By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Though Flowers emphasizes that his work at the Human Rights Initiative is wholly separate from the Demeter Project, his connections at the Human Rights Initiative, and to the world of other recovery programs like Grace Unlimited, which helps women readjust to life after incarceration, and New Friends New Life, a nonprofit to assist women transitioning out of prostitution, have produced a diverse and unique coffee-shop staff.
"A lot of people might not want to give them a second chance, and the Demeter Project has been willing to do that," Barley says. "Everybody's so excited to come to work because they have a place [where] they know they don't have to make something up about their past. They can be completely honest, [and] no one's going to look down on them."
Between the morning rush and the first-break-of-the-day coffee drinkers from nearby Baylor Hospital, Jess takes a break herself, sitting at one of It's a Grind's small round wooden tables. It's nothing unusual for the staff to sit with customers; Muna, who fled war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, almost a decade ago, likes to tell stories of the pet monkey that she still misses. She smiles just thinking of him; Jess' story of her homeland, however, doesn't evoke a similar smile. Large, dangling earrings and colorful headbands give her an indie-chick look—a breezy vestige of the 22-year-old Colombian who, before her family's political ordeal that led to their flight to Texas, had a good job, a handsome boyfriend and a sweet life.
Jess grew up in Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia, the daughter of a man whose radio show focused on human rights and placed him at the crux of Colombia's long-standing conflict between leftist guerrilla organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary groups, many of which had unofficial quid pro quo arrangements with the country's ruling Conservative Party.
By the 1990s, with both sides infiltrating the government and the police, the radio show became a soapbox for decrying the human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides, and a political liability to each. In the middle of 2004, during his radio show, Jess' father went too far, issuing accusations of corruption that implicated several powerful people in Cali. The reaction was swift and terrifying: The following day, two armed men staked out Jess' house, waiting for her father to return home in his car. But the car had broken down, and her father had come home early. By the time the assassins arrived, he was safely ensconced in his study, reading, but the absence of a car made them think he was on his way, and they waited, talking quietly about their plans to kill him.
A next-door neighbor heard everything, and after the assassins left, she hurried to warn Jess' father, who cautioned his family to be careful. Within days, one of her father's political allies was found dead with a hit list pinned to his chest and her father's name at the top of it. Jess and her family fled, leaving behind their possessions and using all their political connections to secure a visa for her father. Before a week had passed, he was in Texas, staying with relatives and working to get political asylum for himself and his family. But for Jess—who had followed in her father's footsteps by working for a politician with whom he'd been involved—the situation remained dangerous.
Soon after they'd fled their house in Cali, Jess' mother got a call from someone who refused to identify himself. The caller told her that his group first planned to kill the son of the director of the radio station where Jess' father had worked. And Jess was next on their list.
"[They] said they would kill me because I was my father's daughter," Jess recounts, struggling to keep her tears from falling on the coffee table. With that, the family left Cali for Bogotá, Colombia's largest city, where her pursuers would be less likely to find them. They took buses, Jess says, because flying would have left a paper trail. They moved every two weeks, or more frequently when necessary, exhausting their list of friends and family willing to help.
It took nine months before the family could secure the necessary visas to get to the United States, but with the help of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, where Jess' father had found refuge, Jess and her family left Colombia in June 2005.
Finally, the surreptitious midnight moves, the anonymous death threats and the pervasive fear were—to the extent that they can be—a thing of the past. It took Jess and her family almost a year to receive political asylum status—a designation similar to that of a refugee, which is a person unable to return to his or her home country because of political, religious, ethnic or other persecution. That status also provided her with the documents necessary to work here.
She took a job as a teaching assistant with the Richardson Independent School District—the pay $10 an hour—just enough to support herself and help her parents (with whom she lived) with necessities. But as her supervisors realized that she was not only bilingual, but also generous enough to do extra work, they started piling it on.