‘A safe place to stay’: Ukrainian refugees move into hotel run by local Slavic community non-profit
Blue and yellow balloons flapping in the wind on Wednesday afternoon were the first sign that a recently closed Spokane hotel is coming back to life.
Inside, massive bouquets of flowers fill the hall. Between two bouquets, the smiling face of Albina Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov greeted the Ukrainians who have spent the last months in transit after fleeing the war in their country of origin.
The Thrive Center opened its doors last week in the former Quality Inn, 110 E. Fourth Ave. The center will provide much-needed housing for refugee families and offer a community of people enduring all the difficulties of adjusting to their homes.
Oleh Antonov, 25, and his girlfriend, Kazina Onyshko, 21, arrived in Spokane two months ago and are staying with their family.
As Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov showed them their new temporary residence, the couple shared a smile. They began unloading their belongings from a family friend’s car a few minutes later.
“We are very grateful,” Antonov said.
Three women whispered to each other as they arrived at the Thrive Center. As they recorded, the women opened up, sharing smiles and flurries of conversation.
Yelyzaveta Nikora fled Odessa, Ukraine, with her two pregnant sisters and their children. The group has been living with their brother for two months, but with two other children about to join the group and pregnant women worried about their husbands fighting in the war, the Thrive Center is a welcome sanctuary.
Nikora said she felt “happy” to be in Spokane “Because in Ukraine it’s war.”
The amount of help and support the Spokane community gave the sisters was an unexpected blessing, Nikora said.
On Wednesday afternoon, the women relaxed as they debated who should get which room, where the babies would sleep the most and how the rooms would function once their husbands, as they hope, joined them.
The hotel has a large number of connecting rooms, perfect for families with young children who need the extra space, Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov said.
Some of the rooms are connected by dark wood-framed French doors and filled with light from the large windows that have desks tucked under them.
Once everything was decided, the trio left, sheets in hand to be washed at their brother’s before move-in day later in the week.
The community responds to an urgent need
The Thrive Center is a collaboration between two recently founded local organizations: the Ukraine Relief Coalition and Thrive International.
Boris Borisov, the coalition’s founder, is a former city planner turned pastor of Pacific Keep, a local church that largely serves second-generation Slavic immigrants.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, he knew he had to help, so he contacted the pastors of the twenty or so Slavic churches in the Spokane area.
Ukrainian refugees Kazina Onyshko, center, and Oleh Antonov, left their luggage at the former Quality Inn as part of Thrive International’s refugee housing program in Spokane on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review )
Spokane is home to around 50,000 Slavs, many of whom fled religious persecution in the late 1980s to early 2000s.
These church communities came together to meet the needs of their Ukrainian friends and family whose lives were uprooted by the Russian invasion.
The pastor of Emmaus Church in Spokane’s Perry District, Mark Finney, led World Relief for years until the organization’s national office rejected the hiring of a gay man at the Spokane office in beginning of this year. He resigned in January.
Finney had a strong desire to continue serving the refugee community in Spokane and founded Thrive International in February.
The goal was to slowly and thoughtfully develop a variety of programs to help refugees navigate their new home, Finney said, but God had other things on his mind.
Later that month, Russia attacked Ukraine, and Thrive swung into action. Together with the Ukraine Relief Coalition, the non-profit organization supported local efforts by the Slavic community in Spokane.
Then in April, President Joe Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, which allowed Ukrainians to come to the United States if they had a “supporter” who agreed to support them financially once they arrived.
“It will be one of the hubs for Ukrainians coming to the United States because that’s where relationships have already been established,” Finney said.
Last month, the Spokane County Commission secured a $1 million grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce to meet the urgent needs of Ukrainian refugees. Thrive International has been selected to administer these funds.
“Spokane County recognizes the hardships these refugees are facing during this crisis,” County Commissioner Mary Kuney wrote in a news release about the announcement. “With these funds, we hope those who choose to seek refuge in our county will take another step toward peace and experience the generosity and kindness that Spokane County is known for.”
With Finney’s experience in grant administration, it made sense for Thrive to take over the administrative aspects of the grant while the coalition would focus on outreach.
The group started accepting requests for help this month and has already received more than 500 responses from families in need of help.
“A safe place to stay”
One of the refugees’ greatest needs is housing, Finney and Borisov said.
Most Ukrainians have not received their work permit, making it difficult to find accommodation, especially with the tight housing market.
Hoping to meet this need, Thrive began the search for a building to house the refugees. He moved to the old Quality Inn.
Located near Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, the 153-room hotel was recently purchased by Fortify Holdings, which plans to renovate the building into apartments.
“It’s truly amazing that a facility like this is available right now,” Finney said.
Although the community has so far absorbed the arriving refugees, this is not a long-term solution, Finney said.
“You can’t let your loved ones live with you forever,” Finney said. “People need their own space.”
The Thrive Center will provide refugees with a hotel room, equipped with a mini-fridge and hot plate for free for at least two months, then depending on funding, refugees may have to pay rent, but that cost would be still below the market rate, Borisov said.
Thrive International signed a lease on the building on Monday, and the refugees began moving in on Tuesday. Finney expects the facility to fill up in the coming weeks. The building, with conference rooms, a large lounge and a commercial kitchen, is the perfect place to grow his other fledgling programs, Finney said.
As Fortify begins to turn some of the hotel rooms into apartments, the refugees will be moved into vacant rooms and then, once the renovations are complete, they will be allowed to move into the new apartments. The company has renovated four Spokane-area hotels into apartments and has at least one additional building under development.
Watching the first families move into the Thrive Center was emotional for Borisov, who came to the United States from Mykolaiv, Ukraine when he was 5 years old. A family on Tuesday had children the same age as Borisov’s children, making Borisov think about how easily he might be fleeing the war if his parents hadn’t left decades earlier.
Similarly, Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov moved to Spokane from Mariupol in 1997. She heard about Borisov’s Thrive Center and offered to help. Thrive hired her on the spot and she quit her job to work at a local lab.
It was Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov whose smiling face welcomed the first of Thrive’s new residents on Tuesday.
“I’m really happy to be able to do this,” she said of helping her fellow Ukrainians. “Because that is what God called us to do.”
After the last new residents arrived on Tuesday evening, Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov volunteered to sleep at the hotel, just to make sure everything was going well.
Wondering why her compatriots are fleeing makes Semivrazhnov-Shapovalov emotional.
“It’s hard even to think of my hometown,” she says with tears in her eyes. “But knowing that they have a safe place to stay…”
By Friday afternoon, 72 people had moved into the hotel, occupying 41 rooms.
On a sunny midweek afternoon, the two young boys of Mila and Artem Rakailva rushed through the lobby of the Thrive Center, followed by their parents and their grandmother, Galyna.
The couple moved to Spokane two years ago from Sacramento, Calif., to be closer to Mila’s sister. When war broke out, Galyna, 61, fled Ukraine, leaving behind her husband and son.
Artem said he was worried about his friends and relatives in the Odessa region where they came from, but focused on the positive side of having his mother nearby.
Still, he hopes the war will end soon.
“We hope… we hope.