Spokane Is New Refugee Magnet For Ex-Soviets -- Washington State Among The Country's Most Popular Destinations For Newcomers

SPOKANE - When Maria and Grigory Khala arrived here from a refugee camp in Italy, the first thing they laid eyes on was the stuffed polar bear in the airport terminal.

It was wintertime, four years ago. There was snow on the ground. And the Ukrainian refugees wondered whether their new American home would turn out to be some kind of frigid wasteland.

Actually, Spokane's four-season climate is similar to the Khalas' native Kiev.

It didn't matter, Maria Khala said. The family had left Ukraine without money or papers and came to Spokane because this is where they had found a sponsor.

"I haven't been sorry one day since I came here," she said.

The Khalas and their four children are part of the new wave of foreign-born people making a home in Washington state and Spokane County - refugees from crumbling economies and turbulent politics in other parts of the world.

In the past four years, 4,000 to 5,000 Russian and Ukrainian refugees have migrated to Spokane and now represent half of the local refugee population, said Joanna Tackitt, coordinator for the Community Colleges of Spokane's English as a Second Language Program .

Refugees from Southeast Asia are the next-largest group in Spokane, including 2,500 to 3,000 people from Vietnam, the colleges said.

Records from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C., show Washington state was the third-most-popular destination for refugees in 1992 with 4,688 arrivals, behind California with 29,992 and New York with 25,275.

But many of the refugees move again after reaching American shores, and the No. 1 destination for "second migrations" is Washington state, records show.

Joe Rithvixay, a spokesman for the state Division of Refugee Assistance in Lacey, said about 15,000 such Russians and Ukrainians are living in Washington. The Vietnamese population in the state is about the same, he said.

The refugees who come to this country usually are victims of religious or political persecution and generally have sponsors who help them get on their feet in America.

In Spokane, "I think the majority of the Russian refugees come here with an affiliation with Baptist and Pentecostal churches," Tackitt said.

Many of the immigrants and refugees are well-educated or skilled workers, but they need special help adapting to a new country, including English language classes.

"Classes are going morning, noon and night, four days a week, at four different sites," said Doug Mayhew, an English instructor at the colleges' Adult Education Center. "We're up to our eyeballs in new students."

Alexandra Lysak, a Ukrainian native who moved to Spokane two years ago, has enrolled in one of the classes. She's a research biologist beefing up her command of the language as she adjusts to the demands of her new life.

Lysak's husband immigrated with her, but she hopes her 24-year-old daughter will be able to leave Russia and move here one day.

Maria Khala is fluent in English, but Grigory is still working on his. He deferred a reporter's questions to his wife.

The couple have opened Beryozka, a small grocery on the city's north side, featuring Russian and European food and gifts. There are fish and sausages, nesting dolls, Russian-style yogurt, chocolates and caviar.

They cater to other immigrants' taste for the Old World, but about 40 percent of their clientele is non-Russian, Maria Khala said. She's pleased to be sharing part of her heritage with new neighbors.

"I just wanted to introduce Americans to food that Russians like," she said.

She had opened her own shop in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s during the social and economic reforms attempted by then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Many immigrants bring skills such as carpentry and engineering to a community, but they run into difficulties immediately meeting apprenticeship or licensing standards because of language problems, Tackitt said.

More than 500 students are enrolled in Spokane classes teaching English as a second language.

"Unfortunately, we're only reaching about 6 percent of the people who need this training," said Sally Grabicki, associate dean of instruction for adult basic education.