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Refugee Voices

    • Souleymane

      Souleymane from Togo

      Sidley Austin LLP

      Mr. Teouri owned and operated his own travel agency in Togo, which organized Hajj pilgrimage trips to Mecca. The business was extremely successful and Mr. Teouri was forced to give part of his company’s revenue to a Muslim union that was closely affiliated with the government. Those proceeds were in turn used to support the party in power, which Mr. Teouri did not support. He tried to stand up to this powerful group, and spoke publicly about what the union was doing, in demanding money under threat, and providing financial contributions to the government. Mr. Teouri’s attempts to speak truth to power led to him being pulled from his home, detained more than once, and severely beaten. He fled to the United States in search of safety.

    “I knew that in the United States, they have freedom, free country and I read the books and I know the United States is a free country in politics and in the rights, you can fight for your rights. . . . That’s the best day of my life when I heard that the Human Rights First wanted to help me because I believed and all my family believed that it’s okay. It’s good news for me. God Bless Human Rights First.”
    — Souleymane

    • Human Rights in Togo

      Togo is a republic with a long history of human rights violations, where corruption and barriers to freedom still exist, despite some recent improvements in these areas. Torture and other harms have been used by Togo’s law enforcement and other members of the government to curtail free expression and restrict access to justice. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has urged Togo to adopt legislation that complies with international human rights standards, especially in the field of women’s rights, gender-based violence, and prevention against torture.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “The lawyers of Sidley, . . . they just asked me to come to the office, they treat me like a president and anytime I need to come there, I’m very happy . . . Sidley helped me to make all the documents to bring all my family in the United States. My family’s in the United States and I’m very grateful. . . . Stephen [gave] me the phone to call my family and let them know. And I’m very, very glad for that.”
    — Souleymane

    Sidley Austin LLP has been partnering with Human Rights First in the representation of asylum-seekers for over 20 years. The firm’s commitment to pro bono, and particularly to refugees, shows in its dedication to immigrants from a wide variety of countries, including Afghanistan, Albania, Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Togo. Sidley attorneys understand that these cases provide access to justice for refugees in need while also greatly improving their lawyering skills.

    • Ashraf

      Ashraf from Sudan

      Ashraf was threatened, harassed, and attacked in his home country of Sudan because of his political activities. He fled the country with his wife and six month-old son in order to save his life and received asylum in 1998 through the assistance of Human Rights First. After winning asylum, Ashraf set up a non-profit, the Gena Foundation, dedicated to providing primary health services and education to marginalized and vulnerable populations in Sudan. In September 2011, Ashraf participated in the UN’s Department of Public Information NGO conference bringing together more than 1,500 non-profits from around the world. Ashraf presented the Gena Foundation’s work and met with UN officials. He hopes that these connections will help him to advance the good work he is trying to accomplish through his organization.

    “For us asylum seekers, when we arrive in the United States, we have to go through a lot to find our way….Human Rights First, they did an amazing job by making every resource available to us.”
    — Ashraf

    • Human Rights in Sudan

      Sudan is a country that has been marked by genocide and warfare.  Human rights activists are frequently targeted for persecution.

      The Sudanese government uses torture against members of the political opposition, civil society activists, and journalists - often arresting and detaining these individuals incommunicado, without charge. Detainees like Abdalmageed are regularly subjected to harsh interrogation tactics, such as being forced to endure extreme temperature variations.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “Mr. Allen Sokal did a great job…an amazing job putting together a lot of documentation. And in 1998, I was granted asylum.”
    — Ashraf

    To obtain asylum, a person must prove that he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her political opinion, religion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. The asylum seeker can be granted asylum after an interview by a specially-trained asylum officer or after a hearing with an immigration judge.  Asylum seekers often struggle to navigate the complex system without quality legal counsel.  This is where Human Rights First’s Refugee Representation program comes in.  Pro bono attorneys can have life-changing impacts on asylum seekers’ lives.

    • Artem from Russia

      Lori Adams, Managing Attorney, Refugee Representation

      Mr. Mitrofanov was physically attacked by skinheads and members of another extremist group because of his sexual orientation.  During these attacks, he was badly beaten, while the police stood by and refused to intervene or assist him. Mr. Mitrofanov was also arrested while in a gay club, and detained without charge. The police officers only released him after they received a bribe. Due to these attacks, Mr. Mitrofanov suffered permanent kidney damage and lasting physical and emotional scars that will never go away completely.

    “The first time I heard about Human Rights First [was] by the guy who...came to the detention center to help the people to find a free lawyers. And after I spoke with him about my case, he told me that he has one organization which is Human Rights First, who can be interested in my case...I went to gay pride parade every year here. Once I did it with Human Rights First. It was fun and it is nice to do it too.”
    — Artem

    • Human Rights in Russia

      LGBT individuals remain at serious risk of physical violence, arbitrary arrest, and other mistreatment in Russia.  Many LGBT people hide their orientation for fear of losing their jobs or being subjected to violent attacks, which are common in many parts of Russia. Current laws limit the rights of free expression and assembly for citizens who wish to publicly advocate for LGBT rights or express the opinion that homosexuality is normal. The police do little to nothing to protect LGBT individuals from attacks by skinheads and other extremist groups.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “Lori helped me a lot with this because she was working on it and only with her help I was released from the detention center. . . . I think without a lawyer, it is almost impossible to prepare for a hearing in court, because you don’t know all this information which you need to prepare for this and . . . the lawyers they help you to do it and to win the case.”
    — Artem

    We are lucky to have experts here on staff here at Human Rights First, but for those pro bono attorneys who might be starting or towards the beginning of their research, we also provide recommendations and contacts for people who might be able to help provide that country conditions information...This is one of the few areas of the practice of law where a person can save a life. So many of the law firm associates we work with describe this as some of the most meaningful work that they do. It’s the chance, for many the first chance to meet with a client in person, draft a legal brief, to work on affidavits, to actually sign your name to something. So, this is empowering for associates; it’s also great training.

    • CJ from Peru

      Fish & Richardson P.C.

      CJ is a gay man from Peru.  As a child he was physically abused for perceived “feminine” behavior, and he was taunted and harassed in all areas of his community.  As a teenager at school, he was beaten by other students and he also experienced beatings in the streets.  Worried for his life and safety, CJ’s mother encouraged him to report these incidents to the police.  The police not only did nothing to protect CJ from these attacks, but they implied that because he was gay, he deserved this treatment.  When he couldn’t take the abuse anymore, CJ fled to the United States.  He hoped that he could live his life freely and openly here, without fear of constant verbal and physical attacks due to his sexual orientation.

      CJ’s case was taken by Audrey Powers, then an associate at Fish & Richardson P.C.  She successfully represented CJ at the asylum office, where she had to make a difficult argument for an exception to the one year filing deadline.  Thanks to Audrey’s hard work and preparation, CJ was granted asylum and he now has his green card.

    “On the day of my interview, one of the persons here from Human Rights First came with me...and from the first I felt like I could talk to them about my story and what I had been through my whole life.”
    — CJ

    • Human Rights in Peru

      • Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Peru is widespread, culturally sanctioned, and largely underreported for fear of violence or additional discrimination. LGBT youth are frequently targets of severe bullying that contribute to higher rates of suicide than for straight youth.
      • From January to August 2013, seven murders and two suicides of LGBT persons were reported to the Peruvian government. On August 15, 2013, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights released a statement reiterating its deep concern about the high levels of violence and discrimination against LGBT persons and urged the government to adopt measures to prevent these acts and protect LGBT persons from human rights abuses.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “When I met my attorney Audrey I felt immediately connected to her. She was very helpful, very professional, and because I became close to her as a person she made me comfortable telling my story.”
    — CJ

    Human Rights First began working with Fish & Richardson in 2010.  The firm not only supported Audrey’s pro bono representation of CJ during the course of the asylum process, but supported his application to become a lawful permanent resident.  CJ successfully became a green card holder, and is now living a successful life in Chicago, Illinois.

    “I think the assistance provided by the attorneys at Human Rights First made it very easy for me to understand the milestones, what the timing deadlines were—all the things that lawyers are concerned about when they are practicing in a new area of the law. The staff at Human Rights First did a very good job of guiding me through the process..”
    — Audrey Powers

    • José from Colombia

      Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP (Finnegan)

      José is a human rights activist from Colombia. Before he was forced to flee his country, Jose was a life-long advocate for the rights of Afro-Colombians and for victims of forced displacement at the hands of the government and paramilitary forces. As part of his work, Jose led a significant Colombian NGO that advocated for the rights of these minority groups.  Jose was finally forced into exile after he was marked for assassination by paramilitary forces and an attempt was made on his life.  He left Colombia for the United States at that time, initially hoping to return, but as the campaign of assassination of Afro-Colombian activists continued, he realized that he could not return home.  He and his family were able to escape and seek protection here in the United States.

    “One of my colleagues had information about Human Rights First.  I told them about my situation….and when asylum was granted, it was bliss for the family.”
    — José

    • Human Rights in Colombia

      • Enslaved Africans were first brought by Spanish colonists to Colombia in the sixteenth century.  These slaves replaced lost plantation and mine labor that occurred as a result of the decimation of the indigenous population.  As a result, Colombia has the second largest population of people of African descent in Latin America.
      • Afro-Colombians have long suffered discrimination, displacement, and economic deprivation throughout the history of the Colombia, especially during the 50+ years of conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army (FARC). 
      • Displacement of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people and attacks on those who try to protect them continues today.  Through September of 2013, the Colombian government registered 4,048 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who identified themselves as indigenous and 59,365 who identified themselves as Afro-Colombian.  

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “When asylum was granted, it was a special moment for us.”
    — José

    Human Rights First has been working with Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP since 1997, when we placed Ashraf Hamid (also featured in “Refugee Voices”) with attorney Allen Sokal.  Since that time, Finnegan has taken many aslum cases with Human Rights First and successfully assisted clients from asylum representation through the U.S. citizenship process.

    • Parvaneh from Iran

      Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP

      Parvaneh Vahidmanesh is a human rights activist and journalist from Iran.  She had a history of activism, but it was when Parvaneh wrote a book about the lives of Jews in contemporary Iran that she began to fear for her life. Government officials, who must approve all written work before publication, decided that the book was propaganda for Israel—a crime punishable by death—and began a campaign of harassment and intimidation against her.  Fortunately, Parvaneh was able to leave Iran to lecture the University of Virginia.

      Shortly after she left Iran, protests broke out in Iran in response to the presidential elections, and the Iranian government reacted with violence. Horrified at what was happening in her country, Parvaneh wrote an open letter to Ali Khameini that was published in the Wall Street Journal.  She condemned the violence and urged the Supreme Leader to allow freedom of expression in Iran.  By the end of the year, Parvaneh was forced to make the difficult decision to apply for asylum in the United States.

      Parvaneh’s case was assigned to a team of attorneys at Akin, Gump Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP.  The team was led by Steve Schulman and Juliet Gray, who represented Parvaneh before the Arlington Asylum Office.  Thanks to Juliet’s excellent work, Parvaneh was successfully granted asylum, and is now a lawful permanent resident.  Parvaneh is still fighting for human rights, as a program officer for Freedom House in Washington DC.

    “I was very scared. I was a lone woman here in the U.S. When Human Rights First accepted my case, I really felt that now I have something for the future.”
    Parvaneh Vahidmanesh

    • Human Rights in Iran

      • The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic republic established in 1979. The constitution, amended in 1989, created a political system based on the concept of a “Supreme Leader,” and mandated that political leaders be vetted by clergy-dominated power structures. Since 1989 the supreme leader has been Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
      • While mechanisms for popular election exist within the structure of the state, the supreme leader directly controls the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government as well as the armed forces.
      • In spite of the work of activists like Parvaneh, The U.S. Department of State Human Rights report for 2013 found that in Iran, “the most egregious human rights problems were the government’s manipulation of the electoral process, which severely limited citizens’ right to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections.”

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “I felt that she is my friend, and she is my attorney and lawyer.  When I was approved, it was a new life for me, and both of us cried.”

    Human Rights First has been working with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP for more than twenty years. In that time, the firm has taken and won more than eighty asylum cases, in both New York and Washington DC.

    “If you decide to take on an asylum case, neither your law firm nor Human Rights First is going to just let you go it alone…there are plenty of people to go to for guidance.  I had never done an asylum case before this one and at the end, I felt amazing.”  --Juliet Gray

    In 2007, Akin Gump’s Washington, D.C. office was honored with a Marvin Frankel Award for its outstanding contribution to Human Rights First's asylum program.

    • Awoke's Hands

      Awoke from Ethiopia

      Represented by McDermott Will & Emery

      Awoke was a supporter of a political opposition group in his home country of Ethiopia. In the run-up to the general election of 2005, Awoke was arrested, detained and beaten during violent police crackdowns on peaceful protestors. Awoke and his fellow protestors believed that there had been government sponsored corruption in the voting process—a belief that was later confirmed by international observers.

      Even after this brutal experience, Awoke went on with his life and political feelings, hoping that he could be a part of making his country a better place to live. He graduated from college and started working in IT support and web programming. After that, Awoke opened his own successful cyber cafe. Unfortunately, his customers used his computers to download software to circumvent the government’s internet censorship and access blocked websites critical of the regime. Because of this internet activity, Awoke was again arrested, detained, beaten, and interrogated. He was released on the condition that he never participate in opposition politics again, and that he check-in each week at a local government office. Terrified at what the rest of his life would be like under the repressive Ethiopian regime, Awoke escaped to the United States and sought protection.

    “I feel I am on the right track to living the American Dream.  I see a lot of hope in my future. I see where I am able to change the lives of many others. Thank you Human Rights First.”

    • Human Rights in Ethiopia

      • Ethiopia is ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnically based parties that have controlled the country since the 1990s. 
      • Torture and ill-treatment have been used by Ethiopia's police, military, and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and journalists.  Secret detention facilities and military barracks are most often used by Ethiopian security forces for such activities.
      • Although Ethiopia's criminal code and other laws contain provisions to protect fundamental human rights, they frequently go unenforced.  The U.S. Department of state found in 2013 that the most significant human rights problems included, “restrictions on freedom of expression and association, politically motivated trials, harassment and intimidate of opposition members and journalists, as well as continued restrictions on print media.”  This report further found that there were arbitrary killings, allegations of torture, beatings, interference in religious affairs, limits on citizens’ ability to change their government, infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, arbitrary arrest and detention and many other disturbing reports of abuse of Ethiopians at the hands of their own government.  

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “When I was told that I was granted asylum, I would say it was the day that I was born again…I see my life totally changing. Thank you, Raymond.”

    Human Rights First has been working with McDermott, Will & Emery for nearly 30 years. In that time, the firm has taken and won relief in every asylum case that Human Rights First has placed with the firm, both in their New York and Washington DC offices.

    “It was a successful case, and to see Awoke’s smile when he got the word that he had asylum, it was reward for all the work that we put into his case. It’s great to be in a country that not only affords its own citizens protection freedom from oppression on political grounds, but accepts others from countries around the world.” - Raymond Paretzky

    In 2009 and 2014, McDermott, Will & Emery’s Washington, D.C. office was honored with the Marvin Frankel Award for its outstanding contribution to Human Rights First's asylum program. This is the first time in the history of the Frankel award that a firm has been recognized twice for its achievement in pro bono representation.

    • Abdalmageed from Sudan

      Represented by Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP 

      Abdalmageed is a citizen of Sudan who has devoted his entire adult life to promoting human rights in his home country. His work focused on women's rights, the plight of internally displaced refugees, and victims of the conflict in Darfur.

      Because of his dedication to human rights, the Sudanese government kidnapped, blindfolded, and detained him for several months. He was brutally tortured and threatened with death many times. Following significant international pressure on the Sudanese government, Mr. Haroun was released and eventually fled to the United States, where he applied for asylum.

      Human Rights First assigned Abdalmageed’s case to Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP, where he was represented before the Asylum Office by Dan Brown, Jane Qin, Paul Garrity, and Amanda Zablocki.  The team at Sheppard Mullin not only helped Abdalmageed receive asylum, but they also provided assistance with his adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident.

      Watch Abdalmageed's Story

    “When I came here, people they said to me, this is a very difficult, very complicated process, the refugee and asylum process. I don’t know how to thank Human Rights First and Sheppard Mullin.”

    • Human Rights in Sudan

      Sudan is a country that has been marked by genocide and warfare.  Human rights activists are frequently targeted for persecution.

      The Sudanese government uses torture against members of the political opposition, civil society activists, and journalists - often arresting and detaining these individuals incommunicado, without charge. Detainees like Abdalmageed are regularly subjected to harsh interrogation tactics, such as being forced to endure extreme temperature variations.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “I was very happy because I got the news [that] Sheppard Mullin [took my case]. Sheppard Mullin helped me a lot. And they continue to help me.”

    Human Rights First has been proud to partner with Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP, which has taken asylum cases through our asylum program for several years. We are grateful for the firm’s excellent work on behalf of many refugees who have received asylum in the United States because of the great lawyering of Sheppard Mullin attorneys.

    Human Rights First awarded the 2011 Marvin Frankel Award for pro bono service to Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP.

    • Kani from Turkey

      Represented by Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP

      Kani is a human rights activist from Turkey who has devoted his life to promoting the equal treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey and across the Middle East.  While assisting Kurdish refugees to seek protection in the United States, he stepped forward as a spokesman and advocate for a free and peaceful Kurdistan.  He contacted and lobbied members of the United States Congress to change U.S. policy towards the treatment of Kurds in Turkey.  His efforts did not go unnoticed by the Turkish government, and, in an effort to silence him, two of his siblings were brutally tortured.  After this, Kani realized that he and his family were not safe from persecution in Turkey and made the decision to seek asylum in the United States.

      Kani’s case was assigned to a team of attorneys at  Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, led by  Public Service Counsel, Karen Grisez. Fried Frank represented Kani before the immigration court, the Board of Immigration Appeals and at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  After years of hard work on the case, Kani was granted asylum and has started a new, successful life in the United States.  He now leads the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) and remains one of the foremost experts in the United States on Kurdish issues.

      Watch Kani's Story

    “It’s a sweet victory.  There is nothing like it, especially when the danger is so real…I feel protected now that I have asylum”

    • Human Rights in Turkey

      A largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture, most Kurds live in the generally contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria.

      In the early 20th century the Turkish government outlawed the Kurdish language and forbade Kurds to wear traditional Kurdish clothing in the cities. The government also encouraged the migration of Kurds to the cities in order to dilute their traditional ties to a nomadic and rural lifestyle.  

      Kurds have faced decades of repression and discrimination based on their ethnicity, persecution that continues today.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “[Karen Grisez]  helped me stand on my feet.  I owe my life to her.  I owe my liberty to her.”

    Human Rights First has worked with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP for more than twenty years. In that time, the firm has taken and won dozens of asylum cases and has provided immeasurable support for their clients, as well as for Human Rights First's asylum program.

    In 2004, Fried Frank’s Washington, D.C. office was honored with a Marvin Frankel Award for its outstanding contribution to Human Rights First's asylum program.

    • Patti from Honduras

      Represented by Sullivan & Cromwell LLP

      Ana Patricia or “Patti” is a human rights activist from Honduras who has devoted years of work to promoting gay, women’s, and human rights in Honduras. After years of speaking out in favor of gay and women’s rights, Patti was raped at gunpoint by attackers who warned her that they were going to “make [her] wish that [she] had never been born.” As they hurled insults and threats at her, they made it clear that they opposed her work on recently proposed legislation that would have improved the rights of homosexuals in Honduras. In fear for her life, Patti was able to escape to the United States, where she sought asylum.

      Patti’s case was assigned to a team of attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP that included Robin Nunn, Frank Jin, Aman Mahray McHugh, Daniella Casseres, and Stacey Friedman. They represented her before the asylum office, the Newark Immigration Court, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. They also helped her petition for her children to come to the United States, where they are now resettled and doing well.

      Watch Patti's Story

    “When I contacted Human Rights First, the first feeling I got from the people that I was in touch with was hope.”

    • Human Rights in Honduras

      Human rights defenders, including for women’s rights and LGBT rights, are often the targets of violence because of their activities. Many reported incidents of violence and persecution in Honduras often receive inadequate investigation.

      Reports of abuse and harassment by the police against LGBT activists continues, including violent killings of LGBT persons and documented cases of assault and discrimination against other members of the community.

    Lawyers Making a Difference

    “I knew that [Robin] was the person [who] was working above and beyond the scope of her professional responsibilities.”

    Human Rights First has worked with Sullivan & Cromwell LLP for more than twenty years. In that time, the firm has taken and won dozens of challenging asylum cases. The firm has also taken a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) case. Sullivan & Cromwell LLP’s dedication to securing asylum from those facing persecution led the firm to establish an entire asylum practice group.

    Sullivan & Cromwell LLP was awarded the 2010 Marvin Frankel Annual Award for their pro bono contributions to Human Rights First.

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