Empowering Immigrant Survivors: The Human Rights Initiative of North Texas

Story by Diana Saleh. Photos provided by Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

In 1999, social worker Serena Simmons Connelly and attorney Elizabeth “Betsy” Healy joined forces to create the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI), a Dallas-based organization committed to aiding immigrant survivors of human rights abuses worldwide.

Shalaina Aboye, Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

Today, HRI is headed by Shalaina Aboye, the executive director. Shalaina is a native of Southern Dallas and has over 15 years of humanitarian experience. She began at HRI as a volunteer, where she met her first refugee family in 2007. Since then, her passion for the work has only grown.

Over the years, the organization has evolved into an award-winning agency, providing free legal services and comprehensive social support to this vulnerable population. While Serena and Betsy are no longer directly involved, their legacy lives on through the inspiration behind the initiative, its overarching mission, and its critical role in empowering survivors of human rights abuses.

Founded to ensure that immigrant survivors of human rights abuses have access to essential legal services and wrap-around social support, HRI addresses its clients’ legal, basic, and emergency needs. The organization was established with a vision to be a lifeline for those seeking safety, freedom, and opportunity.

Keeping in mind that January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, it is important to recognize how this issue impacts this demographic. According to the ACLU, “undocumented immigrants are extremely vulnerable to trafficking because of fear of law enforcement and deportation.” There are laws in place that can protect them, but the ACLU says that unfortunetly many people are unaware of their rights and remain extremely vulnerable and isolated.

That’s where the local HRI initiative steps in– they offer free legal services for asylum seekers, those protected under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Victims of Traffcking and Violence Protection Act, immigrants abused by a U.S. Citizen, and immigrant children who are victims of crimes.

Case Management Consultant Carolina Pina (second from the left) and Social Services Director Veronica Gonzalez (far right) smile alongside some of their HRI clients.

According to Shalaina, at the core of HRI’s work lies the belief that legal protection is the gateway to survivors’ safety, freedom, and opportunity. Eligible clients, including asylum seekers, immigrant children facing abandonment or abuse, and victims of family violence or violent crimes, can apply for legal status under the humanitarian provisions of U.S. immigration laws. HRI recognizes that legal assistance is paramount in empowering survivors to rebuild their lives.

Survivors who walk through HRI’s doors face a myriad of challenges when navigating the U.S. legal process, ranging from understanding eligibility and legal solutions to overcoming language barriers and comprehending complex legal terms.

In addition to that, HRI acknowledges hurdles of limited resources, economic instability, food insecurity, and increased social and emotional trauma. Shalaina says the organization is committed to addressing these challenges holistically.

In order to address this, Shalaina explains that the Social Services team at HRI provides case management, resource navigation, referrals, and limited financial assistance to address the diverse needs of survivors as they navigate the legal process.

HRI’s commitment extends to the unique legal challenges faced by immigrant children. Through its unaccompanied children’s program, the organization offers legal representation and connects children to pro-bono legal teams mentored by their staff. The goal is to ensure that children understand their rights at a level suitable to their comprehension, supported by the organization’s social services team.

Shalaina also affirms that collaboration is key to achieving the HRI mission. Whether partnering with legal firms offering pro-bono hours or collaborating with community organizations, the initiative fosters communication to discuss trends, challenges, and share resources. Such collaborations aim to educate the community on the organization’s work and advocate for the rights of the vulnerable population.

Looking ahead, Shalaina says their goals include expanding capacity to serve more clients needing legal humanitarian protection and increasing advocacy efforts to raise awareness of issues affecting their clients, such as human trafficking.

The organization encourages public support through various avenues, including financial contributions, donated items, volunteer opportunities, and pro-bono hours from legal firms. HRINTX can be found online at hrionline.org. For questions, please contact Shalaina Abioye at sabioye@hrionline.org or give us a call at 214-855-0520.

The Human Rights Initiative of North Texas stands as a champion for immigrant survivors of human rights abuses, offering legal assistance and comprehensive support to rebuild lives. As the organization looks to the future, it invites individuals, businesses, and communities to join hands in supporting its mission and positively impacting the lives of those seeking refuge and protection.