Celebrating International Women’s Day

 

HRI Female Staff Members. Back Row Left to Right: Kavita Khandekar Chopra, Carolina Pina, Pilar Ferguson, Elisandra De La Cruz, Marisa Arancibia. Front Row Left to Right: Zeyla Gonzalez, Marcela Evans, Elean Martinez, Kristina Morales, Sara Wahl

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day! “International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women (source).” As Deputy Director of a 92% female staff, I cannot think of a better way to celebrate this day than with all of my amazing coworkers (pictured above).

Each and every member of our staff pours their hearts and minds into the great work we do here. As our Client Intake Manager, Elean is the first person all of our clients meet when they come to HRI for the first time. She knows how difficult it can be to ask for help, and does everything she can to make our clients feel comfortable, relaxed, and welcome in our office.

Our attorneys, Marcela, Pilar, and Sara, combine their sharp legal know-how with compassion and respect, ensuring our clients receive excellent and professional legal representation in their case for immigration relief. I am especially in awe of Carol Jablonski, our Volunteer Staff Attorney, who spends two days a week working at HRI on a pro bono basis. We could not ask for a better Legal Team.

Our legal assistants, Kristina, Zeyla and Carolina, work hard to stay ahead of work authorization deadlines to ensure our clients do not have a gap in their work pay. And when the time comes, they help clients with their application for their green card, ensuring their permanent residency in the United States. These three women keep our legal programs functioning at a high level because of their dedication to this work.

In Social Services, Zainab and Elisandra, work together to ensure HRI’s clients are able to access necessary and beneficial social services. Zainab’s and Elisandra’s tireless advocacy for our clients has resulted in a multitude of new partnerships across the North Texas area. And this Winter/Spring, the Program has hosted Madeleine, a wonderful intern from the University of Arkansas, Clinton School of Public Service.

Marisa, our Marketing & Special Events Coordinator, uses her passion for human rights and her writing skills to keep our community informed of our work. She shares our success stories and organizes our exceptional events, like our 5K coming up on April 28!! 

And I can’t forget Bill, our intrepid Executive Director. While he is not a woman, he is a man who displays nothing but respect for the females in his life, from his wife to his co-workers. I could not ask for a better boss.

International Women’s Day also makes me pause to reflect upon the incredibly women we serve at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI).

Every day at HRI I see strong, resilient, powerful immigrant women who risk everything for their safety and the safety of their children. Women like Leyla, a Sudanese immigrant who left her husband and life behind to protect her daughters from the brutality of female genital mutilation. FGM is a very real, very prevalent non-medical procedure that is forced upon more than 200 Million women today. The effects of FGM can last for a lifetime, making sex, childbirth and day-to-day life painful.  Simply by being able to keep her young daughters in the United States and away from their father, Leyla ensured their lives would not be harmed in this way and they would not have to endure this barbaric procedure. She in turn, sacrificed everything she had to make this happen.

Or I think of women like Mariah, a young undocumented Mexican immigrant who was stuck in an abusive marriage to a United States citizen. Mariah courageously made the decision to leave when she realized her young daughter would be affected by the abuse she endured. She left without knowing if her immigration status would protect her and allow her to stay with her daughter in the United States. But she knew it was the only option she had if she wanted to be in her daughter’s life for years to come. So she took the chance.

 

Leyla and Mariah not only display the incredible resilience that resides in all women, but their stories also remind us of the importance of intersectionality. In order to truly protect the rights and dignity of all women, we must also protect the rights and dignity of marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed communities. This includes immigrant women, Black women, Latina women, incarcerated women, lgbt women, women with disabilities, women from low socio-economic status, and so many more.

Leyla and Mariah made the brave choice to leave everything they have ever known in order to protect themselves and their children. These women had the courage to make a leap of faith, not knowing what would be waiting for them on the other side, but knowing they could not remain where they were.

It is a point of pride for me to know that our HRI staff is here on the other side, waiting to help women like Leyla and Mariah. When they, and other clients like them, find our office, hear about our services, work with our incredible staff, and eventually receive legal status in the United States, they know that their leap of faith was not in vain.

When women work together, something magical happens. And this is the magic I celebrate with my co-workers today. Happy Women’s Day! 

Martha Gains Asylum in the U.S.

Martha was a political activist who was persecuted by the Zimbabwean government and the majority party, the ZANU-PF, for her activism and engagement in peaceful political activities. Her home was burned down, and she and various members of her family were physically assaulted and tortured. In 2014, she traveled to the U.S. for her education and when she returned she was questioned by the ZANU-PF about her reasons for visiting the U.S. and sexually assaulted by several ZANU-PF members. She was able to come to the U.S for a school graduation and did not leave the U.S. after learning that her husband had been threatened by the SANU-PF and told that if she returned, they would kill her.

Martha came to HRI in late 2015 for help with asylum case. Due to huge backlogs in the system, after an asylum case was filed, it then took around 2-3 years for the case to be scheduled for an interview. However, after arriving in the U.S., Martha found out that she had urgent medical issues which she needed to address, and her pro bono attorney advocated for her asylum case to be expedited in late 2016.

In addition, her children were being greatly affected by the draught in Zimbabwe and lost their main caretaker when she passed away after Martha left. Martha was distraught at being separated from her children and suffered from depression for much of the time we assisted her. We were grateful for the hard work of her pro bono attorney who crafted a compelling request for her case to be expedited, which the government approved.

Martha’s asylum interview was held in 2017, and she found out she had been granted asylum a few weeks later! Once Martha’s case was approved, HRI’s asylum program immediately filed relative petitions so that her husband and children could join her in the United States.

Matha’s pro bono attorney also assisted HRI’s asylum program with successfully requesting that these petitions be expedited as well.

We are thrilled to say that by the end of 2017, Martha was reunited with her family! There were many tears of joy in our office upon seeing Martha and her family finally together again living safely in the United States and we are tremendously excited to see what the future holds for all of them.

– Zainab Ellis, HRI’s Social Services Director

A Farewell to Camille Kulas

HRI will be saying farewell to our social services intern, Camille Kulas, after a summer-long internship.

A native of Lille, France, Camille received her undergraduate degree in Economics and Management and her master’s degree in Political Science: International Solidarity, Humanitarian Action, and Crisis which made her a unique and perfect fit for HRI.

Elisandra de la Cruz, Casework and Administrative Assistant at HRI worked closely with Camille throughout the summer and explained, “Camille did extensive work focusing and supporting our newly arrived immigrants seeking asylum in our social service department. Whether she was meeting with clients one on one and conducting intakes to assess needs or working with agencies around the DFW area to build a solid referral system for our clients, she always put her heart into her work.

During her time here, she also worked conducting research on the best practices to interview victims of crime and abuse. This prepared her to be able to successfully understand the difficulties immigrants face in Texas and the best way to support them in our social services department. Her diligence, compassion and dedication towards helping our most vulnerable made Camille a perfect fit not only for our social service department, but our agency as a whole.”

Camille said that the driving force in interning with our organization was because, “I wanted to get a taste of how human rights work, and reading about HRI really made me consider it, as it helps a lot of people from different backgrounds—and not only for asylum. I thought it would be really interesting and a good place to learn about the differences in law regarding immigration between the US and France, and it turned out that it was. This internship was a great way to really get an idea of how things are in reality and to really be able to help people get settled into their new lives in the US.”

One of the ‘aha-moments’ Camille said that she experienced during her time at HRI was regarding the asylum system and, “how the government does not help asylum seekers at all, not even to have housing, how long the process can be, and learning that withholding of removal did provide some relief to an asylum seeker, but that they would not be allowed to travel outside of the US.”

She also learned, “How tricky immigration laws can be, but mainly that even though people escaping violence and bad situations can be extremely resourceful, there is a total lack of awareness on how to navigate the American system and that they do need our help to get access to resources and get acclimated to this new country, which is one of the reasons that HRI is so effective in helping survivors of human rights abuses.”

Beyond the technical side of her internship, Camille really enjoyed the personal connections she made as a social services intern: “One of my favorite memories with HRI was seeing one of our clients get settled into her new transitional home with her two small boys and being overjoyed by what the agency is doing. The work that was done and the struggles during this search for housing were definitely worth it when we saw the smiles on their faces.”

Though we are sad to see Camille go, we are certain that she will do amazing things in her life and we hope that our paths will cross again in the future. Until then, we wish her all the best!

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

Josie Settles In

 

Josie* is currently seeking asylum in the US with her two children. Like most asylum seekers, she is unable ti legally work while waiting for her asylum application to be processed. The financial hardship our clients face are the norm amongst asylum seekers throughout the U.S. Josie can barely afford to buy groceries for her two young boys. After arriving to the U.S. alone with her children she was let to figure out how to navigate the public transportation system on her own.

After much advocacy and coordination from our staff, Josie she was finally accepted into a program for homeless mothers. Our team seamlessly facilitated her move to her new home.  Josie now lives in a safer place where she and her boys share their own room. Thanks to this program and others like DASH Network, Josie and her children were able to enroll in day camps for the summer. These summer camps have allowed Josie to begin to connect to the community and to rebuilding their lives. Our client has also benefited immensely by being paired with an HRI Ambassador/Mentor who has proved to be essential in helping Josie acclimate to her new surroundings. This month our Social Services intern volunteered to showed Josie how her how to use the public transportation system here in Dallas and how to access free food pantries.

Josie is now more confident. She’ll start counseling,enroll in ESL classes, and complete a financial and job readiness course hosted by our Angel of Freedom Award winners, InterNations of Dallas! Our Ambassadors and faithful volunteers are a crucial component to our client’s ability to thrive here in the U.S. We are so thankful to all who have played a role in helping Josie overcome the many obstacles set before her. Seeing our clients succeed and become independent is a small victory for us here at HRI!

-Elisandra De La Cruz, Children’s Program Assistant

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

Lucia Get’s A Green Card

Our teenage client from El Salvador recently obtained her green card! Lucia* fled El Salvador in 2013 when she was 13. Lucia’s father was violent and neglectful, physically abusing her when she was as young as 5. She would often have to intervene to stop him from attacking her mother. Later he abandoned the family, providing Lucia with no financial or emotional support.

Lucia arrived in the United States along with a “surge” of other children from Central America, and her case is emblematic of the problems that were caused when Immigration Judges tried to rush these cases through the courts. Lucia appeared at her first hearing without a lawyer, and was given a three month continuance to find an attorney. Lucia struggled to find a lawyer and did not come to Human Rights Initiative until the afternoon before her second hearing.  At that hearing, the Immigration Judge tried to bully our lawyer into accepting something called Voluntary Departure for Lucia, which would have sent her back to a dangerous situation in El Salvador. The judge refused to listen when HRI’s attorney argued that Lucia was eligible for something called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and just needed a continuance of a few weeks to file the appropriate paperwork.  Instead, the judge ordered Lucia deported that day, saying she should have filed the papers before coming to court, even though he had not instructed her that she needed to do that prior to the second hearing (and despite the fact that she did not have a lawyer and was 15 years old at the time).  He only told her that she needed to find a lawyer, which she did.

HRI appealed the Immigration Judge’s deportation order to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). We argued that the Immigration Judge did not follow the proper legal standard for issuing a continuance, and should have granted Lucia that continuance because she had relief available. At the same time we applied for SIJS for Lucia, which she qualified for because she had been abused and abandoned by her father. The BIA agreed and terminated removal proceedings against Lucia, dismissing her case and overturning the removal order against her. The government later granted Lucia SIJS which made her eligible to apply for a green card. This month the green card was granted!

-Chris Mansour

* Our client’s name has been changed.

Hope for the Innocent Child Victim

Hope for the Innocent Child Victims

No one talks about the confusion. The brief moments between the realization that this is, in fact, happening, that the person who was once safe is safe no longer. The seconds stretch into hours, sometimes years, as familiar hands that once went about their daily business of working, comforting, eating, suddenly become weapons designed to wound, inflict, beat, and molest, and they’re aimed at you. It is a magic trick of the worst kind, and one that grievously harms children who will, over time and repetition, come to expect nothing but terror and harm from not only their abusers, but the entire world.

When Kendrea and Antonio’s bonds of trust were broken, they were in a position of perfect vulnerability. After the Honduran President was ousted from office in 2009 by a military coup, Honduras’ civic and economic life collapsed, leaving its citizens to welter in poverty and chaos while the government scrambled to reassemble itself and retain power. In the wake of this structural catastrophe, Honduras became the country with the highest murder rate in the world, and its population began to flee for countries with more stability. Kendrea and Antonio’s parents followed the outgoing tide and left for the U.S. so that they could send money back to Honduras to financially support their children. Kendrea and Antonio were left with their grandmother, and, for a while, all seemed well.

The shift in their grandmother began a few months after the children came to stay, and at first they couldn’t understand why she had become so volatile and moody, why she had begun hitting them without cause. Kendrea and her brother believed that if they could be more obedient, perhaps less seen and heard, that their grandmother would stop hitting them, but their dedication to acquiescence made no impact as their grandmother began striking them with any object that was available; shoes, belts, and books all became part of her arsenal. When their parents would call, their grandmother would hold the phone so that they couldn’t speak out against her or tell what their lives had become. She stifled them, and reinforced their newly made prison.

When their grandmother began dating Cesar, he was already a fugitive; known to be dangerous and activitely pursued by the police, he moved in with them quickly and began raping Kendrea almost immediately. After the first time, Kendrea hoped that it would be the last, but this wasn’t the case. Despite her attempts to avoid the home and stay out of his way, Cesar began to reinforce his violence with threats, telling her that he would kill her if she told anyone about the abuse. He threatened Antonio with the same fate. The death threats became their tipping point, and the children, aged thirteen and eleven, fled the home and made their way to the United States where they, with the help of pro bono legal agency Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, were reunited with their parents and baby sister.

They arrived in Texas at a time of great increase in unaccompanied child refugees, when the number of apprehensions between 2015 and 2016 had shot up by 78%. In 2016 alone, 27,754 unaccompanied minors were detained at the Texas border. The majority of these children are from what is known as Central America’s Northern Triangle, which consists of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, all nations that have in recent years been ground down by unrest, high crimes rates, and poverty. The inrush of these children has precipitated expansion programs by the United States Customs and Border Protection agencies, which have widened the categories of asylum seekers eligible for refugee status in the U.S., focusing on children and families which contain qualified children.

Even with this new flexibility, former Homeland Security Secretary Johnson stated, “Border security alone cannot overcome the powerful push factors of poverty and violence that exist in Central America. Walls alone cannot prevent illegal migration.” This has played out in recent years with sharp, continual increases in refugee seekers, particularly children traveling alone. This is where Texas agencies like Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, or HRI, step in. When Kendrea and Antonio arrived in the U.S., they were placed in removal proceedings before the Dallas Immigration Court with one opportunity to apply for asylum status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services before their hearings. As children without legal representation or financial means, HRI walked them through the legal hearings, filings, and processes, and ensured that they had a legal team working for their benefit each step of the way. Though they didn’t receive decisions on their cases until April of 2017, both children won their cases due in large part to the dedicated and pro bono work of this legal team.

Without the non-profit assistance of lawyers and legal advocates, children like Kendrea and Antonio would have escaped horrendous personal and environmental circumstances only to face a closed door, condemning them to a life without family, home, provision, or safety. Hemmed in on all sides, they would have been returned to their violent, unstable origins to await whatever outcome fate had set aside for them, and all of this would occurred behind closed doors in the complex and shuttered settings of the U.S. immigration systems. Now that Kendrea and Antonio have been granted asylum by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, HRI has filed for joint motions for their removal proceedings to be terminated.

With the national political tide turning against immigration and the numbers of asylum seekers continuing to increase, stories like Kendrea and Antonio’s have become more and more common. Despite these challenges, advocates like HRI are working throughout the country to give shelter to the most vulnerable global citizens. As Bill Holston, Executive Director of HRI, has stated, “There are so few things that people seem to agree on now. But surely one of those is that no child should suffer acts of abuse and violence. We are proud to be a part of obtaining safety, refuge, and security for children here at HRI.” In the coming months and years of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration reforms, the hope for vulnerable and courageous children like Kendrea and Antonio rests in the hands of organizations which believe just that.

-Kelsey Capps, Contributor, HRI Committee Member

Mylène Wins Asylum!

Mylène Wins Asylum!

After many years of enduring the oppressive and corrupt Burundian government, Mylène decided to join the opposition party, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (“MSD”).  MSD fought for unity and an end to division based on ethnicity. While attending a peaceful protest one day, Mylène and many other protesters were attacked by the local police force. She managed to flee the protest safely.

The following day, upon arriving to her business, she found many police officers rummaging through her office. Mylène was targeted by the ruling party because she was a member of the opposition party and because she owned a travel agency which served various clients, including opposition leaders. The officers demanded a list of names of the clients that Mylène served. When she refused she was detained, interrogated and sexually assaulted. After waking up in the hospital the next day, Mylène fled with her three children to Rwanda and later to the U.S. Many of her friends and family members have been tortured and killed due to their affiliation with the opposition party.

Mylène and her three children are now safely living here in the U.S. Thanks to our dedicated pro bono attorneys and staff, less than two years after entering the U.S., Mylène and her children have won asylum!

Finding Freedom: A VAWA Story

May 31, 2017

 

 

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” ― Toni Morrison

 

My story is more common than we’d like to think. I, like many other women, consider myself to be intelligent, strong, and independent. I saw myself as the princess in the fairytale, having finally found my happily ever after. However, when your self-esteem is at it’s lowest, happily ever after isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. For me, happiness was having found someone -anyone -who would “love” and accept me.

For many years I thought that my abuser’s actions were my fault. I couldn’t see myself living without him and so his controlling and dangerous behavior was something I had learned to accept. In retrospect, I know that I did not choose that abusive relationship, but at the time I believed it was all my fault. Everything was great between my ex and I. We were in love. We were happy. But then suddenly we weren’t. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment that my fairytale turned into a horror movie; that holding hands turned into sprained and bruised wrist; that going out as a couple turned into me being isolated and home alone for days at a time; that laughing turned into crying. Everything was always my fault and because my self esteem was so low, I believed it.

One day he pointed a gun at me after I’d found his hidden stash of rifles. My ex had convinced me that if I hadn’t been snooping around in my own house, he wouldn’t have had to aim a gun at me. Every time I mustard up the strength to leave, my ex would convince we that immigration would be on my heels. He made me believe that there was no help for people like me -abused and undocumented -and I believed him. When I first met my ex, I considered myself to be a smart, strong, and independent woman. It seemed as if he had taken those things from me. Many years passed before I self-identified as a victim of domestic violence. But one day I did and I found the courage to leave.

My ex stole everything that belonged to me, leaving me with just the clothes on my back. There was a period after leaving him that I still had my doubts. “What if I was making the wrong decision?” I thought. “Maybe he didn’t actually mean to hurt me and it really was just my fault”. I invented excuses to justify his behavior. Victims of domestic violence often remain in abusive relationships out of shame. I recently learned that the number one driving force for those leaving abusive relationships is knowing that there is legal help. I found a friend who I could confide in. I ended up sleeping on her couch and having to quit my job. My ex would continue to threaten me for quite some time. He would call, text, and even email me. I thought about going back, but I refused to become a victim once again.

I found Human Rights Initiative, an organization that not only helped to guide me on what to do with my legal case, but also one that listened to my story without judgment. I was so embarrassed to share my story, but they reminded me that I was no longer a victim -instead I was now a victor! I received legal relief through the Violence Against Women Act. HRI helped me to find my voice. It’s been nearly a decade since I left my abusive relationship. It was so hard to let go of the fear, depression, and hatred I held on to. I am not perfect and some days it is still a struggle. But I’ve decided that both myself and the world deserve the best version of Adriana that I can give.

Today I am a successful small business owner and I am married to my best friend. This is true freedom. This is my happily ever after. I know for a fact that every time I share my story there is a chance that maybe some voiceless woman will be encouraged to speak up for herself and to find her happy ending too.

-Adriana E., Former HRI VAWA Client