Intern understands discrimination people seeking housing face
Rachel Shomali’s work as an intern at the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance is an opportunity for her to talk with people experiencing discrimination as they seek housing in Spokane.
As a dual citizen of the United States and Palestine, she identifies with the struggle of people facing discrimination,
“I talk with people who phone to figure if the discrimination is based on one of seven classes—race, color, national origin, religion/creed, disability, family status or gender/sex—protected by federal and state fair housing laws,” she said.
Because she speaks Arabic, as well as English, she takes some of the calls from Arab speakers.
Rachel has been in Spokane since August 2019 as one of four young adult interns participating in the second year of the Disciples of Christ’s XPLOR program, which also has sites in St. Louis, Dallas, Hiram, Ohio and Bloomington, Ind.
The interns live in community and serve local nonprofits: Family Promise, the Women’s Hearth and the Marilee Apartments.
“Based on my interests, I was matched with the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance,” she said. “I applied to seek opportunities, because jobs in Palestine are limited.”
Born in Michigan, she moved with her family to Beit Sahour in the Bethlehem district of Palestine when she was 12. She graduated from an American high school and studied at Birzeit University north of Jerusalem, graduating in December 2018 with a degree in marketing. She spent fall semester of 2017 in Bilbao, Spain, so she knows some Spanish, too.
Through her affiliation with the YWCA and YMCA in Palestine, and a partnership through the Disciples Global Ministries, she learned of the Disciples Peace Fellowship peace internship in the summer of 2016. That program takes college students to speak at several Disciples camps in the U.S. She and another woman shared stories about daily life in terms of culture, food and music, and also about life in Palestine, Israel and under occupation.
They told of Palestinians having limited rights and restricted movement, encountering the wall through the West Bank and checkpoints every day.
“The West Bank is like Swiss cheese, with Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements cut by some roads that are only for Israelis,” Rachel said.
Birzeit University, north of Jerusalem, should be 30 minutes away, but often took her an hour or more, because she was stopped at checkpoints where Israeli soldiers might search the car, check her ID and question her.
In the summer of 2017, she accepted the invitation of a pastor in La Mesa, Calif., near San Diego, to lead adult book discussions and volunteer at a summer camp.
After graduating, Rachel applied for XPLOR, another Disciples program, and worked temporarily in sales at a hotel art gallery and bookshop in Bethlehem.
Visiting U.S. camps and in San Diego, she found most Americans open and receptive.
“When a man in an adult class said all Palestinians are involved in Hamas and are terrorists, I told him that was not true,” Rachel said. “I said Hamas is a political faction that started after occupation in resistance to the conflict and denial of human rights. She pointed out that not all Palestinians are associated with it.
“I told him I believe in nonviolent civil disobedience,” she said.
At Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, Rachel is on staff with several from other countries. Fair housing specialist Abdella Abdella from Sudan handles most of the Arabic callers. Another fair housing specialist, Christina Mitma, is half Peruvian. She and assistant director Shahrokh Nikfar, who immigrated from Iran, have both been there 16 years.
Others on the staff are Marley Hochendorner, executive director, Shannon Bedard, fair housing specialist, and Peggy Rolando, finance manager.
Marley said the XPLOR intern last year, Emily Newsom from Virginia, is working with a fair housing organization in Chicago.
In contrast with other volunteers and interns, XPLOR interns work 30 hours a week with the agency for 10 months.
“That amount of time gives continuity and develops skills so the intern can contribute,” said Marley, who has been with the agency since April 2005.
She had been an attorney in Idaho and Washington, working with Idaho Legal Services and with the Nez Perce tribe. Her son was born in 2004. After her husband found a job in Spokane, the position opened.
“I wanted to practice non-traditional social justice law. Fair housing with a civil rights mission fit,” Marley said.
“As a small agency director, it’s easy to take the ball and run, but I need to be organized enough to delegate work,” she said.
Rachel then discussed ways the alliance helps people facing discrimination in housing.
“For example, if someone faces discrimination because of a disability, the alliance asks the landlord to make reasonable accommodation or modifications, like adding a grab bar in the bathroom,” she said.
Staff analyze impediments to fair housing based on laws, gathering data on barriers impeding a person from finding housing in any of 17 counties the agencies serves.
When Rachel came, the alliance had completed a survey in Spokane on impediments. She has helped do the survey for Snohomish County and Everett.
She also organizes files and events, like an April 23 Annual Fair Housing Conference at the Spokane Convention Center. The conference will draw about 500 property managers, social workers, attorneys, real estate sales people, policy workers and civic leaders.
She helps write Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants and uses her skills in marketing to design posters and PR materials, and to organize community forums.
“I previously had no idea how Fair Housing Law protected people to prevent homelessness,” she said.
Part of XPLOR involves interns living together in a house near North Hill Christian Church and connecting to Disciples churches—North Hill and Country Homes Christian churches.
The interns have their own rooms and share meals three times a week, taking turns with cooking.
“We dedicate time each week to the churches, helping organize events and leading study programs,” said Rachel, who began in January an adult Bible study discussion telling of daily life in Palestine under military occupation.
She helped in October with the church’s “Trunk or Treat” Halloween outreach and will participate in a regional youth retreat in March.
Disciples pastor Tiffany DeTienne is the interns’ spiritual advisor, meeting with the four on Fridays, inviting them to reflect on their internships, discuss current issues such as racism and violence, and share how they relate to Christianity.
Rachel, who grew up Catholic and has connected with different churches over the years, finds that the Disciples’ focus on social justice relates to her faith roots.
She especially liked the Peace Fellowship platform to talk about social justice and work with different NGOs on justice.
For information, call 209-2670 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2020