Traci Bemis knows what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. For Traci, though, that was a fleeting feeling when she moved to Spokane, from Austin, Texas, in September 2016. In no time at all, she and her family were immersed in the community, making friends, getting involved with a church and work, and settling into their new home. “It’s our personality to dive in,” she says about herself and her husband, Chris. “We look at it as an adventure to be somewhere new, and just start meeting people.”
For refugees who move into Spokane each year, adjusting to life in a new community is not so much an adventure, as it is a challenge and isolating situation. Consider this scenario: you have moved to a country where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know anyone, the culture and customs are completely different from anything you know, and every part of your life, from getting around town, to navigating the grocery store and providing for your family, is difficult.
Though Traci’s move here was much easier, she still is well aware of the difficulty that others, specifically refugees, face, and it is part of what has driven her to be actively involved in Global Neighborhood, which is described as “a community benefit organization that focuses on using business to provide former refugees with opportunities for development so they can thrive and contribute as equal members of our community.” These opportunities come in the form of three areas: education, employment and empowerment.
Traci has been volunteering with refugees for more than a decade, dating back to her days at the University of Utah, where she began a program called Good News, Good Deeds, which, among other things, brought college students together to tutor school children from Somalia. “I loved the cultures, and it was so fun interacting,” she says of the experience.
When she moved back to Austin, the community was welcoming lots of Syrian refugees. “They were really isolated and lonely, and looking for friends, just like everyone is,” she says of the refugees she met there. Part of an organized potluck that brought together American and Syrian women, with each group bringing food from their culture, Traci had a chance to connect with the women and learn more about their life in the U.S. “I can’t imagine what it is like to be completely displaced from your home and placed in a city where you know nothing. I had a lot of empathy for them,” she says of what she took away from the experience.
With that in mind, when Traci, her husband and their two children moved to Spokane, she asked the pastor at their church, New Community, if he could connect her with a group that works with refugees. He was actively involved in Global Neighborhood and pointed her in that direction.
Since partnering with Global Neighborhood, Traci, who has organized fundraising efforts for the organization, as well as promoted it though through own business, was asked to be on the Board of Directors. In this role, she and her fellow directors work to care for the general oversight of the mission and the finances of the organization, to make sure it continues to head in a direction that matches its goals. They also use their influence in the community to further the mission of Global Neighborhood. Traci coordinated and hosted a benefit event this past February at Maryhill Winery, with proceeds going to Global Neighborhood.
“Global Neighborhood is definitely not a charity,” she says. “It is about empowerment and how to make the refugees self-sufficient contributing members of the community, long-term. No matter where people stand, politically, you can get behind that idea. “I really like the way Global Neighborhood teaches them to have long-term success.”
Global Neighborhood partners with World Relief, another local refugee assistance organization, offering career path services with a three to six month training program. This is a successful program, considering that 80 percent of those who go through it find job placement, and stay in those jobs.
For those who think refugees are uneducated and not smart, guess again. These programs work with everyone, from a mother who maybe never learned to read in her own country, to people who were doctors and professionals in their home country and are now willing to take jobs as janitors, just to have a way to earn a living.
“When people share their stories, it is remarkable,” says Traci. “To hear what they have been through, and how much persistence and perseverance they have is incredible.”
One of the places where the refugees may have the chance to work is at the Global Neighborhood Thrift Store, which supports Global Neighborhood’s mission. The Global Neighborhood Thrift Store is a bricked mortar store on Indiana & Monroe, which is run by refugees who are learning job skills, earning an income, and helping the store to thrive. Global Neighborhood has a truck that will pick up your donations (furniture, clothing, toys, household goods, etc.) The organization just received a grant that will allow for 15 pods to be placed around town, in which donations of items for the thrift store can be made.
“The term ‘refugee’ is ultimately just a label. I think it's so critical to get to know every person's story, personality and strengths and not simply lump everyone together,” says Traci. “I can’t imagine anything more overwhelming than being a refugee in a new land, but I really believe if you help a person on the individual level, it ultimately effects how a community thrives. The alternative to helping these people is to do nothing, and then they would be in need, homeless and struggling. Helping them helps our community. I want to treat them how I would want to be treated.”
By jumping in and connecting with refugees and her community, Traci is no longer a stranger in a strange land; rather, she is just a friend who wants others to feel at home here too.
There are so many great non profits, and so many great causes, so how do you decide which events or organizations you will support?
My heart definitely guides me in choosing. You’re right in the fact that there are so many fantastic organizations to choose from. There are certain topics that simply hit me harder than others. I think it’s a really personal decision to work with who we do. For me, issues that strike a particular cord with me aren’t necessarily things that have touched me directly, but they do touch me deeply or trouble me enough that I say, “I just have to be a part of this. This has got to change.” For me that has been responding to the global refugee crisis and the atrocities of human trafficking. There is a lot of ugly and raw humanity present when I take a close look at these issues, but my discomfort motivates me to be involved.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment other than your family?
I moved to Salt Lake City to work for a Christian college ministry for 7 years and intentionally invested in students. I helped grow an organization that was small and in a more unique setting. Personally, I made some transformative decisions in college and had people that genuinely cared about me and helped guide me. That carried with me, and I wanted to do the same. I think my choice to live those years in SLC and work with college students, giving them everything I had and showing them that I loved them and would be there to share encouragement and also maybe some hard things, was it. It came with it’s challenges and things to overcome, but I stuck with it and it’s neat to see what’s out-lived my time there and what’s grown. I still keep in touch with many of the students who are now having families of their own and living big in so many ways.
What is the most important contribution you’ve made to Spokane over the last10
Haha.Well, since I’ve been here since Sept. 2016, I’d have to say there are just too many things to choose from. Okay, too be serious, it would be my decision to get connected to Global Neighborhood and their work and mission to empower former refugees through job training. I think this starts by helping on the individual level which slowly impacts the community as a whole. When individuals are thriving, a city thrives.
What qualities do you look for in a friend?
I’m especially drawn to silly people who don’t take themselves too seriously and are also not afraid to be authentic and go deep.
Aside from your family, what is your most treasured possession?
Hhmmm, I’m not at all sentimental, but I do hold dear to me photos and letters from my Memom who passed away a couple of years ago. She was a giant of a woman in my life and played such a weighty role in developing my creativity and spiritedness. It’s such a joy remembering her presence and the lovely human being she was.
With all the activities you juggle, how do you handle the stress that might come with it?
My faith is the backbone, for sure. I have a deep belief that God is for me, that He’s got my back and that He loves me (and everyone really) fiercely. When I’m stressed, I just go talk it out with God and do some yoga. Take some deep breaths. Stretch. Pray. Get Alone. Chris and I also guard our time together pretty strongly. If we’re getting good time to spend together, we’re so much better off. He’s my best friend and makes me laugh all the time, so I can’t stay stressed for long around him.
What keeps you grounded and focused?
Perspective on what matters most and what is just non-sense, along with a desire to leave a legacy that will outlast me.
Do you have a cherished family tradition?
Growing up, we did Wednesday night, going out for dinner to a Mexican food restaurant. We would always have great connection and lively conversation. Margaritas, chips and queso. Still, to this day, if it’s Wednesday night, my family is out to dinner at a Mexican food restaurant. Rain or shine. I haven’t carried this tradition on here very well but am trying to find a taco spot that meets my cravings for Tex-Mex.
What are your favorite places to travel, and leisure activities in which to participate?
I love going on day trips to local parks or hiking spots. We do a ton of dog walks to the park, ice-cream and iced coffee outings. Farmers Markets are a fave of mine. I like keeping it simple and seeing where an adventure may arise.
What is your favorite for each of the following?
Book: I don’t have a favorite book, but I last read Love Lives Here by Maria Goff and was impacted for the better by it.
Movie: Old movie: Steel Magnolias. New Movie: La La Land
TV Show: Arrested Development is classic. I’m not as much into TV. But every chance I get, I’ve got NPR News or one of their podcasts on.
Who do you really admire?
Anyone who is taking a risk, being brave, loving fiercely, and making an impact…whatever that looks like to them. When people live this way, it comes in different shapes and varieties but it’s palpable. I love people who are giving their fear a swift kick in the butt and doing some big, cool, amazing things.
What is one thing you have to do every day?
Coffee and chocolate.
What is, hands down, your favorite food or meal?
I could eat at the Wellness Tree on S. Perry, everyday. Their Avo-Coco Acai bowls are heaven.
What are some local organizations whose causes you support, either by attending an
event for them, or you are just a fan of their cause?
This year it’s been fun getting to know Spokane through attending several fundraisers. Well, Global Neighborhood, for starters. Spark Central, Young Life & SYSA-Spokane Youth Sports Assoc. I’ve been so impressed and encouraged by the work of each of these groups.
What is the best advice you have been given?
Just be me. Unapologetically me.
For what are you most grateful?
My family. They are with me no matter what. Both sides of my family are pretty dreamy.
What is your favorite place you have travelled to?
Sienna, Italy in the summer. It was hot and utterly gorgeous. I met so many great people and I may have eaten my weight in gelato with no regrets.
What is your dream vacation?
A visit to Portugal or Spain sounds right up my alley. Exploring their streets, food and culture and getting to see a new way to do life and people of the world.