A unique integration project for Seattle’s immigrant seniors

Immigrating to the United States can often lead to feelings of hope and excitement as well as isolation, loneliness or fear especially as an elderly person. Reestablishing one’s life is difficult and can be especially challenging for elderly immigrants and refugees, as they navigate the life changes that often come with age. For the last 12 years, the St. James Cathedral Immigrant Assistance outreach service in inner-city Seattle has been supporting and encouraging elderly immigrants and refugees to explore their community while educating them on city-wide resources through the Elder Integration Project. The goal of the project is to ensure participants successfully integrate into the community while encouraging them to maintain or regain their independence.

The Elder Integration Project was inspired after many elderly clients sought to remain active and engaged with volunteers and other group members after naturalizing or receiving services. Before embarking on city adventures, the participants are often paired with volunteers from the parish or community to assist with interpreting and translating services. In groups, they explore the neighborhoods and the many resources offered to the general public, all in conjunction with learning about each other’s culture. Those currently participating in the project come from Russia, Japan, Ethiopia and China. Although anyone interested can participate, the project aims to engage those most isolated and hopes to give them a sense of community.

The Elder Integration Project works to expose the immigrant community to different backgrounds and heritage and will often have volunteers host workshops. In the past, Japanese-Americans hosted a crash course on making sushi, providing the perfect opportunity to invite everyone to come together and participate. “They are very engaging and fun to be with”, said Chris Koehler, the program’s director. With local government support, participants also attend a coffee hour at the mayor’s office and have previously received funds from an outside organization to support participants in creating cookbooks for their grandchildren.

On a recent visit to Seattle University, the group was invited to sit in during a globalization class. Over lunch, the participants had the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences with students, an enjoyable get-together for everyone in attendance. Tania Rzhondkovska — who coordinates the Elder Integration Project and former student and volunteer— recalls teaching one of her groups about public transportation. A month or so later, she learned that workshop participants were taking public transportation to visit the shops nearby and attend local community concerts by themselves, empowering them to live an active, independent and healthy lifestyle. Other activities included participating in the community garden, volunteering at the State Capital and hosting potlucks.

CLINIC applauds St. James Cathedral Immigrant Assistance and their collaborations, which help build integrated communities. For more promising initiatives to incorporate in your community, visit the Center for Immigrant Integration's webpage. Don’t forget to email us lspeasmaker@cliniclegal.org to tell us how your organization is promoting integration!