Difference Maker: Once in the same situation, Anna Bondarenko helps Ukrainian refugees find a new life in Spokane

The Ukrainian refugees housed at the Thrive Center always know who to call.

Do you need help translating an immigration document? Call Anna.

On the way to emergency care? Bring Anna with you.

A group of teenagers looking to go on an adventure to see Christmas lights? Anna will take you with her.

Anna Bondarenko is an assistant manager at the Thrive Center, a hotel owned by the non-profit organization Thrive International, where refugees, mostly Ukrainians, stay during their transition to life in Spokane.

Bondarenko, 34, fled religious persecution in the 1990s as the former Soviet Union fell apart. Her family followed relatives from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Spokane.

She recalls having a “beautiful fall” and adjusting to her new life relatively quickly. She has a natural gift for languages ​​and struggles not with English but with math at Roosevelt Elementary School.

Learning English quickly made her the de facto “language” of the family as she translated for her parents.

In high school, she took Running Start classes and a job at World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency. She started working as a receptionist, but was quickly attracted to the work of the Refugee Resettlement Agency.

She became the assistant immigration attorney on the staff. When the attorney left, Bondarenko became a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited representative, allowing her to represent clients before the Department of Homeland Security.

She bonded with the refugees because she had had a similar experience.

“I was there, did that and I know how you feel,” Bondarenko said, telling her clients.

Sharing her story and experiences working with other refugees is a way to show them the way through their current pain and struggle, she said.

In 2014, Bondarenko left World Relief to pursue a degree in Political Science from Whitworth University. Shortly after graduating, she took over the management of what was then Refugee Connections, another relocation agency in Spokane.

While loving her work, Bondarenko was ready for a new experience. She moved to the Czech Republic as a volunteer to teach English and help Russian speakers. During her time as a custodian, she worked in orphanages and at times in prisons in Ukraine, serving where she could.

When she returned to the United States in 2019, she worked in the public sector.

Then, earlier this year, Russia attacked Ukraine. Although she hadn’t worked with refugees in years, Bondarenko’s family and friends called and asked her for help.

In early March, a family friend asked Bondarenko to help her relatives who, after fleeing the war, crossed the Mexican border to the United States and ended up in Spokane.

This family was the first of many to seek refuge in Spokane from the war that tore apart their homeland.

On March 25, Bondarenko attended meetings of local church leaders that would morph into the Ukraine Relief Coalition. When she called her friends in government and community work, it became clear — no one had a plan or money to help these refugees yet.

“No one had financial resources to help people crossing the border,” Bondarenko said. “No one was there to fill the gap.”

So Bondarenko performed.

She created a channel called “Spokane Welcomes You” on the social media app Viber, where she posted resources, Google Doc forms, and matched people with families willing to host them.

She helped organize three immigration workshops in March and April to keep people updated on ever-changing government policies.

It was the data and stories from her Viber group that helped the coalition and the recently formed non-profit organization Thrive International apply for a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce. The nonprofit organization received $1 million.

A portion of that money went toward opening the Thrive Center. Families moved into the hotel in June, where they stay in hotel suites at a fraction of the market price.

Bondarenko was hired as an assistant manager shortly thereafter. She does not perform the typical duties of a hotel manager’s assistant. Your job is much bigger and more personal than that.

She’ll jump up on a 6am call to translate for someone seeking an expedited work visa, only to help someone who’s locked themselves out of their room after midnight.

She spends so much time at work that Thrive reserved a room for her to make sure she gets some sleep. Her main focus is taking care of the residents of the hotel.

“Sometimes I feel like I live here,” Bondarenko joked.

She resolves conflicts, sets up processes for things like laundry or parking, organizes community events, keeps the dozens of children who live there in line, runs the house group chat, answers questions about immigration, and is everyone’s go-to translator.

“She’s extremely hardworking,” said Lidia Pauline, the Thrive Center’s general manager.

Bondarenko always makes time for meaningful moments, Pauline said.

Last month, after a more than 12-hour day preparing and attending Thrive’s fundraising gala, a group of teenagers staying at the hotel asked Bondarenko to take them to the nearby Christmas lights.

Bondarenko was still on his heels and exhausted, she told Pauline, but decided to leave.

“Her parents trust Anna,” Pauline said.

If Bondarenko says she’s taking the teenagers, they can go; If not, they have to stay at the hotel, Pauline said.

Thirty minutes later, Bondarenko wrote Pauline videos of the frolicking teenagers.

“I wouldn’t live to see this moment if I didn’t say yes,” Bondarenko told Pauline.

The impact on the lives of these teenagers is immeasurable, Pauline said.

“She definitely blows my mind because she’s just really invested in people,” Pauline said.

Thrive International, founded earlier this year by former World Relief Director Mark Finney, was just getting started when war broke out in Ukraine. Tackling a project as large as the Thrive Center was an enormous challenge, said communications director Marshall McLean.

Bondarenko is one of the key people making sure everything works, McLean said.

“There’s a personal level to your work, like this is a job, you know, but it really isn’t. It’s more than that,” McLean said. “That’s kind of why this works so well, because we have an Anna here, someone who really embodies the work that we do.”

For Bondarenko, the last year was one of the best of her life. She can provide a new wave of refugees with the experience of finding freedom and safety in Spokane.

“My destiny is to help, to live, to love and to serve,” Bondarenko said. “If I can make someone’s day today, tomorrow will probably be a lot brighter.”

How to help the Thrive Center

The Thrive Center is located at 110 E. 4th Ave. in Spokane, 99202.

Donations can be made online or by post.

Learn more about Thrive International at flourish.org.

https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2022/dec/26/difference-makers-anna-bondarenko-aids-ukranian-re/ Difference Maker: Once in the same situation, Anna Bondarenko helps Ukrainian refugees find a new life in Spokane

Brian Ashcraft

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