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Tri Cities Immigrant Coalition serves community

Marsha Stipe
Marsha Stipe

From involvement on the Mission and Social Justice Committee of Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland, Marsha Stipe helped form the Tri-Cities Immigrant Coalition (TCIC) and continues to find avenues for the church to serve the community, including helping Afghan refugees.

Because of financial struggles of people during COVID, TCIC recently decided to form the Tri-Cities Mutual Aid Project to help people who lost jobs or hours in food service, agriculture and service and did not qualify for any federal assistance.

Marsha said the community has been devastated by the pandemic: "We knew people needed cash to help with rent, utilities, food and health costs, so we started the fund."

It prioritizes people who are undocumented, are 60 or older, lost jobs or hours, were quarantined without pay, have disabilities and grave illnesses, are experiencing homelessness, are people of color or LGBTQ and affected by COVID. Recipients live in Franklin or Benton counties and did not receive federal stimulus checks nor receive unemployment compensation.

For the Mutual Aid Project, TCIC partners with the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) and Planned Parenthood. Applications are available through the WAISN state Help Line—844-724-3737—which receives hundreds of calls from the Tri-Cities.

"Our initial goal was to raise $5,000 and give awards of $150 to $300 to those who qualified. When we first opened the application process, we received 400 applications, so we needed more funds," she said. "The pandemic has lasted longer than we ever imagined.

"With the urgency, we 'went on the road' to raise funds and increased our goal to $50,000, then to $100,000 and now we have raised $120,000 on our way to $150,000," Marsha said.

In August, the Mutual Aid Fund opened a second round of applications and received 110 applications.

As of mid-September, the Mutual Aid Fund had given out more than $115,000 in awards of $150 to $500 to more than 325 people, mostly women with children. 

Funds have come from grants, churches, businesses, foundations, local and state organizations, and individuals. Some give monthly. The Tri-Cities Immigrant Coalition, a nonprofit with Shalom UCC, is the fiscal agent. Donations are mailed to Tri-Cities Immigrant Coalition, Shalom UCC, 505 McMurray St., Richland WA 99354.

"Fund recipients have been more than grateful. Some have said they didn't know that anyone cared," Marsha said. "This project demonstrates that our community does care. All donations go directly to families and individuals in need."

Marsha said the Tri-Cities Immigrant Coalition, which she chairs, was formed in 2017 in response to negative press about immigrants.

Shalom's Mission and Social Action Committee sent a letter to churches and organizations inviting people to come together to counteract those messages.

Seventy came to an initial meeting in June 2017 for training with a group from Walla Walla. The Tri-Cities group formed. More than 90 people are now on the TCIC group mailing list. The core is about 25, many from Shalom, but also from other churches, social service organizations, private businesses, attorneys, farm workers, labor organizations and other community members.

"We began by educating ourselves and the community, by engaging with community organizations and churches to network, by doing advocacy through writing elected officials, and by supporting immigrants," said Marsha, who worked before retirement as a speech and language clinician, in special education, as a school administrator and assistant superintendent of schools in several communities.

"With COVID, we shifted TCIC from doing education talks, tabling to inform people of their rights and holding community forums on economic and legal issues for immigrants, because those activities were face-to-face," she said.

They added the Mutual Aid Project, wrote letters to the editor, offered petitions and continued one-on-one access to community services.

"We are flexible, meeting monthly, to network and share information and resources. Often we have a speaker," she said.

On Sept. 14, Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound-American Muslim Empowerment Network, spoke  and invited the TCIC to add another dimension to their mission: resettling Afghan refugees through World Relief in the Tri Cities.

"Several members had expressed interest in resettling Afghan refugees. We are working with the Tri-Cities Afghan Resettlement Support Project sponsored by the Mid-Columbia Islamic Center, as well as World Relief," Marsha said.

"While first formed to educate ourselves about undocumented Hispanic people so we could be a welcoming community, we are now meeting to learn about welcoming Afghan refugees," said Marsha, who joined a state meeting to learn more.

There are many members active in TCIC, so she is confident some can focus on supporting and advocating for citizenship for undocumented immigrants, while others can focus on welcoming refugees.

Marsha said she and her husband Mike are relative newcomers at Shalom UCC. For 40 years, they attended Episcopal churches as they moved with Mike's work with Express Employment Professionals in Walla Walla, Pendleton, Salt Lake City and Hermiston. They moved to Richland 16 years ago.

They came one Sunday to Shalom UCC and were impressed by its community involvement and social justice commitment.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2021