When Lilian Rivas came to Catholic Charities for help on her refugee case, she was well-tuned to the ways of advocacy. She brought with her a background in political activism advocating for the Garifuna people of her native Honduras.
“She’s definitely a fighter,” Natoo Nichim Ali, an immigration attorney for Catholic Charities Immigrant & Refugee Services, said about his client. “She was someone used to standing up to authority. She didn’t have a default approach to me as her attorney. That’s great, it’s her life,” he recalled about her successful case, which granted her refugee status in 2021, allowing her to stay in the U.S.
There wasn’t a particular traumatic event, it was a series of traumatic events over time that was the catalyst for her leaving.
Lilian never graduated from high school, yet became an able spokesperson for her Garifuna people, an ethnic minority in Honduras descended from Africans who came to the Central America country from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in the late 1700s. There is a long troubled history for the Garifuna in Honduras, and many have left for other countries. The largest expatriate group resides in the Bronx. Lilian joined in demonstrations and distributed literature for the cause of Garifuna rights.
Lilian, 52, now lives in Orange County with her two sons, ages 19 and 14, and works in home care. She was active for decades in OFRANEH, a group advocating for the rights of Blacks in Honduras who have been under siege as a land grab has taken many of their ancestral lands and outside fishermen have poached on their native coastal regions. OFRANEH – an acronym in Spanish which translated stands for Fraternal Organization for Black Hondurans – ran into conflicts with the Honduran government and military which, she said, has sided with outsiders who want to exploit the fishing and natural resources of the Garifuna.
“I had much fear,” she said, speaking in Spanish. Lilian said her fellow activists were being attacked and, in some cases, murdered.
“There wasn’t a particular traumatic event, it was a series of traumatic events over time that was the catalyst for her leaving,” said Ali. Lilian left Honduras and took a series of buses to the Mexican-Texas border near Laredo, where she surrendered to U.S. immigration authorities and pressed her claim for refugee status in 2019.
Unlike many of her fellow Central American immigrants, Lilian could prove that she deserved political asylum, being able to cite the violence against Garifuna activists. Thanks to the legal help she received from Catholic Charities, her legal refugee status allows her to work while she applies for a green card. After five years from earning a green card, she can apply for citizenship.