The American Dream: Carrying Humanity Forward

Below is the final post from De’Jonnae Boyd, our Marketing & Special Events Coordinator, who left HRI today. She has written about her personal journey in this position and what she has learned during her time at HRI and in Dallas. De’Jonnae’s post is deeply personal and she does not speak for Human Rights Initiative as a whole in this post. 

I interviewed for the Marketing and Special Events Coordinator position from my breezy living room in Almeria, Spain. I had a feeling that Texas was all the heat an east coast girl needed. I read the job description and parsed the website, still I had no clue what I was walking into. For the past year I’ve combed through hundreds of headlines like “An Undocumented Teen Gains Asylum With The Help Of His Undocumented Lawyer”, “Sessions Makes His Case for Why Illegal Immigrants Must Be Held Accountable”, “There’s Something Great About the Muslim Ban” and “Illegals  Flood the U.S. Border Amid Immigration Crackdown”. But no headline can fully blueprint what it means to be an undocumented immigrant or asylum-seeker who has been tortured and abused, having landed in the United States of America in search of the American Dream and protection.


Elisabeth, Kavita, and De’Jonnae pictured with our HRI client (who is also a nurse) who bandaged a race participant after a nasty fall!

As Desmond Tutu once put it, “my humanity is yours, for we can only be human together”; this quote resonates with me as a core ideal. It’s hard to imagine what the denial of humanity looks like until you’ve come face to face with it. During one of my first intakes I sat across from a man, Byron*. His  skin was the color of midnight, his eyes a pale yellow. I didn’t quite know what to expect. He started, “I just wanted to advocate for the LGBTQ community in my country, I’m not gay, but they shouldn’t be denied rights because of who they love.” Byron went on to explain in gruesome detail the abuse he had suffered because of his advocacy, being beaten with a pole, raped by several officers, having his jaw broken, hiding in the countryside for years before finding a way out of the country safely (because visas to the U.S., and the E.U. are hard to come by, especially when you’re an average working class citizen). As Byron told his story his eyes glossed over, and he silently stared off into the distance, two women staring at him waiting for what courts call ‘proof of credible fear’. I’ll never forget the look in Byron’s eyes as he struggled to tell us in detail how he’d been raped by the very men who preached their hatred of homosexuality. I struggled to understand why Byron would advocate so fiercely for a group of people whose plight was not his own.

De’Jonnae with baby Rose at the lavender gardens.

During another intake I met Sybil* who had fled her home country in order to protect her baby girl Rose from female genital mutilation. Again, I was left wondering, ‘why?’.

This past year has taught me what it means to carry the burden of humanity, even when the fight to been seen as human is not my own. Coupled with the deteriorating ideal of  the American Dream, the ability to live one’s life hinges upon privilege  During this year, I have learned that it is our duty as freedom fighters to advocate for those who lack privilege; those whose melanin and whose bank accounts reflect the generations of disenfranchised communities and corrupt political systems.

I’m baffled at the times we’re living through. Times where an executive order and the stroke of a pen denies humanity – access – to others who bleed just as red as the citizens of the United States of America do. I am baffled at those who sit with arms folded scanning headlines that read “At least 10 Dead, Dozens More Found in Back of Tractor-Trailer’ thinking to themselves, “they shouldn’t have come here illegally, that’s what those illegals get”. Really, it’s astounding that the same people who cry “they should have gotten a visa” are those whose ancestors migrated visa-less to the Americas in search of  the American Dream.

Within weeks of moving to Texas, I was moved from a place of sympathy to a place of action. I learned quickly that action is what holds humanity together and that it looks differently for each of us. For some, action is praying the rosary in a dimly lit closet. For others it is advocating for the LGBTQ community even when you’re as straight as the Nullarbor Plain; it’s protesting when a Black mother’s son is gunned down in the street, even if your own child hasn’t a care in the world because he doesn’t fit the description.

De’Jonnae’s mentee with HRI Ambassador, Jin-Ya Huang at the Chinese New Year installation.


Action for me has been mentoring a young girl from Fair Park; 

Two of our HRI Ambassadors and De’Jonnae having dinner with Iraqi refugee, Inam

it has been a guessing game over dinner with Iraqi refugees, Inam and Ferrell, because Google Translate clearly has no interest in translating Arabic into comprehensible English. Action for me has been countless protests and vigils, mourning for the young boys who perished at the hands of those entrusted to protect them. Action has been navigating racial reconciliation as a black woman in predominantly white spaces. Action is not always easy, it’s not always comfortable but it is how we carry humanity forward, it is how we carve a path for all to equally access the American Dream.


Working here at HRI has taught me that together we must carry this sense of duty and the burden of humanity which requires us all to fight like hell until even “the least of these” have access to the dream, The American Dream, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. I will carry with me the question ‘who are we to deny access to the immigrant or the darker brother?’.

De’Jonnae and Elisandra share a cup of Ethiopian coffee with an HRI Asylum-seeker!

Because the truth is that our silence and inaction makes us complicit in that denial. We have an obligation to see the humanity in our brethren, to empathize -knowing that only together can we be human and that the American dream tastes best when we’re each equally given an opportunity to live it.

-De’Jonnae Boyd, Marketing & Special Events Coordinator

*Names have been changed to protect our client’s identity.

Carolina Wins Asylum! 

HRI recently won the cases of a 23-year-old Salvadoran woman and her 4-year-old daughter who sought asylum from severe domestic violence.  Carolina began living with her partner when she was only 15, and the abuse started shortly thereafter.  He abused her physically, emotionally, financially, and sexually, including when she was pregnant.  She attempted to leave him on many occasions.  She even moved in with her grandfather in another city, but eventually her partner used his gang connections to track her down and threaten her and her grandfather if she did not return to him.  She called the police once when her partner took their daughter from her, but the police told her that they don’t get involved in “marital problems.”

On July 5, 2017, two years after Carolina entered the U.S. and after extensive written advocacy by HRI’s pro bono team, the government attorney agreed that Carolina merited withholding of removal and agreed to asylum for her daughter, so the judge granted those legal remedies without a trial!

-Mary Durbin, Asylum Program Attorney

Ten Years After

Ten Years After

For almost 10 years I have had the privilege of calling HRI my second home.  This job has seen me through a lot personally- becoming a mother (times 3), the loss of a parent, my own health issues, and multiple scary career changes by my spouse. This job has made me thankful for my life every day. When you hear firsthand from someone about their spouse beating the crap out of them for speaking their mind it makes it much easier to not snap when your husband leaves his shoes in the middle of the living room for the umpteenth time. When you meet with a parent whose child was raped you can’t help but silently thank God for not having to experience that pain.  This job has delivered daily gratitude for the things I have, we all have taken for granted- the ability to feed myself and my family, drive to work with a functioning vehicle and valid driver’s license and insurance, and see law enforcement and not register justifiable fear.

HRI has also allowed me to grow professionally.  Not many careers continue to challenge you ten years in.  Although the Immigration Law part of it has become much easier (and I have become one of the few people who can rattle off sections of the INA on demand, which I am hoping will become a fun bar trick) the counseling portion continues to challenge me.  With the new administration I attempt to calm people daily- sometimes unsuccessfully, but often with laughter.  Early in my career at HRI there was a woman I confronted for not disclosing to me that she had been raped.  I thought I was going to catch her in a lie like on an episode of Law & Order.  She hadn’t told her husband and when I pressed too hard she broke down and told him in my office in front of me.  It was one of the rawest human reactions you can imagine. They will both always have a special place in my heart. That experience taught me to give people space to tell their story at their own pace, when they are ready -not when I’m ready to hear it.  Looking at my clients and telling them that I will advocate for them, knowing that the world has often turned its back to them is one of the best feelings in the world.

What I take away from ten years on the job, aren’t the victories, the wins, the ego strokes. Instead it’s each client who has suffered through tragic events, the ones I could not help. Perhaps it was because there was no legal remedy available to help or because I doubted my own ability to win. In hindsight, I wish I had taken on some of those cases that seemed pointless, like we were guaranteed to lose. But it’s those same cases that drive me forward now. I am leaving the 9-5 life, but I will continue to volunteer. I will continue to take those uphill battles on. Being part of someone’s life in crisis, helping them  rebuilding is an amazing phenomenon I’ve witnessed countless times. The human spirit is implacable. The will to live and laugh when in crisis is what I carry with me.

I am nervous about leaving the HRI family as a staff member.  I know I will never find another boss like the great Bill Holston. I get asked frequently if he really is as cool as he comes off.  He’s actually cooler.  He is a leader, mentor, advocate, and sounding board for me and countless others.  Our staff is all really great- no drama, no fights, and no tension.  The agency has twice the staff as when I joined. Each year we are able to help more people than the year before. To the staff of HRI, I hope you remember you are amazing and to trust your instincts.  To quote Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” These past ten years have been more than I could have ever hoped for. Cheers to this next season and all of the pro bono cases I’ll take on.

-Melissa Weaver, Women’s & Children Program Attorney

The Situation of Urban Refugees in Bangkok

We are thankful to have many great interns that come through our doors at Human Rights Initiative. Many of them are inspired by their work here and go on to amazing careers in human rights. Andrew Damron was a gifted intern with us. He is now an attorney working with asylum seekers in Thailand. He sent us this very thoughtful view of the difficulties of asylum seekers as they try to obtain refugee status.

– Bill Holston, Executive Director


The Situation of Urban Refugees in Bangkok 

By Andrew Damron, Asylum Lawyer at Asylum Access Thailand

First, I want to thank the HRI team for inviting me back to the blog. It’s wonderful to be back. For those who do not know, I am a proud HRI intern alumnus, where I worked under the Asylum Program and the Women and Children Program. Since interning with HRI, I graduated from Hofstra Law School and I am currently an asylum lawyer in Bangkok, Thailand with another great organization called Asylum Access Thailand. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about my work, and to share some perspective on the types of problems we are facing on the ground in the urban refugee context here in Thailand.

The current situation for urban refugees in Bangkok, Thailand is dismal. The difficult Andrew 2situation is compounded for urban refugees in Bangkok partly because the Kingdom of Thailand does not have any mechanisms in place to assist survivors of human rights abuses who have fled their home countries. To date, Thailand is not a member to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. That means that Thailand does not provide any immigration benefits for asylum seekers within its borders.

At Asylum Access, I provide direct legal services to refugees in the urban context (i.e
. refugees who come to Bangkok from outside of Thailand; we do not provide support to refugees in any of the Burmese/Thai border refugee camps). Most of our clients are Pakistanis and Palestinians (from Syria), however a large number of our other clients come from Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and surprisingly many come from various African countries. Since the Thai government does not support refugees in Thailand in any way, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has an agreement with Thailand to process all refugee claims within the Thai borders. I thus practice before the local offices of UNHCR in Bangkok. The ultimate goal is to have our clients recognized as refugees before UNHCR and then to have them resettled to some safe third country.

The situation is severe for urban refugees in Bangkok because UNHCR in Bangkok is overwhelmed beyond its capacity. For various reasons, including lack of space and staff, UNHCR is unable to process each applicant with haste. To highlight this, most asylum-seekers who apply for refugee status today will not receive their asylum interview until 2018. If granted refugee status, it will take at least another year to be resettled. That’s to say, people applying for refugee status today can expect to be in Bangkok for about five years before being resettled.

As mentioned above, Thailand does not have any internal mechanisms to assist the process for asylum-seekers in Thailand. When an individual is seeking asylum through UNHCR, their visa will likely expire before the applicant has their Refugee Status Determination (RSD) interview. As a result, many asylum seekers throughout Bangkok do not have proper immigration documentation and thus are vulnerable to arrest and placement in one of the Immigration Detention Centers throughout Thailand. The harshness of IDC on urban refugees is complicated in that families are broken up and rarely will have the opportunity to spend time with each other (as men are
divided from women in detention). Children are regularly placed in IDC. There are some new campaigns to educate the Thai population about placing children in immigration detention. However, nothing has been done on the part of the Thai government to remove the children from the detention centers.

Further, urban refugees do not have access to much financial or medical support. Without the right to work in Thailand, urban refugees rely on financial handouts from UNHCR, from religious organizations, and from other community-based organizations, however it’s never enough. Oftentimes urban refugees are forced to live in a small studio apartment with a dozen people. Some medical support is provided by the Bangkok Refugee Center and with some other help from UNHCR, however usually only life-threatening physical conditions receive priority.

In two short weeks, I will return to the United States with a new perspective on the role of an asylum attorney. I will continue working in asylum and refugee law, and I will always have Human Rights Initiative to thank for solidifying my passion to help some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.



Guest Blogger: Bentley Brown
In the Absence of Cinema

Abakar Chene Massar wrote and starred in Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou. Photo by Mahamat Ali Boukhary.

Abakar Chene Massar wrote and starred in Le Pèlerin de Camp Nou. Photo by Mahamat Ali Boukhary.

We waited out the midday heat in the shade of a hajlij tree as we always did, and Abakar Chene proposed that we start making films.

I was 16 at the time, and Abakar, slightly older, was the head a of local theatre troupe that performed comedy skits at weddings and special events. We had met on a soccer field three years earlier and had been friends since day one, sipping one glass of mint-muddied green tea at a time.

Armed with a Sony Handycam, we shot a ten-scene drama whose protagonist dabbles in HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories. I edited the film live on a VCR—record, pause, record—channeling live sound from a CD player through a four-track mixer.

It was amateur. It was on VHS. And it was projected one night onto the wall of the town FM radio station.

A hum of excited chatter overtook the audience—laughing perhaps in some places it shouldn’t. The smiles and hand-clapping afterward were accompanied by one complaint: “Why didn’t you use Chadian music? This is the first film we’ve ever seen from Chad—it’s missing Chadian music.”

It wasn’t the first film made in Chad. Years earlier, in 2000, Chadian actor Haikal Zakaria hit screens (or, more accurately, VCD players) as the lead character in Daresalam, perhaps the first Chadian feature-length narrative and certainly the first to garner an international distribution deal.

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Guest Blogger: Justin Banta

Justin Banta

Justin Banta

There’s a kind of ethical trap in writing on human rights and forced migration. On the one hand, one feels compelled to define events in the starkest terms, identifying the most appalling cases to present in galvanizing prose with a clear call to action. On the other hand, it never takes much investigation to understand that many human rights issues are morally fraught and such sharp language obfuscates the most important details. (Darfur may not have been a genocide?)  Yet, perhaps even more challenging for the writer are the cases that do present clear victims and clear perpetrators—it’s these cases (like HRI’s VAWA and asylum cases), where the survivors are universally working to move beyond the instigating crime and violence, that it feels plain wrong to then lift that person up as a cause célèbre. And so the moral compulsion to write about and remember human rights abuses for the sake of the public good (never again!) runs aground in consideration of the victims themselves.

While traveling in East Africa, I came across a story, shared by a journalist friend, about a prominent foreign correspondent who often writes morally charged stories on  conflicts in developing countries. The story itself may well be apocryphal, but as with all such stories, hits at a truth.  The story goes that he arrives at an IDP camp and immediately starts telling people: “I’m looking for a woman whose family was killed, who was injured, and who was raped multiple times.” The people in the IDP camp start asking around and eventually bring him a woman, but he quickly turns her away because she was only raped once and her family is still with her. They find another woman, but again he turns her away for similar reasons. This absurd parade continues until the leadership at the IDP camp are sufficiently offended and they direct him out of the camp to a village still within the conflict zone: “we’re sure you’ll find your victim there.”  He does, of course, and is celebrated for bringing these horrors to the attention of the West.

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Guest Blogger: Scott Rempell

Scott-RempellSoft Discretion in the Asylum Process

Asylum is technically discretionary. Even if an applicant can establish that he or she meets the legal definition of a refugee, an immigration judge can still deny the claim as a matter of discretion. In practice, however, an immigration judge almost never denies an asylum application that satisfies the legal requirements. Even though immigration judges rarely wield their discretionary authority overtly, they do not apply a set of facts to a legal standard in a vacuum. There are a number of factors that may influence whether a judge decides that an applicant has satisfied the legal definition of a refugee. Some of these factors are external and some are internal to the judges themselves.

One of the external factors is the relationship between the United States and the country from where the asylum applicant fled. For example, in the 1980s a civil war engulfed Guatemala. A significant number of Guatemalans fled to the United States to seek refuge. Many presented claims that seemed to provide a genuine basis for fearing that they would be persecuted if deported. However, from 1983 to 1986 immigration judges only granted such asylum applications about three percent of the time. Why was that? Well, consider the role of the United States in Guatemala at the time. The Reagan administration was essentially fighting a proxy war against certain communist countries, pumping large amounts of money into the Guatemalan government’s war effort against rebel groups believed to be supported by communist regimes. What message would it send if immigration judges were granting asylum on the basis of harm that could be attributed to American aid?

There was no official policy to deny such asylum claims. But it’s safe to say that the political realities of the situation contributed to the immigration judges’ assessment of the claim – even though the law is supposed to be “the law.” Just compare the low success rate of Guatemalan nationals with asylum applicants who fled countries with communist regimes in place during that time. The grant rate for asylum applicants from Czechoslovakia, for example, was around forty percent.

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Guest Blogger: Justin Banta

Below is our first guest blog post, written by individuals who support all types of human rights. If you’re interested in being a guest blogger, please contact Jeanette Khan.

Justin Banta

Justin Banta encountering boars during his trip to Belize

Wishing You a Happy International Migrants Day!

It’s December 18th, International Migrants’ Day. Which of course you know, just as you know all the birthdays of your friends and family. I’m sure you remember fondly as I do, dear reader, the day it was established by the UN–hard to believe just 12 years ago–to celebrate the 1990 UN adoption of The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Unfortunately for us, either due to its newness or its proximity to certain other more popular holidays (I’m looking at you December-10th-International-Human-Rights-Day) it has yet to be adopted by Hallmark and the greeting card industry. With more than 240 million international migrants in the world today it seems like you could find a card…

Or actually, UN conventions aside, you won’t find a Migrants’ Day card probably because there’s not much to celebrate, yet. There are political theorists such as Kelly M. Greenhill and Myron Weiner that call human migration a growing crisis, highlighting how it can pose serious challenges to current legal, political, and economic systems. For a familiar example recall the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, which saw more than a 100,000 political refugees arrive in Florida in about three months time. Further, legal and human rights organizations like Human Rights Initiative reveal a migration crisis where it is the people who travel–often compelled through war and persecution–who are left exposed, not just states and economic systems. And then there’s human trafficking, contemporary slavery, and other forms of organized crime that take advantage of the legal gaps and vulnerabilities that the global passport and visa system create. And I have not even mentioned migrant and undocumented labor, which bear a long history of exploitation leading up to today.

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