Check out our Volunteers of the Month Spotlight and Interns Spotlight. Special thanks to our pro bono attorneys and committed volunteers who make our work here at HRI possible. You all are amazing!
Name: Jin-Ya Huang
Hometown: Dallas, TX (West) & Taipei, Taiwan (East)
Educational History: University of Texas at Dallas, Bachelors in Arts & Humanities
Company: Mother, Mixed Media Artist, Social Practice Educator, Packaging Manager at Fossil Group
Volunteer Position: RYHO Event Planning Committee
Hobby:When I’m not making art, I enjoy time with my son and my family.
How did you hear about HRI? Through Janeil Engelstad at Make Art with Purpose. MAP is an organization and virtual resource center for creative projects that are shaping and transforming our world in positive ways. I had expressed my interest in making a difference and wanting to be of service to our immigrant and refugee community, so Janeil pointed the way and introduced me to Bill Holston. He and the HRI staff helped set me on the joyous and enriching path I remain on today. Their guidance and friendship have been invaluable in my professional life, artistic practice, and personal fulfillment.
Why HRI? I am a domestic violence survivor. Being an immigrant and an artist, I thought it was important to give voice to others like me who went through this experience – to let them know they’re not alone. Thus the collaboration of “Words/Swords”, an art project that did storytelling of HRI’s clients heroic survival. This was the beginning concept for the art auction and concert, Rock Your HeART Out -through this event we have the chance to share the client’s journeys to freedom with our community.
‘Aha Moment’ I lost my mom to multiple myeloma in December of 2015. We were very close, and she was the one who taught me first hand about community building. She knew about the work I do at HRI, and was very encouraging about it all. Every time I see a smile on a client’s face, or see the twinkle in the volunteer’s eyes – I’m reminded of how my mom beamed with pride, as she thanked people for letting her help to make this world a better place to be. I want to be able to pay it forward like she did, honor her legacy, affect everyone’s lives like she was able to touch in a positive way.
What have you learned? I learned from my mom you have be humble, and to be grateful to roll up your sleeves to do the work, set a good example for my son, and be a good model when I’m doing the necessary work in the community. At HRI I’ve learned to ask on top of that – what more I may do to be of further assistance. If my superpowers are to take out the trash, then I’m going to humbly be the best waste management you’ve ever met on the volunteer team.My life forever changed when I interviewed multiple clients who escaped war torn countries or survived abuse and persecution. It made me realize the positive affect HRI has on a global scale, right from our own backyard. At the time of our first art project, the clients came from over 80 countries in the world. I’m a mom to a 9 year-old boy. For us to get up and drive to school or work is a privilege and luxury and many are not afforded everyday. So we are always inspired with gratitude. I still remember the following conversation with a VAWA client, and what she told me really moved me – to know how one person can do so much: Simply because when there is a will, there is a way.
“I don’t want to be like my mom. I want to break the pattern. I prayed for my boys and for a different life. I know I’m lucky to be here. Now I want to help; help the other Muslim women, who were also abused. Help them get educated, help them stand up. Be their bridge – to Independence, and Freedom.” – HRI VAWA client
From the words of one my favorite activist, Grace Lee Boggs – “We are the Leaders We’ve Been Looking For.” It has been a phenomenal experience how HRI’s clients helped me realize my true potential. They have done so much to lead me to success of producing socially conscious art. It has been a true honor to serve along side them, and I look forward to more brilliant opportunities to come.
Name: Jeff Coleman
Hometown: Dallas, TX
Educational History: J.D., Texas Tech University
Company: Pro Se Staff Attorney at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas
Volunteer Position: Pro Bono Attorney since 2011
Hobby: When I’m not working I enjoy camping and being outdoors.
Why HRI? While living in Guatemala in the early 90’s, I saw how political instability and poverty can wreak havoc on a population and I realized how I had taken my relative ease of life for granted. Then when my wife and I married, we went through the immigration process. (She and my daughter are from Mexico). I saw how absolutely convoluted the system could be. Once I became an attorney, I wanted to do what I could to help people through the intimidating immigration system in any way I could. After hearing about the work HRI does and meeting some of the friendly and open staff (Melissa Weaver), I felt HRI was a great fit for me. It’s evident that HRI puts a priority on knowledgeable and pleasant staff. Those are two characteristics that don’t always go together in the legal profession so when I found it at HRI, I jumped in.
‘Aha Moment’ That’s easy. In one of my recent volunteer opportunities, I worked with a 14-year old who had made his way from Central America to the U.S. overland and all alone, except for a couple other children younger than him. He had many stories of events that took place on that journey, anyone one of which would have defeated my 14-year-old self. It wasn’t simply that he had survived these situations. Many kids make that same journey. It was that he had endured them and come through them with his sense of positivity and humor intact. This drove home to me that my volunteer work isn’t a one-way encounter where I am helping my clients through a difficult situation. My clients are teaching me volumes at the same time I am providing assistance to them.
“I have known it for some time, but my volunteer work has crystallized this idea for me. We as humans are all in this together. We’re more similar than we think and powers that control the ‘immigration narrative’ often have it completely backward. I strive to be a counter to the current narrative. It’s good to remember that if you stop, still your mind and listen, you will be the one who is enlightened by your client. That has happened over and over in my 6 years as a volunteer with HRI.” -Jeff Coleman
Name: Rehan M. Safiullah
Hometown: Montreal, Canada
Educational History: J.D., Texas Tech School of Law
Company: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
Volunteer Position: Pro Bono Attorney
Hobby: When I’m not working in patent litigation I enjoy playing hockey with my son.
Why HRI? A particular case caught my attention. Despite the horrendous abuses my client had suffered and the clear basis for asylum relief, he had been denied asylum. I thought it would be a real injustice for my client to be returned to his home country, Sri Lanka -where he was likely to be tortured or killed. Also, I was impressed with the people at HRI who really devoted themselves to helping people like my client.
‘Aha Moment’ It’s not very dramatic, but my colleague, Ifti Ahmed, found a really great case that fit my client’s fact pattern perfectly. I was overjoyed at seeing that case, it raised my hopes for a victory for our client!
“The best things come with real effort. This case showed me that even when you think you have the facts and law on your side, you never know how a judge might rule. Sometimes, you have to give it your all in advocating for your client to achieve victory. It took two appeals but we finally achieved asylum for our client, who was in the greatest need. That extra effort can be the difference in someone’s life—I won’t forget that.” -Rehan Safiullah
Name: C.W. “Charlie” Smith
Hometown: Hobbs, New Mexico
Educational History: M.A. English/History
Company: Retired SMU Faculty
Volunteer Position: Translator and Clerical Grunt
Hobby: When I’m not reading and writing I enjoy biking and kayaking.
Why HRI? I liked the size and focus of HRI and that so much of the work, legal work, was done pro bono by local lawyers. Also, after the Trump victory in November, I felt a need to help immigrants in any way I could, and I wanted an opportunity to challenge my Spanish skills and use them.
‘Aha Moment’: When doing translations, you encounter the serious depth of people’s experiences that have led or driven them from their homelands to come here. Translating documents and statements by ordinary folks takes you into the language and idioms spoken by ordinary people in their everyday lives, and there are not always dictionary solutions for linguistic puzzles.
“Thanks in large part to the very amiable direction of Elisabeth Hagberg, working with HRI is a very satisfying way to be useful!”
Name: Mary Uzodinma Irozuru
Hometown: Garland, Texas
Educational History: B.A. in Sociology, NYU; J.D., Columbia Law School
Company: Frost Brown Todd LLC
Volunteer Position: Pro Bono Attorney
Hobby: When I’m not working I enjoy traveling the world!
Why HRI? My parents immigrated to this country from Nigeria in the late 1970’s. Over the years, my parents often spoke of the people who supported and encouraged them during those difficult early days. As a family, we are forever grateful for the love, support and generosity my parents received. Supporting the wonderful work HRI does for the most vulnerable among us is my way of paying it forward.
‘Aha Moment’: My client was a sixteen-year-old girl from Benin. When we first met, she was shy, soft-spoken and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by her circumstance. Over the course of several weeks, I watched her slowly become a more confident young lady, but I was in awe of the poise and courage she demonstrated during her asylum interview. She had become a powerful advocate for herself. I was so proud of her!
“Prior to working with HRI, I did not have any immigration law experience and had certainly never worked on an asylum application before. I was more than a little nervous taking on this case, but it was worth it. The best part of this experience was sharing a moment of joy and relief with my client after we learned that she had been granted asylum!”
Name: Elody Clémentine Tignor
Hometown: Compiègne, France
Educational History: B.A. in Political Science & French from the University of Texas at Arlington
Company: Paralegal Clerk at Baker Botts L.L.P.
Volunteer Position: French Translator
Hobby: When I’m not working I hiking and running, anything that keeps me outdoors and active!
Why HRI? I plan to attend law school in the fall of 2017, and my original intention was to become more knowledgeable in Human Rights Law while using my French language skills; however, volunteering as a translator has given me much more insight than simply translating documents from French to English. I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for the attorneys and clients throughout the time I have volunteered for HRI.
‘Aha Moment’: We live in a country where we take many things for granted, but volunteering for HRI has allowed me to discover and gain a better understanding of the obstacles others endure and the boundaries they have transcended.
“My experience as a volunteer for HRI has shown me that this organization is dedicated to bettering their clients’ lives. While translating is just a small part of the long process, I like to think that I am doing my part to help provide assistance to those who wish to find refuge and success in America. I have learned that these individuals are the key to our universal understanding of different cultures and ideas.”
HUMAN RIGHTS INITIATIVE’S 2016 ANGEL OF FREEDOM AWARDS
InterNations Dallas Volunteer Group
“The InterNations Dallas Volunteer Group would like to thank HRI for this award and for the opportunity it provides to offer our international members the ability to support a cause that is dear to our hearts being also away from our homelands. InterNations Dallas feels privileged to partner with HRI and is humbled to be a recipient of the Angel of Freedom award.” -InterNations Dallas Volunteer Group Consul/Leadership Team.
“We are very proud of John’s work with Human Rights Initiative and his remarkable effort on behalf of those in need of asylum assistance. Like many of our lawyers, John realizes that without the assistance of volunteer attorneys, HRI’s clients will face almost certain persecution or worse in their home countries. Norton Rose Fulbright attorneys like John are privileged to be able to use their knowledge and skills where we can make a meaningful difference. Thank you for recognizing John’s contributions.” -Jonathan Skidmore, partner –in-charge at Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dallas Office
CHASE J. COOPER
HOMETOWN: DALLAS, TEXAS
EDUCATION: INDIANA UNIVERSITY; UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW
COMPANY: JONES DAY
DRIVING FORCE: MANY PEOPLE ARE ENTITLED TO LEGAL PERMANENT RESIDENCY OR OTHER BENEFITS UNDER U.S. IMMIGRATION LAW, BUT THOSE BENEFITS DO NOT MEAN ANYTHING WITHOUT THE ABILITY TO ACCESS THEM. THE SYSTEM IS VERY DIFFICULT TO NAVIGATE ALONE, AND TOO MANY PEOPLE ARE FORCED TO LIVE IN THE SHADOWS OR RETURN TO DESPERATE CIRCUMSTANCES IN THEIR COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN, SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY DO NOT HAVE A LAWYER. ONE OF THE MANY WAYS HRI HELPS PRO BONO LAWYERS IS TO SCREEN POTENTIAL CLIENTS AND IDENTIFY ONES WHO ARE THE MOST LIKELY CANDIDATES FOR RELIEF UNDER THE LAW; THIS PROCESS HELPS US FOCUS OUR TIME AND RESOURCES ON KIDS AND ADULTS WHO JUST NEED A LAWYER TO GET THAT RELIEF.
‘A HA’ MOMENT: EVERY TIME I CALL OR EMAIL HRI WITH A QUESTION I HAVE AN “AHA MOMENT.” THE HRI TEAM IS BOTH EXPERIENCED AND KNOWLEDGEABLE. THEY ARE BEYOND GENEROUS WITH THEIR TIME AND HAVE BEEN A GREAT SOURCE OF ADVICE AND GUIDANCE ON ALL MY CASES.
HRI TAKE AWAY: I’VE LEARNED A LOT ABOUT THE MANY KIDS WHO TRAVEL ALONE TO THE UNITED STATES FROM MEXICO AND CENTRAL AMERICA HOPING TO ESCAPE VIOLENCE, ABUSE, AND NEGLECT. I’VE ALSO LEARNED ABOUT SOME OF THE PROGRAMS THAT ARE AVAILABLE TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LIVE AND WORK IN THIS COUNTRY LEGALLY, AND THE WAYS THAT PRO BONO ATTORNEYS CAN HELP MAKE THAT HAPPEN.
FUN FACT: WHEN I’M NOT WORKING I ENJOY SPENDING TIME WITH MY HUSBAND, KENT, AND OUR DOGS, VP AND MJ.
“THE KIDS I WORK WITH ARE ALWAYS NERVOUS ON DAYS WE HAVE TO GO TO COURT. IT’S AN INTIMIDATING EXPERIENCE FOR ANYONE. I REALLY ENJOY SEEING THEIR RELIEF AND JOY AFTER A SUCCESSFUL HEARING. AT THE END OF ONE HEARING, THE JUDGE LEANED OVER THE BENCH, SHOOK MY CLIENT’S HAND, WELCOMED HER TO THE UNITED STATES, AND TOLD HER TO LET HIM KNOW IF ANYONE GAVE HER ANY TROUBLE. IT WAS A MOMENT OF PRIDE FOR ME AS AN AMERICAN CITIZEN.”
HOMETOWN: DALLAS, TEXAS
EDUCATION: UT AT AUSTIN & SMU DEDMAN SCHOOL OF LAW
COMPANY: STRASBURGER & PRICE LLP
DRIVING FORCE: I THINK ASYLUM SEEKERS ARE THE BRAVEST PEOPLE I’VE EVER MET. THEY SUFFER TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES FOR THEIR BELIEFS – BELIEFS IN BASIC FREEDOMS THAT I TAKE FOR GRANTED IN MY EVERYDAY LIFE. I AM IN AWE OF THEIR TERRIFIC SACRIFICES. THEY’VE FOUGHT FOR SO LONG, AND THEY DESERVE TO HAVE SOMEBODY FIGHT FOR THEM. IT IS AN EXTRAORDINARY PRIVILEGE TO REPRESENT THEM.
‘A HA’ MOMENT: THERE ARE MANY. THE FIRST TIME A CLIENT TOLD HER STORY, I FELT A CHILL – IT WAS A GLIMPSE INTO A LIFE WHERE FEAR OF THE GOVERNMENT WAS PRESENT AND PERVASIVE FROM AN EARLY AGE. I’M SURE I’VE FELT POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE FEELINGS ABOUT OUR GOVERNMENT DURING MY LIFE, BUT RAW FEAR IS NOT SOMETHING I’VE EVER EXPERIENCED.
HRI TAKEAWAY: IT IS A REMARKABLE EXPERIENCE THAT IMPACTS MY WORLD VIEW AND PROVIDES ME WITH A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF HUMANITY. ASYLUM SEEKERS ARE OFTEN UNDER SUCH TREMENDOUS STRESS THAT IT BRINGS INTO SHARP FOCUS WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT IN LIFE. I HAVE UNENDING GRATITUDE FOR THE OPPORTUNITY, AND A DESIRE TO DO SO MUCH MORE.
FUN FACT: WHEN I’M NOT PRACTICING LAW I ENJOY SPENDING TIME WITH MY FAMILY, ACTING, AND PLAYING THE GUITAR.
“I’VE LEARNED THAT TAKING A STAND FOR ONE’S BELIEFS IS NOT A CLEAR-CUT PROPOSITION; THE ADVERSITY THAT ASYLUM SEEKERS FACE IS COMPLEX. THEY MAY FACE GREAT PERSECUTION FROM THEIR TORMENTORS AS WELL AS RESENTMENT FROM FAMILY MEMBERS – ALL AT THE SAME TIME. IT CAN BE A VERY LONELY PLACE TO BE. BUT MY CLIENT MADE AN EXTRAORDINARY CONTRIBUTION TO HER COUNTRY, AND HER EFFORTS WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN. NOW IT IS MY RESPONSIBILITY TO HELP HER FIND A BRIGHTER FUTURE.”
Name: Catherine Parsley
Hometown: Austin, TX
College: SMU Dedman School of Law
Position: Summer 2017 Legal Intern
Areas of Interest: Human Rights, Public Service\
Personal Hobbies: Reading, watching TV, pub-style trivia
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to graduate law school and start my career.
Favorite HRI memory: Being able to come back for a second summer of good work!
Name: Olivia Gibbs
Hometown: Westlake, TX
College: University of Pennsylvania
Major: Political Science
Position: Summer 2017 Social Services Intern
Areas of Interest: Immigration, children’s rights, domestic violence
Personal Hobbies: Watching basketball, watching classic movies, and painting
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to graduate summa cum laude from Penn and go to a top law school.
Favorite HRI memory: I love speaking with clients in Spanish. Communicating with someone in their native language goes a long way in making them feel comfortable and trust you.
Name: Mary Park Durham
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
College: Entering Emory University in the fall of 2017
Major: International Studies
Position: Summer 2017 Client Intake Intern
Areas of Interest: Immigration law, human rights, language, political science
Personal Hobbies: cycling, trying new foods, hiking
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is graduate college and continuing on to find amazing summer internship opportunities all over the world.
Favorite HRI memory: doing my first phone intake!
Name: Alexandra Masri
Hometown: New Orleans, LA
COllege: Tulane University Law School
Position: Summer 2017 legal intern
Areas of interest: Human Rights & Domestic Violence Law, Reproductive Justice
Personal hobbies: Creative writing, Baptiste yoga
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to graduate law school, pass the Bar, and advocate for and represent women and children.
Favorite HRI memory: I’ve really loved seeing clients with whom I conducted initial intakes get matched with local pro bono attorneys through THe organization. It’s been great to see that the work we’ve done has directly aided survivors of human rights abuses.
Name: Simina Grecu
Hometown: Dallas, TX
College: Vanderbilt Law School
Position: Summer 2017 Asylum Intern
Areas of Interest: Human Rights, Corporate Law, Litigation
Personal Hobbies: Reading, ballroom dance, working out
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to find a fulfilling attorney position in Dallas and continue serving my community through pro bono work.
Favorite HRI memory: When Bill brought paletas and shared them with the whole office.
NAME: Raphaela van Oers
HOMETOWN: Dallas, TX
COLLEGE: McGill University
MAJOR: Bachelor of Arts
POSITION: Senior Project Intern for High school
AREAS OF INTEREST: Human rights, women’s rights, international relations
PERSONAL HOBBIES: Playing piano, technical theater for school plays
FIVER: My goal for the next five years is to finish my undergraduate studies.
FAVORITE HRI MEMORY: My favorite memory from HRI is probably doing the intakes, because I know that, even if it’s a small amount, I am helping the people that are sitting directly across from me.
Name: Destiny Kanu
Hometown: Bar Harbor, Maine
College: University of Texas at Austin
Major: International Relations and Global Studies; French Studies
Position: Spring 2017 Development Intern
Areas of Interest: Human Rights, Environmental Conservation
Personal Hobbies: Hiking, Kayaking, Cultural Exploration, Rock Climbing
FIVER: To graduate with my J.D. and to obtain a clerkship either within the US or at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Favorite HRI memory: My first client intake! Nothing will ever top the feeling of having someone so in need of help find solace and hope in what you do. I also generally love interviewing people and learning about their personal triumphs in the face of great challenge.
Name: Rachel Elkin
College: SMU Dedman School of Law
Position: Spring 2017 Legal Intern
Areas of Interest: Women’s Rights
Personal Hobbies: obsessively following all of the Real Housewives
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to become a women’s rights attorney.
Favorite HRI memory: Breakfast every Thursday morning!
Name: Tess Wafelbakker
Hometown: Morgan Hill, California
College: SMU Dedman School of Law
Position: Spring 2017 Immigrant Children’s Project Extern
Areas of Interest: Immigration, human rights, human trafficking
Personal Hobbies: Traveling, knitting, running, & baking
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to be working as a licensed attorney and helping the underserved sectors in our community.
Favorite HRI memory: Sitting in on a client intake session on my very first day and remembering why I wanted to become a lawyer.
Name: Lora Taylor
Hometown: Frisco, TX
College: Currently High School Senior, headed to Arkansas University
Position: Frisco ISD Independent Study & Mentorship
Areas of Interest: Human Rights, Ending Human Trafficking
Personal Hobbies: Playing Ukulele & Piano, reading, and spending time with friends and family.
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to be successful in college and use that as a springboard for future endeavors.
Favorite HRI memory: Being in the office when a SJIS client received his green card! It was so wonderful to see how excited he was!
Name: Luciana Milano
Hometown: McAllen, Texas
Law School: SMU Dedman School of Law
Position: Fall 2016 Extern
Areas of Interest: immigration, healthcare policy, religious liberty
Personal Hobbies: wine tastings, zumba, & skeet shooting
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to gain litigation experience, develop an area of expertise, and work on public policy.
Favorite HRI memory: I really enjoyed being able to help finish a client’s immigration application right before the Christmas holiday.
Name: Ariel Nicole Lira
Hometown: Richardson, TX
College: University of Houston, BA in Political Science
Law School: Texas A&M School of Law, 3L, Juris Doctor 2017
Position: Fall 2016 Legal Intern
Areas of Interest: Immigration, Human Rights, Domestic Violence, & Victim relief Services
Personal Hobbies: Singing, church, & drawing
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to graduate law school, pass the bar exam, and get a job at a non-profit organization working with immigrant victims.
Name: Patrick Hodges
Hometown: Bailey, MS (I’ve moved around a lot, born in Stuttgart, Germany, lived outside Seattle, lived in Nashville, but spent most of my formative years in rural MS)
College: Vanderbilt University for BA, SMU Dedman School of Law
Major: Undergrad – Double major in Political Science & Philosophy; J.D.
Position: Fall 2016 Legal Intern
Area of Interest: International Humanitarian Law
Personal Hobbies: Disc golf, Premier League Soccer, & board games
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to begin legal work with a US agency, intergovernmental agency or NGO focused on International Humanitarian Law or Economic Development. Also, I hope for my wife and I to increase our family size from 2 to maybe 3 or 4!
Name: Araceli Herrera
College: Eastfield College
Major: Social Work
Position: Fall 2016 Social Services Intern
Areas of Interest: Human Rights, social services, & women’s rights
Personal Hobbies Dancing,reading, & watching Netflix with my family
Fiver: My goal for the next five years is to get my bachelors Degree in Social Work.
Favorite HRI memory: My favorite memory is working on the Holiday Wish program for HRI’s clients and their families, i also enjoyed the Thanksgiving celebration and clothing drive hosted by InterNations for HRI’s clients and their families, being able to see the hope on the client’s face when they received the help of HRI was amazing. Lastly, I enjoyed, working with a great and professional team. Long live Human Rights INITIATIVE!