Boris Borisov sees people.
He sees their talents, their heart and their willingness to serve, and then he asks for their help.
That’s how he was able to pull the Spokane Slavic community together in a grassroots effort to create a soft landing place for the thousands of Ukrainians who sought refuge in Spokane this year.
“Boris is very good at being able to see the different gifts and talents that people have and being able to pull their strengths out of them,” said Violet Tsyukalo, a member of the Ukraine Relief Coalition.
Borisov’s family immigrated to the United States in 1992 as part of the first wave of Slavic refugees fleeing a collapsing Soviet Union.
Like many Slavic people at the time, the Borisovs had heard Spokane was a welcoming place with an established church already in place, an especially attractive point with so many people fleeing religious persecution. But the main draw was Spokane’s affordability.
Borisov’s parents were able to buy a home for under $30,000 while working nights and taking English classes. They found work quickly, too – his dad as a carpenter and his mother as a phlebotomist.
Spokane’s magnetic pull to Slavic refugees and immigrants was so interesting to Borisov that he did his undergraduate thesis on the topic, while studying urban planning and urban development at Eastern Washington University.
Slavic people make up about 10% of Spokane County, Borisov estimates. There are Russian-speaking churches, after-school programs and classes to ensure the language gets passed on. That allows people like Borisov, 35, to feel American while also maintaining strong ties to their heritage, he said.
After graduating from college, Borisov worked for nearly a decade at the city of Spokane as a city planner. He managed a grant to redo Market Street, working with the business association. He worked on tax incentives to draw new companies to Spokane and, as one of his last projects, managed the North Monroe Street rebuild.
At the same time, Borisov was serving as the youth pastor at Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church, one of the largest Slavic churches in Spokane. Services at the church are held in Russian but with so many second-generation immigrants and people marrying into the Slavic community, Borisov felt it was important to have an English option.
He began preaching an English service, which grew to the point of needing to split off into a separate church, Borisov said. By 2017, he was pastoring Pacific Keep Church and working full time at the city. Two full-time jobs became too much, and Borisov chose ministry.
The church was really growing, but then COVID-19 hit and services moved online, he said. Borisov and his team kept the church afloat, but it was a difficult time. Then two years into the pandemic, Russia attacked Ukraine.
Immediately, Borisov called the pastor at Pilgrim Baptist, Alexander Kapriyan. Both men knew their community would be hurting with so many family members still in Ukraine, many of whom would likely flee to the U.S.
The Saturday after the war began, Borisov, Kapriyan and a handful of other pastors met and formed a committee to help support their community.
The committee, headed by Borisov, quickly transformed into the Ukrainian Relief Coalition, a group designed to raise awareness and funds for Ukrainians.
The coalition began helping the families arriving in Spokane in any way they could. That’s when Borisov called his friend Mark Finney, a former director at the refugee resettlement agency World Relief, who was in the process of founding his own nonprofit, Thrive International.
Finney explained to the coalition that there wasn’t any money from the government or other sources set aside yet to help resettle Ukrainians. The government was still in the process of setting up immigration procedures for the refugees.
Weeks later, the Washington State Department of Commerce announced they would take applications for grants to aid Ukrainian families. The process was expedited, with Commerce using that year’s leftover funds. With the help of the Spokane County commissioners, they applied and Thrive received $1 million. The problem? They had to spend the money in just about 40 days.
Borisov and other members of the URC took leaves of absence from their jobs to work full time on getting the money into the hands of refugees.
“I have never had to implement something this fast,” Borisov said.
At the same time, Finney had connected with a real estate developer who bought a handful of local hotels with plans to convert them into apartments. He offered to lease Thrive an old Quality Inn on the lower South Hill. Refugees could live in the hotel rooms as the investor renovated the space, floor by floor.
It was a risk, Borisov said, because the URC and Thrive only had anecdotal data on the number of Ukrainians in the area in need of housing. The grant was on a reimbursement basis, so if the hotel wasn’t full, Thrive wouldn’t be reimbursed for the cost of the lease.
They took the leap of faith figuring out how to run a hotel while giving away a million dollars, Borisov said.
The hotel was full three weeks later.
Now, Thrive needed someone to manage the property, and Borisov knew just who to call: Lidia Pauline, a childhood friend who had extensive property management experience but had spent the past few years as a stay-at-home mom.
When she got the call from Borisov, Pauline immediately said she wasn’t interested but, after some coaxing, agreed to come in for an interview, she said.
She left the interview saying she needed to think about it, Borisov recalled. He headed into some other meetings and when he came out, there was Pauline behind the front desk.
“I think immediately after she walked in there and saw Ukrainian people, something flipped in her heart,” Borisov said.
While the refugees did pull on Pauline’s heartstrings, she said it was Borisov’s pitch, his confidence in her and the project that pushed her to take the job.
“Boris has this … intuition of finding the right person for the right position,” Pauline said. “It was almost like a little bit of divine intervention.”
Borisov’s church was in a transition period, too, waiting for their new building to be ready to return to in-person services.
They began holding services at the Thrive Center, and residents attended in droves.
“I look around the room and realized more than half of these people don’t understand English,” Borisov said. “So I translated my own sermon on the spot.”
He began preaching in two languages as church members welcomed in the refugees, who continued to attend the church when Pacific Keep moved to their new building on Ash Street.
“They feel like this is their church now,” Borisov said of his new parishioners. “This is their home, spiritually.”
Now, Borisov and the URC are focused on helping Ukrainians integrate into their new home and find permanent housing, jobs and community. The URC continues to put out a monthly newsletter sharing the stories of their church partners in Ukraine and raising money for those on the ground.
Through all of it, Borisov has tried to exemplify the origins of the Christian church as a welcoming place for everyone, where anyone can find community, love and hope, he said.
“Everybody has a role and everybody has dignity,” Borisov said.
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