bombarded, fleeing (or) fighting.”

Borisov began receiving emails and phone calls offering help as a result of Pacific Keep’s unique position in the city and his own connections made working in economic development for the city for 12 years.

“Somehow I became the bridge between the old Slavic generation here and the leadership in Spokane,” Borisov says.

Recognizing an opportunity, Borisov organized a response and Spokane Loves Ukraine (SLU) was born, including the formation of a Ukraine Relief Coalition (URC). The response involves people from Pacific Keep, PSBC and other churches coordinating a three-fold response to the crisis involving prayer, humanitarian aid and refugee resettlement.

Spokane Loves Ukraine

Soon after the start of the war, Pacific Keep and other churches organized a community prayer night. When the need emerged for a centralized place for updates, Borisov and associate pastor Jack Dunbar created a “Spokane Loves Ukraine” webpage where prayer night attendees could sign up to stay connected or donate to a Ukraine relief fund. Borisov began sending weekly email updates listing prayer and practical needs and opportunities for involvement.

Volunteers pack boxes of filled with humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Photo: Pacific Keep

As donations began coming in, members of Pacific Keep, PSBC and several other churches formed the Ukraine Relief Coalition (URC), to coordinate Spokane’s response.

PSBC pastor Alexandr Kaprian, who faced government persecution for being a Christian before leaving his hometown of Mariupol as a religious refugee in 1989, says 70 to 80 percent of his congregation is from Ukraine.

“We work directly with people that we know there in Ukraine,” Kaprian says. “We are helping those people in the war zone who are suffering. They have no food, no water, no clothing.”

While the URC is not the only group responding to the crisis in Ukraine, it is unique in its focus on relief efforts that support churches directly connected to people in Spokane.

“Everybody’s raising money for Ukraine right now,” Borisov says. “But we have that local touch, if you will, of people in Spokane and their relatives and friends over there being impacted by the war.”

Humanitarian needs

Borisov’s connections with the city and Pacific Keep’s trusted relationship with community partners have provided fundraising opportunities. The Innovia Foundation, which partners with people wanting to improve their communities, sent a press release to donors about the Ukraine Relief Fund, and the city council issued a proclamation supporting Ukraine, lighting the skyline in blue and yellow in solidarity. Businesses, too, have supported SLU.

As donations come in, the URC discerns next steps based on needs on the ground in Ukraine, including coats, shoes, socks, undergarments, medical supplies such as bandages and ibuprofen, baby formula, dry goods and money to purchase gasoline.

“All your generic needs just to live are either severely cut off in Ukraine or hard to get,” Borisov says. “We’re trying to focus all of our giving on the humanitarian side and stay away from anything associated with (the) military.”

Pacific Keep volunteers prepare to serve plov, a traditional rice pilaf dish, during a March fundraiser for the Ukraine Relief Fund. The proceeds helped cover the cost of medical treatment for a volunteer in Kharkiv injured during shelling, as well as humanitarian aid. Photo: Pacific Keep

In early March, more than 60 volunteers sorted and packed hygiene supplies, medicine, clothing and nonperishable food items for Ukrainian refugees.

Pacific Keep hosted a plov fundraiser March 20—plov is a traditional rice pilaf dish—with the $3,225 in proceeds helping to cover the cost of surgery for a volunteer in Kharkiv injured during shelling, as well as humanitarian aid.

The team shipped the most urgently needed items via airplane to Poland to be sent by train to the Ukraine border for pickup by local church members. The URC organized a second container shipment to Poland via ship.

It is much easier to get supplies to the western half of Ukraine, Borisov says, as opposed to eastern Ukraine where bombardments are aggressive.

“We’ve got members in our church who have family members in Mariupol,” Borisov says. “It’s devastatingly difficult to get anything there because all of the convoys have been either hijacked or attacked or shelled.”

PSBC’s Kaprian says about 90 percent of Mariupol is destroyed.

“Some of my relatives are missing, and some of my friends, dead,” Kaprian says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Some Ukrainian churches have sent bank account information for direct deposits, but in some cities, banking systems no longer work.

The team is also seeking to help refugees who have crossed the border into Poland, Kaprian says.

As of March 30, the Ukraine Relief Fund had received $6,901 in donations. The team has packed more than 6,000 pounds of humanitarian aid, including 2,165 pounds of food, 1,848 pounds of diapers and wipes, 1,395 pounds of clothing and 645 pounds of medical supplies. The URC welcomes funds to cover the cost of shipping.

Refugee resettlement

In addition to prayer and humanitarian aid, the URC’s response involves lobbying Congress to consider Spokane as a location for refugee resettlement.

The Biden administration announced plans in March for the U.S. to welcome up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainians, and Borisov says the case can be made for Spokane to receive some of them.

Spokane County is home to as many as 50,000 Slavs, about 10 percent of the county. This includes not only Ukrainians, but also refugees from Russia, Moldova and other former Soviet states resettled by the U.S. government in eastern Washington in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many first-generation immigrants came to the U.S. as children and now have families and roots in Spokane. Borisov came with his family as a 5-year-old in 1992. His hometown of Mykolaiv is a strategic port city near the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. Mykolaiv is being besieged as the gateway to Odesa, Ukraine’s third largest city where Borisov’s wife Julia’s family still lives.

The URC is collecting donations to assist Ukrainians coming to the U.S.

In early April, Pastor Boris Borisov from Pacific Keep Church visited the border at Tijuana where thousands of Ukrainian refugees are arriving to request entrance into the United States. They shared gut-wrenching stories of fleeing bombardment and shelling. When Borisov met several people from his hometown, it hit him that if his parents hadn’t moved to the U.S. years ago, he could have easily been waiting at the entrance himself instead of crossing the border back to Spokane with his American passport. Photo: Pacific Keep

“They don’t have anything,” Kaprian says. “They run away with nothing.… They start from zero. We help them over here providing spiritual support, financial support, helping them with all of their needs.”

Kaprian is concerned about the uncertain long-term future for refugees who can enter the U.S. with one-year visas and humanitarian parole status.

“The thing is, nobody really knows legally what will happen to all of these people after their visa expires after one year,” Kaprian says, adding later: “Honestly, I’m happy that some people are able to escape the war because there is a danger, they need to run away, but at the same time, I don’t see a clear way for them for their future they would like here. Maybe it will happen. We are praying for this every day.”

The URC team is preparing the community to receive refugees. Violet Tsyukalo, content creator for the URC newsletter, says the team is working with churches to adopt refugee families.

“We are working on setting in place a network of local host churches who will be able to ‘adopt a family’ when refugee families come and oversee all of their needs ranging from housing, purchasing a car, enrolling the kids in school, enrolling in English language classes, employment/job paperwork, as well as leading them through cultural experiences,” Tsyukalo says. “We are asking churches to designate a representative who will oversee each family’s needs and delegate their needs to volunteers from each respective church.”

Spokane not only offers connections with language, customs and history but also has the capacity for housing and employment. Borisov has spoken with hotel owners offering hundreds of jobs in hospitality and businesses offering support in real estate and construction. He has also talked to housing providers.

“Not only do we have the church community lined up in support, we also have the political, the business, the nonprofit and specifically the employers lined up saying that they are ready to offer employment opportunities,” he says. “That’s the comprehensive strategic goal here with Spokane Loves Ukraine.”

On April 21, the Biden administration announced Uniting for Ukraine, a streamlined process for up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s aggression to apply for humanitarian parole in the United States for a stay of up to two years.

To be eligible, an individual must have resided in Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion and have been displaced as a result, be a Ukrainian citizen or immediate family member of a Ukrainian citizen, have a sponsor in the U.S., complete vaccination requirements, and pass biometric screening and vetting security checks.

Once approved, Ukrainians will be considered for parole on a case-by-case basis, and once granted, will be eligible to apply for employment authorization.

Individuals in the U.S. can apply to the Department of Homeland Security to sponsor displaced Ukrainians by visiting www.dhs.gov/.

Dmytro Kushneruk, Consul General of Ukraine in San Francisco, spoke at Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church April 27, discussing the effects of the war and explaining the Uniting for Ukraine immigration pathway.

Ukrainians may no longer present themselves at U.S. ports of entry without valid visas or pre-authorization to travel through Uniting for Ukraine.

According to an April 27 URC update, an estimated 100 Ukrainian families, or as many as 400 individuals, have already arrived in Spokane, and the URC is providing resources and support, including two immigration workshops on April 16 and 23 with immigration attorney Samuel Smith from Manzanita Immigrant Legal Aid and URC team member Anna Bondarenko. Alexandr Kaprian, pastor of Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church also spoke. A third workshop is set for May 7.

Meanwhile, URC’s second shipment, including 2,213 pounds of donations to L’viv and 6,333 pounds of donations to Khmelnitsky, has shipped. Included for distribution are medical supplies, clothing and shoes, hygiene items, non-perishable food, baby food and formula, blankets and sleeping bags.

To learn more or to donate, visit: https://spokane-loves-ukraine.mailchimpsites.com/.

Read more about the pathway: https://www.dhs.gov/news/2022/04/21/president-biden-announce-uniting-ukraine-new-streamlined-process-welcome-ukrainians.

Janae Rempel
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning journalist, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.

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