When immigrants and refugees arrive in Spokane, they often struggle to make connections in their new community. This can be especially true for young people, who find themselves in a school system that they do not understand, speaking a language that is foreign to them.
Neharika Sharma, junior at Gonzaga Prep, and a group of teens around the world hope to ease this struggle by connecting recent immigrants with local residents through a new nonprofit they have founded called Youth Bringing Immigrants Together (YBIT).
Students from the United States and Ukraine have been invited to participate in a training camp organized by Global Youth Entrepreneurs. There, Sharma teamed up with Larry Huang, a Taiwanese immigrant living in Vancouver, Washington, Daria Malevka from France and Barbara Potochevska from Ukraine.
Soon they realized that they all had something in common: a family experience with immigration. This inspired them to create a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting local residents with immigrants and refugees to ease their transition.
YBIT has been selected as the winner of the non-profit Global Youth Entrepreneur competition. This competition attracts hundreds of applicants from all over the world.
Students in the United States and Ukraine were matched in groups of four to compete for a $ 1,000 grant and the opportunity to receive financial advice from Nike CFO Mehran Nikko and former Microsoft vice president Dan’l Lewin.
This is how Sharma, Huang, Malevka and Potochevska connected. Using their shared family experience with immigration, they introduced a non-profit organization that matches locals with immigrants and refugees to ease their transition.
âWe had to create business presentations, financial and business plans within a week, and it was overwhelming with the jet lag,â because two of the founders lived in Ukraine, Sharma said.
“Some of us didn’t have enough time to sleep because the competition was going on,” Potochevska added.
Sharma said the group didn’t know the financial side of doing business, so when they got $ 1,000 they didn’t know how to use it. As a result, Nike’s CFO and Microsoft’s vice president told YBIT how to set up a non-profit organization, register it with the government, and distribute the funds properly.
Shortly after YBIT won the grant, COVID-19 took the world by storm. However, this roadblock benefited the building of their non-profit organization. This saved the group a lot of money as they have built a positive reputation through social media.
Sharma’s parents immigrated from India to Spokane. She is a junior at Gonzaga Prep and enjoys participating in musical theater and Indian classical dance. She said the process took her family about 13 years to immigrate to the United States. Understanding how difficult and trying this process is for so many people, Sharma sought to make this transition easier, especially for families.
When she first started working with YBIT, Sharma was surprised to find that unlike her, most immigrants quickly abandon their culture to assimilate into American life.
âIf I had left my culture behind,â she said, âhalf of my life would have been gone.
She said she tries to prevent this assimilation by posting topics on Instagram that mentees can discuss with their mentors. One week, she asked mentees to share a recipe from their culture with their mentors. With this program, Sharma hopes to encourage teens to embrace their uniqueness.
Huang immigrated to Vancouver from Taiwan at the age of 3. Huang said that because his family spoke Mandarin Chinese, he struggled to overcome the language barrier. His school enrolled him in ESL, which made it difficult for him to adapt to an unfamiliar environment.
âCoping with the language barrier was difficult for me. So I signed up for this innovation boot camp (Global Youth Enterprises) and met the YBIT team and from there I discovered this common story in this field, âsaid Huang.
The team decided that the nonprofit would target teens desperate to find a home in the community.
âWith the stress and responsibilities that adults have to take on, it’s easy for teens to feel lost in the equation,â Huang said.
Afghan families who fled their homes continue to arrive in Spokane as the Taliban gain traction following the US withdrawal. Sharma said YBIT is “absolutely” looking for opportunities to help Afghan refugees.
When an immigrant family files their documents, they learn about resources designed to facilitate their transition. YBIT presents documents from immigration agencies as a resource for young people. This advertisement is the reason YBIT hosts operations in over 55 countries.
âThe language barrier is the most difficult barrier facing immigrants and refugees,â said Jackson Lino, director of youth programs at World Relief.
The four co-founders echoed Lino’s statement, saying easing the language barrier is YBIT’s top priority. Meeting a mentor each week allows mentees to learn the language of their new home and provides teens with a unique opportunity to experience phrases, slang and nuances of the language they are learning.
Ahmed Hassan participated in the YBIT Refugee Mentor / Mentor Program. Hassan recently moved from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine to study at university and is no stranger to moving countries. He was born in Germany and has also lived in Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
He said the YBIT team had it set up with a friend and they instantly hooked up.
âWe shared a lot of cultural knowledge and acquired a good amount of new things,â Hassan said. âWe both knew different languages ââas well, so we also practiced this together. “
In this mentorship, Hassan said he found a place to share his experience and realized that the YBIT participants “were one family with the same goals.”
After completing his mentorship, Hassan was invited to remain a volunteer.
âWe do our best to give young people all the support they need and to help them get involved in any new environment they find themselves in,â he said.
In order to facilitate communication, mentors must be at least bilingual. Huang is the leader of the Chinese language, Sharma the Hindi leader, Malevka the French and Potochevska the Ukrainian.
In addition to language proficiency, YBIT is looking for likeable, kind and enthusiastic teens about learning about another culture.
Potochevska lives in central Ukraine and plans to study at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv in the fall. She understands the challenges of immigration because she saw her brother immigrate to Australia. She said the process was “really stressful” for everyone involved.
âFor migrants, it’s a big cultural difference,â she said. âFor me alone, communicating with Americans is sometimes difficult for me, and sometimes I just don’t understand (their) mentality.
YBIT is delighted to welcome a new group of mentees and mentors for the 2021-22 school year. Their mentee application form is open to refugee and immigrant youth. Applications to become a mentor are closed, but teens are encouraged to contact YBIT to find out how they can be of assistance. Visit YBIT online at ybitinternational.wixsite.com/ybit.