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Local folk experience cross-cultural odyssey here

Karen Morrison invites people into an odyssey—a world travel adventure—to learn about the subtleties of the cultures represented by immigrants and refugees who have resettled in Spokane.

Karen Morrison
Karen Morrison

As coordinator of Odyssey World International Education Services (OWI) she volunteers her time to recruit volunteers to befriend not only the newcomers but also anyone in the community in need.

At OWI, she said, the people who serve and are served are friends and family in long-term relationships, not short-term client relationships through which some agencies provide services.

She is also sensitive to building awareness in the community about subtle and overt ways people feel unwelcome because of their cultural and social traditions.

For example, sitting with legs crossed and the sole of the shoe pointing to someone is a sign of disrespect to a Muslim woman from Iraq.  Because people in the community may not be aware that they are acting in ways that make someone feel unwanted, OWI helps inform them.

When African men stood on the street socializing as they would in their homeland, police mistakenly saw them as gang members.  The African men ran from men in uniforms with guns, who seemed like those who had oppressed them in the homeland they fled.

When Karen heard about it, she contacted V. Anne Smith of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

To reduce refugees’ fear, Karen asked the police chief to meet them wearing street clothes rather than a uniform.  In addition, Karen said, the police academy now teaches officers to learn “Stop!” in different languages and about the African customs of socializing.

OWI and the NAACP are working to give the refugees cards that indicate their language and English-speaking abilities.  They can give them to police with their ID.

In a case of mistaken identity, a police officer threw a 60-year-old Eritrean man walking from school to the ground and handcuffed him, thinking he was a criminal.  The former Eritrean farmer, who had fled oppression, thought he would be taken and killed.  Despite an official apology from police, he was so shaken that he left Spokane.

Along with intervening in such misunderstandings, Karen seeks to improve people’s lives by connecting them with community resources, advocating for them, educating the community, connecting volunteers with people and teaching life skills through practical activities that foster independence.

“All I do is ask,” she said of visiting retailers and hotels to help them find ways to help by donating school supplies, diapers, sheets, soap and other necessities.

After rearing her children in Montana, where she grew up, Karen moved from experiencing economic hardship and domestic abuse to gaining skills as an apartment manager, a tutor, a home-health aide for autistic people, an airport security worker, and a suicide and rape-victim counselor.  She graduated from the University of Montana in 1999 and came to Spokane in 2001 to work on a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at Eastern Washington University.

In 2006, she founded Odyssey World International and worked from her home.  She also works part-time with Spokane public schools in cultural education and English language development.

Karen now coordinates OWI’s volunteers and services from an office in East Central Community Center, 500 S. Stone, where she helps link people with the food bank, SNAP, the WIC clinic, the jobs bulletin board and other resources.

While Odyssey World International works with anyone—walking people through steps to make a budget and other practical skills—its 30 volunteers from colleges, senior groups and the community work primarily with refugees, immigrants and single parents trying to establish themselves in the community.

“We work with people on an individualized basis with no time limit,” she said.

Karen, who also travels to Kenya, Tanzania and Germany, gives presentations on cultures at a Whitworth University African culture class, and recruits volunteers at Gonzaga University, at Spokane Falls Community College and at churches.

From July 6 to 20, she will take three District 81 employees to visit El Shaddai Center for Hope for Children with HIV and AIDS in Kiambu, Kenya.   

She also connects teens here to the children there, to help the teens learn about children in another part of the world and focus less on themselves.  The teens are raising money to send sheets, school supplies and other items for the group to take to El Shaddai.

“We seek to break down walls and stereotypes through educating people in the community about people of other cultures and countries,” said Karen.

For example, once after a grocery store clerk learned a refugee woman was from Baghdad, and asked, “Aren’t we at war with you?”  Karen turned it into a “gentle education” moment.  She spoke to the manager, who spoke to all of the staff. 

“Shopping alone is stressful, shifting from kilos to pounds and reading signs about prices,” she said.

OWI also arranges educational events and celebrations featuring cultures of different people in the community—such as introducing Iraqi, Nepali, Burmese, Russian, Asian and African cultures.  Odyssey World International plans a cultural program to introduce Marshall Islanders in May.

“At an event, people meet people, learn about a country’s history.  They share in a meal, music and dancing,” she said.  “These are non-intimidating ways to meet and learn about people.

“It’s sad that immigrants may not feel welcome,” she said.  “It’s mostly because the community is not aware.  Generally, the community is kind, loving and generous once they know.

“We teach volunteers how to make refugees feel valued and respected so they stay,” she said. “The refugees need time, patience and compassion.  They have a right to be here, and we are responsible to help them.

OWI screens volunteers, learns their skills and trains them.  Some know other languages.

“By volunteering one hour, community people may gain a friend,” Karen said.  “Volunteering is an opportunity to embrace people who are different and learn how to make life here easier for them as they start over.”

The immigrants need to learn when to dial 911 and what to do if they don’t speak English.  They learn how to use the bus system, navigate the medical system, order a salad with dressing, read a map and fill out applications.  They need to know to be at work on time, what daylight savings time is, the need to call the school when a child is sick, what to wear to an interview and the importance of making eye contact.  They need to learn how to use a dishwasher, refrigerator, smoke detector or circuit box, or what to do if the toilet is clogged.

Behind smiles of people trying to adjust and survive here, Karen said, are stories of people who have been traumatized and fled their homelands.

She also connects some with counseling, so they can deal with traumas and reduce the effects on their children.

Karen brought one family into her life.  Two years ago, she went to the airport to meet a 60-year-old woman from Congo who came via a refugee camp in Tanzania with her 13-year-old granddaughter, Angie. 

“I decided they could be my family, because I have no family here,” said Karen, whose daughter teaches English in Germany and whose son is in Montana.

“I became Angie’s parent, going to parents’ night at Lewis and Clark.  I have become immersed in their lives, teaching them about life here, teaching English with songs and by watching PBS news.”

She recently helped them bring Angie’s aunt, uncle and their six children here.  After they arrived in December, 30 volunteers helped them settle into their new home.

When Angie found it hard to make friends, Karen asked her hairdresser to urge her two daughters to befriend her.

By involving volunteers, she hopes people will become aware of their neighbors.  As refugees adjust, they return to volunteer to help the next group, said Karen, who attends Ready to Serve Ministries and has a Catholic background.

She attends many churches, Baptist to Life Center to non-denominational, often going to recruit volunteers. 

“Most people in churches have a heart to help,” she said.

Karen said OWI has helped about 590 people improve their lives.

For information, call 625-6958 or visit