Thank you to guest blogger William Holston, the new Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, who agreed to share his experience moving from private practice to the non-profit world:
On January 15, I left my law practice of thirty years to become Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a non-profit organization that provides pro bono legal services for asylum seekers and individuals seeking relief under VAWA, U-Visa, and SIJ visas.
Thirty years ago, I graduated law school and started trying cases. I drove to the courthouse, was sworn in by a State District Judge, and started accepting court appointed criminal defense cases. My first jury trial was in the spring of the next year–a felony case. My next jury trial was a condemnation case. Eventually, my practice settled in general business work. For most of my career, I represented creditors in commercial collections and a variety of small business clients. I enjoyed the problem solving that I did for my business clients and found the practice of law challenging and fulfilling.
That all started to shift about twenty years ago. I met a Mennonite missionary who was working with Central Americans here in Dallas. In the mid-eighties, thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans were fleeing civil wars in their home countries. Intrigued, I agreed to help obtain guardianships for unaccompanied minors, so they could enroll in school in the U.S. Later, I took a training in asylum law. My first asylum case was a Guatemalan woman whose husband, a union leader, was assassinated by a death squad as he took their kids to school. I helped her obtain asylum. After that, I was hooked.
My policy was that once I finished an asylum case, I’d ask for another one. Since then, I have provided pro bono legal representation for political and religious asylum applicants from twenty different countries: Guatemala, EI Salvador, Burma, China, Russia, Bangladesh, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Somalia, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nepal, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda.
Why did I continue to do this work? A client from Zaire provided all of the incentive I needed. My client had been a pro-democracy activist during the tyrannical reign of Sese Mobutu. This resulted in his arrest. He managed to escape and make his way to America. He was lucky to be alive. His wife and children were in hiding in Brazzaville. I assisted this young man to obtain political asylum here. Months later, he showed up unannounced at my office with his wife and children. They were no longer in hiding. Instead, they were making a new life in the United States. He introduced me to them and said, “I wanted to thank you in person.” After he thanked me. I told him rather casually that it was my pleasure. He looked at me, paused, and said, “No, I know what you did for me, you gave me my life.” Then it hit me. It was I who was getting the most out of this relationship. Most people never get a chance to hear something like that. So, I knew that this was the most enriching work I could possibly do. I learned that it was a privilege to represent such people.
Since 1999, I’ve been taking cases from Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, Inc. HRI was founded in 1999 by a lawyer Betsy Healy, and a social worker, Serena Connely. Their mutual goal was to found an agency that was motivated by compassion, and where the work was performed in an efficient and competent fashion. I mentored Betsy on her first asylum case, when she was a lawyer in a large Dallas commercial law firm. Their model was to use pro bono lawyers to do the work. HRI has built strategic alliances with some of the best law firms in America. Those lawyers provide over two million dollars in legal services to our clients every year. HRI has built a great reputation by having a rigorous process of screening and intake.
Over the years, I not only took pro bono cases, but I became an advocate for refugees. I wrote a number of editorials for newspapers. I wrote articles about Burma and Zimbabwe. I also wrote commentaries about human rights issues for our local public radio station. Any opportunity I had to speak about the issues of asylees, I took. I realized that our clients’ stories were inspiring to others. I became increasingly aware that this was the work I found the most satisfying in life. In time, I began to think of it as a calling. In part, I was motivated by the Biblical mandate to be a voice for oppressed people.
One of the best parts of this work is seeing our country through the eyes of people who risked much to get here. I once had a client from Russia, whose family sold their home to pay for their son’s escape. A few years back, a client escaped from a torture chamber and stowed away on a cargo ship. He swam ashore at the port of Houston. The main lesson I draw from such stories is that I no longer take my rights for granted.
I drive past an Eritrean Church, where my client worships. She spent days in an overseas shipping container just for reading a Bible. I drive past a church where my Egyptian Coptic Clients now worship, after losing everything to extremists in their native Egypt. I once stood in my office on Election Day, as my Zimbabwean client expressed amazement at the peaceful nature of our elections. I realize just how fortunate I am, and I have our clients to thank.
Last year, the position of Executive Director became open at HRI. I talked it over with my wife and we decided I should apply. It was not really a difficult choice, because I now wanted to devote all my energy to the cause of helping people seek refuge here in America.
So how do I feel about it now? My work place is filled with Ethiopian pro-democracy advocates, Iranian Christians, and Egyptian Coptics. I work with young women escaping abusive arranged marriages and young teens who were survivors of crime. It is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I work with a team of young people who are full of skill and compassion. I feel younger and more energized than I have in years. In sum, I can’t imagine work that is more fulfilling or more important. I feel like I’m home.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Jason Dzubow's practice focuses on immigration law, asylum, and appellate litigation. Mr. Dzubow is admitted to practice law in the federal and state courts of Washington, DC and Maryland, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits, all Immigration Courts in the United States, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition. In June 2009, CAIR Coalition honored Mr. Dzubow for his Outstanding Commitment to Defending the Rights and Dignity of Detained Immigrants.