courtesy Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
Stained glass art by Maria Sheets

Local Artists Come Together to Depict Immigrant Stories

The latest project of Kavita Khandekar, the deputy director of the nonprofit Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, began as a fever dream. She and her coworkers at the small agency wanted to host a large-scale fundraiser, but they didn't want to do a big gala or luncheon like other nonprofits.

For a long time, Khandekar says, they knew the value of hiring artists to help their clients tell their stories. As part of a program called Make Art with Purpose, the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas teamed up with photographer Jin-Ya Huang in 2013 to create abstract art that reflected some of its clients' experiences. Huang's artwork still hangs in the agency's lobby.

“From that point on, it was rattling around in our brain,” Khandekar says. “We thought it would be interesting to take local artists and former clients with varying backgrounds and create unique pieces whether [their stories were] trauma, a light at the end of the tunnel or their light now.”

These unique creations will be available for sale at the second annual Rock Your HeART Out Concert and Art Auction at 8 p.m. Saturday at Life in Deep Ellum. The proceeds will help the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas provide free legal and social services for immigrants who are survivors of abuse.

Founded in 2001, the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas has a network of about 600 pro bono attorneys serving 350 immigrant clients each year. Khandekar says the agency offers three programs: an asylum program, a children's program and a crime victims program. For example, the program for crime victims helps immigrants — men, women and children — who are stuck in abusive marriages because of immigration status.

courtesy Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
Los Texmaniacs

Khandekar says in some cases, an abuser used legal immigration status, either the lack or hope of it, as a tool to pressure the client into staying in the relationship. The crime victims program helps them to leave and prove the abuse so they can retain their immigration status.

“The more proof that we can provide, the stronger the application [to retain their status],” she says.

Last year, six visual artists were chosen to work with clients and auction their works. This year, that number has been bumped to eight. The artists participating include muralist Kyle Steed, stained glass artist Maria Sheets, and photographer Treena Muir, who specializes in composite photography.

Khandekar says Steed worked closely with one of the agency's political asylum seekers from Burundi, a small country in Africa. She sought asylum in the U.S. with her three children because she was a member of an opposition political party targeted by her government.

“She was detained, interrogated and assaulted,” Khandekar says.

Sheets created a piece of art with a client from the crime victims program. Khandekar says the client arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when she was a child. She spent most of her life growing up in Texas and found herself in an abusive relationship after high school. She married her abuser and gave birth to his child although he repeatedly assaulted her. She eventually left, and the agency helped her to obtain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. Since then, Khandekar says, she has obtained her high school diploma, completed her bachelor's degree and is working toward law school so she can help other immigrants.

Muir worked with a child client who left Honduras because of gang violence and domestic abuse. Khandekar says the child was living with her father, who was both emotionally and physically abusive. After the client's mother fled to the U.S., Khandekar says, the abuse worsened, ending when the father was sent to jail for killing the child's uncle. The client was 15 years old when she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. She is now 17 and a legal resident attending high school.

“Treena did a series of photographs that describe [the client's] journey coming to the U.S. and finding her footing,” Khandekar says.

In a press release, Dallas sculptor Kelly Clemons, who participated in the 2016 event, praised the agency's efforts to help clients share their stories.

“As an artist, I was stretched by a story and driven by a passion beyond my own,” she says. “As a person, I was totally floored by the beauty of human resilience and inspired by the hearts of everyone who serves with this organization.”

Xuan, Salim Nourallah and Treefort 5 provided music during last year's auction. This year, Grammy Award-winning Max Barca and Los Texmaniacs will headline, with support from San Antonio's Bombasta and Dallas musician Xuan.

Rock Your Heart Out Concert and Art Auction, 8 p.m. Saturday, Life in Deep Ellum, 2803 Taylor St., $55, rockyourheartout.org.

Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.

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