Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month is an annual celebration of the generations of individuals who have positively shaped the fabric of America through their many contributions. At Heartland Alliance, we celebrated by asking staff and volunteers what Hispanic Heritage Month means to them and how this understanding influences their work to support our participants. Hear from a few our team members what themes most resonate with them. 

Barbara Martinez

Manager, Asset Building, Heartland Human Care Services
Opening Doors, Creating Opportunity, Economic Justice

Noemi Salgado

Volunteer, Vital Bridges West Side Pantry, Heartland Alliance Health
Serving the Community, Culture & Language, Values & Traditions

JuanCamilo Parrado

Senior Attorney, Immigrant Legal Defense Project, National Immigrant Justice Center, Heartland Alliance
Honoring the Journey, Valuing Diversity, Immigrant Rights

Daniella Silva

Communications Officer, Heartland Alliance International
Immigrant Communities, Singing & Celebrating, Empathy & Investment

Guadalupe Barrios

Clinical Case Manager, Violence Recovery Services, Heartland Human Care Services
Connections & Partnerships, Pride & Resilience, Community & Hope

Ochonye Bartholomew Boniface of Heartland Alliance International Nigeria

Since 2012, Ochonye Bartholomew Boniface – popularly known as OBB – has served as Country Director for Heartland Alliance International (HAI) in Nigeria. He has led a strong, self-motivated team to implement the largest key populations program in sub-Saharan Africa, reaching over 600,000 individuals across 9 states and including men who have sex with men, transgender persons, sex workers, and people who use drugs.

OBB believes deeply in collaboration, pioneering the platform for all HAI country directors to meet quarterly and share experiences and challenges to find solutions to common issues. His commitment to partnership also extends to the relationships he fosters between HAI and the government of Nigeria, as well as development partners like UNAIDS, WHO, UNODC and the Global Fund. Through those partnerships, OBB has reshaped the funding model of HAI Nigeria, diversifying funds and securing financial support that grew HAI Nigeria from a $7m to a $47m project. In 2016, OBB spoke to the UN General Assembly, presenting a paper on “leaving no one behind” and elevating HAI Nigeria’s work to a global audience.

OBB has dedicated his life to achieving equity and opportunity for some of the most vulnerable populations in Nigeria because it challenges him professionally and fulfills him personally. In honor of World Humanitarian Day, OBB shared his thoughts about his work, his passion, and the ways in which his job feeds his spirit.

How did you get into this work?

My passion for public health and social development stem from my experience growing up in the military barracks in Borno state in late 70s and early 80s. I lived with diverse persons from numerous backgrounds, both soldiers and civilians, who spent time at the Brigadier Maimalari Military Cantonment because it was safe. Freedom was enjoyed by all within the barracks irrespective of our differences! Later in life, I was exposed to abuse by older persons I trusted while in boarding school and I have lived with that memory all my life. I have also had to deal with the loss of very close friends and relations due to HIV and AIDS, as well as substandard or inadequate medical practices. All of these experiences spurred me towards becoming a human rights activist and doing everything possible to reduce suffering and stigma, and making the world a better place for ALL! My perspective on life is that everyone has something positive to offer, if given the opportunity to do so, and I believe in supporting and encouraging people to maximize their full potentials against all odds.

Why is this work important to the community and those we serve?

We are dealing with some of the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable persons who suffer human rights abuses and lack protection, even from the state. Most of them are young and struggling with trauma from bad experiences at home and in society. As a result, they are withdrawn and struggle with suicidal tendencies. The work we do gives hope to the world we serve. We invest in people! We believe it is possible to make it in life irrespective of your background or color, sex or race, gender or sexual diversity. At Heartland Alliance, we are home to the world’s most vulnerable populations and our philosophy of care transcends cultures and focuses on people. Touching lives in various parts of the world and seeing the results is what makes us happy.

Was there a moment where you knew you were in the right job?

Oh yes! So many times. I once met a young person who could not even look me in the eye or introduce him/herself some years ago due to complete absence of a sense of self-worth. Today, that same person is empowered and is a shining light for others to follow. The stories of many sex workers, persons who use drugs, sexual minorities and others who have turned into community champions, leaders and role models at local, national and international levels are so refreshing to me!

Putting smiles on faces and working in partnership with people who were so downtrodden makes the work so rewarding to me. It is so true that, based on our theory of change, those who suffer vulnerability often end up becoming great advocates when healing is achieved. It is also true that there is no healing without justice and no justice without healing!   

What is your favorite part of your job?

Learning and unlearning! Every day is special and comes with different challenges and opportunities to do something new, meet someone new, fight some good fight, lose some good friends, or make some new friends. Being with community members and sharing in their diverse stories of transformation and impact is really quite fulfilling!

How can others get involved in your work?

It is in us, if only we can look inwards and find the space in our hearts to accommodate people – that is the true essence of life on earth! The opportunities to be of help to others are all over the place. We can start in our own neighborhoods and spread love until it fills the world! The world needs people who have hearts full of compassion and ready to share! I believe that individuals, corporate firms, public and private businesses, and bilateral and multilateral institutions can contribute to making the world a better place by protecting and investing in people and making sure that the environment is safer for all!

Helping Moms Heal, Grow, and Thrive

They say a mother’s work is never done. For a mom trying to raise a family without the security of a home, that phrase takes on even more meaning. For a mother trying to raise a child in a community ravaged by violence, the work truly never ends. For a survivor of gender-based violence, healing is a critical factor in her family’s wellbeing.

At Heartland Alliance, the services we provide don’t just help individuals, they help families – and ultimately develop stronger communities. See how we’re helping Moms heal, grow, and thrive.

Meet Marie de Cenival: Senior Gender Advisor, Heartland Alliance International

In celebration of Women’s History Month we are highlighting empowered women who are paving the road and empowering female leaders of the future. Meet Marie de Cenival, Heartland Alliance International’s Senior Gender Advisor. Across all programs, Marie ensures we promote progressive, innovative approaches to human rights protections and gender equality.

Tell us a little about why you were drawn to this as a career and what has kept you there.

In 1996 I lost my lover Michelle from AIDS. This was the year when antiretroviral drugs against HIV had finally become accessible in Northern rich countries. Unfortunately I was not able to provide these lifesaving medicines to Michelle in Cote d’Ivoire where she lived, despite months of efforts to get her into local clinical trials or smuggle medicine from Europe. Her death triggered my full engagement in the global campaign for universal access to affordable treatment. Eventually I realized that the promotion of LGBT and women’s rights was central to the fight against this epidemic. From an HIV treatment advocate I became a feminist, from there women’s rights program director then a gender advisor, with expertise in public health. (that’s the short version).

Was there a moment where you knew you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?

There is a before, and an after: before is when I worked as a curator, translating complex science into accessible language for a large audience.  I was a bit bored, and my work performance was nothing remarkable. After is when I used my passion for how science works to influence decision makes and international agencies. Everything I had learned seemed to be called upon, all the skills I had -and was not aware I had, totally expressed themselves; I found a community, and became addicted to the feeling of participating in change. It all fell into place.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Direct technical assistance to our country teams, and project design are the best part. One is adventurous, the other is brainy. Actually I love the articulation of both: finding the coherence between a global vision and a local solution is the most fascinating aspect of the work at HAI, because we look for large scale solutions to problems faced by very marginalized, isolated individuals. Moments when you sit with the team in Nigeria or in Colombia, field visits, focus group discussions with participants to our programs, these moments of dialogue are invaluable. This is when your job takes meaning, where you confront your assumptions on what works with the reality of what has happened… or could happen! You measure how difficult it is to conceptualize change from afar. Then comes the time when you and your colleagues from so many departments and offices put your heads together to design the project that will be even more relevant to solve these problems… and you know it won’t be ideal, but the people most affected will, eventually, impose the needed change… with our help.

How can others support your work?

Conviction and engagement can go a long way, as far as women’s rights are concerned. Every single contribution to the #metoo initiative fuels a global trend towards funding the women’s movement, for example. I am not talking about your financial contributions here, I am talking about stepping in. Joining the cause. There is no progress for women and for gender minorities in the absence of a social movement to support the shift in power that is necessary, and to demand accountability in the face of discrimination and abuse of power. Today in the USA, more than ever, we need all good willing citizens to step in: as the words “comprehensive sexual education” and the words “sexual and reproductive rights” are being erased from policy documents and become taboo for US ambassadors; as our President extends the damage already done by US policies against abortion rights; as funding for UNFPA who distributes condoms over the world is being cut… our work becomes more difficult.

Black History Month Reflections: Marino Cordoba

Heartland Alliance International’s team in Colombia includes direct survivors of the decades-long civil war, providing services to vulnerable populations – including Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities. Esteban Moreno Gámez is HAI’s Country Director in Colombia, managing multiple trauma-informed services – oftentimes the first step in the healing process following decades of violence and hopelessness. Esteban chose to reflect on a close HAI-Colombia partner and longtime Afro-Colombian advocate, Marino Cordoba.

Why did you choose this person?

Marino Cordoba is a community leader fighting for the rights of the Afro–Colombians, as well as other marginalized groups. He is from the Riosucio region in north-western Colombia, a jungle region with high biodiversity that has long been under the control of illegal armed groups with powerful economic interests.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Marino fought for the recognition of the local communities’ land and labor rights. He was one of the key leaders behind the constitutional changes in 1991 that recognized Afro-Colombians as one of Colombia’s minority communities and led to rights over their collective land. Shortly after the government recognized his community’s land rights, a joint military and paramilitary intervention began to forcibly displace Afro-Colombians from their their land – including Cordoba, who was forced to flee to Bogotá and ultimately sought asylum in the U.S.

Marino Cordoba

Marino Cordoba

In 2012, despite the high risk, Marino returned to Colombia. As president of AFRODES, he continues to defend the interests of Afro-Colombians. His determination resulted in the inclusion of the “Ethnic Chapter” in the 2016 peace agreement signed between the Government and the FARC, recognizing the contribution of ethnic groups to Colombia’s development and peacebuilding. Marino has been an ally of HAI’s programs in Colombia for years. He is an inspirational example of a Colombian in the face of so much violence and adversity, has dedicated his entire life to fighting for the betterment of the country and the protection of human rights.

How do they inspire the work you do today?

Marino represents the most vulnerable ethnic populations, which have been affected by decades of war and violence. Despite the extremely high risks that he faces in his advocacy (every two days a social or community leader is killed in Colombia), he continues on fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians and others affected by violence.

What do you think it will take to get to the future that they fought for?

Marino and other ethnic leaders have made great strides in Colombia towards protecting the rights of their communities. To guarantee a future in which all Colombians, including Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, can safely pursue their dreams and live peacefully in their territories, the government must recognize these people’s rights and ensure their protection, socioeconomic and cultural inclusion, and respect for cultural diversity and heritage.

During Unprecedented Times, We Stand For Action

Unprecedented. Never done or known before. Unheard of.

65 million people are unable to go home because of war, persecution, terrorism, or other forms of violence. That’s more than the entire population of France. This is unprecedented, and the world stage is now taking steps to solve this global crisis.

Last week the UN General Assembly held two groundbreaking summits on refugees and migrants, where world leaders including President Obama committed to new actions support the displaced and address record numbers of global refugee and migration crises. Heartland Alliance added our voice to those urging policymakers to do more for the world’s most vulnerable refugees and migrants.

In such uncertain times, we recognize the responsibility to stand with and for the marginalized – especially as the numbers mount to unprecedented levels. Here is what we did during the summits:


We pledged our support – and our resources (Download the PDF)

The UN summits focused on world leaders and their governments, pushing our heads of state to act. In response, fifty-two countries pledged billions to support the cause. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were not provided a seat at this table, even though we are on the frontlines of the crisis – and bring our own resources to the table. As a response, Heartland joined the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs, InterAction, in pledging our own privately-raised dollars to the cause. A total of 31 organizations have pledged to commit resources from private donations to bolster funding from government and UN donors so that together our collective effort reaches more people in need.


aisha2We Recognized the Marginalized of the Marginalized (Link 1, Link 2)

Heartland Alliance International also became a member of the Call to Action on Gender Based Violence in Emergencies. And we also signed on to a policy statement about the need to better support and empower women and girls in humanitarian crises. We’ve seen first-hand what war and violence does to women, girls, and children – and just how dangerous these times are for them. Just recently we highlighted the story of Aisha, a woman who was kidnapped and trafficked in the Congo – as she said:

“Once we arrived at their camp, the four of us were distributed amongst the men as their new ’wives’. I was taken by the commander.

My days consisted of going to the forest to collect food and tend to their farms. In the evening, I was expected to fulfill all the demands of a wife.

I cannot sincerely express the impact [Heartland Alliance International] has had on my life. Returning to my village I began selling merchandise and gaining profits. I used the interest gained to support my family, to pay school fees for my children and purchase food for the home. I feel confident in myself and proud of my small business.”

These are the dangers that half of the refugee population struggle through. We will continue to serve women like Aisha, and are growing our list of services around the world. In the coming months, we hope to expand safe spaces and counseling services for GBV survivors in places like Lebanon. Right now, demand for these programs outpaces our resources.


story1We highlighted the need to invest in conflict prevention

We joined an alliance of organizations fighting to ramp up investments in peace building, conflict mitigation, and reconciliation programs. When entrenched wars show no end in sight, these programs can reinvigorate stalled or otherwise unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to find political solutions to the conflicts driving forced displacement (

Just as we have served those affected by decades-long civil war in Colombia, HAI is on the ground and prepared to contribute to peacebuilding efforts as communities rebuild their lives in search of reconciliation and healing. Since 2010, HAI, with the generous support of USAID, has worked with nearly 1,400 men and women whose lives were devastated by the conflict. HAI provides individual and group counseling to Afro-Colombians who are survivors of torture and other forms of severe violence, creating a path for them to heal.


We gathered advocates and service providers in the Midwest

story2Our own National Immigrant Justice Center led an event about the current U.S. response to the global refugee crisis the same day of the first summit. With panel discussion from some of the top experts in the field, we brought people together to share our collective experiences and better understand the current refugee situation and the personal experiences asylum seekers face. 



We Made It Clear And Simple: Human Rights Are Inalienable (Link)

We joined our NGO peers to promote a vision for action and impact coming out of these summits. Keeping it simple, that vision can be distilled down into 3 parts:

(1) Every refugee can access asylum from persecution;

(2) Every refugee will be given the opportunity for a durable solution to his or her plight, to be and feel safe, welcome, and at home, without having to wait years for that solution;

(3) Every refugee, displaced person, and migrant is entitled to the same human rights as everyone else.

Going forward, we will be engaging with the refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers we work with as well as our peer organizations, governments, UN agencies, and our partners on the ground to help translate these commitments into action and impact- in Chicago and throughout the world.


Stay tuned – we will need your help to make sure these promise are followed through. It’s time we all stand #withrefugees

In Her Own Words – Aisha’s Story


My name is Aisha, and I cannot thank HAI enough for the incredible impact their services have had on my life. Where I am from, wood is our primary fuel source and one must walk far distances down insecure routes to collect wood. Women are tasked with this charge and, due to insecurity, myself and eight women collectively go out into the forest to collect and bring home wood. One day, while we were collecting wood we all heard a loud, unfamiliar noise behind us. When we turned around we were confronted by a group of armed men.

Some women, struck with fear, began to run. The armed men immediately fired upon them, killing four women. The rest of us frightened to move for fear of being shot, remained unmoved. Following the event, the group of men brought us far into the forest, an unimaginable distance from our homes and families. Along the route we could not help but think that our families imagined we were killed once the other bodies of our group were discovered. Once we arrived at their camp, the four of us were distributed amongst the men as their new “wives”. I was taken by the commander. The place I was then taken, filled my everyday with struggle. During the day I was considered nothing more than another laborer. My days consisted of going to the forest to collect food and tend to their farms. In the evening, I was expected to fulfill all the demands of a wife. 

A month later, I observed the commander and another soldier discussing something quietly. I could not hear the conversation, but shortly after he turned to me and stated simply, “Stay here. You see this man, he is your new husband”. I was surprise and asked him, “but it is no longer you?”. He responded, “No, this man also is interested in you.” It was at this moment I realized I had been sold to another man. I stayed here for a period of time, tending to the same tasks, performing forced labor during the day and exploited sexually in the evening. Once this man tired of me, I was sold to a third man. I had become a simple product to sell, I was merchandise.

I soon discovered I was pregnant. I began bleeding excessively due to the pregnancy and non-stop hard labor I was subject to as well as ongoing sexual abuse. Once the man noticed the bleeding, he immediately brought me back to the commander saying, “Take your wife, we are tired of her”.

I was no longer seen as useful, and the soldiers returned me to where they had originally abducted myself and the four other women. Leaving me there, they told me to go home now. I was free, but now weak and not sure how I would make it home given my condition. Fortunately, I saw friends from my village collecting wood. I tried to yell to them, but I couldn’t find the strength to speak. One of my friends saw me, remarking “Look, that is Mama Aisha, I thought she had been killed!”  They noticed the blood on my clothes and carried me quickly to the nearest health center. At the health center, I was told I had major complications with the pregnancy and they would have to abort the child. After the operation, I continued to suffer from terrible contractions and consistent pain in my abdomen. I was constantly weak and couldn’t perform any of my daily activities. My husband was grateful to have found me again, and promised to do his best to tend to my needs. Despite his willingness, he was overwhelmed mentally and economically incapable of caring for me. My situation continued to worsen and I was powerless to change it.aisha1

One day, I noticed people from my village gathering for a large meeting. I went to see what was occurring and it was here I first learned of human trafficking from local leaders and representatives from HAI. After the sensitization I approached the leaders and presented my situation. I was told there was an assistance program for me. Not long after I was brought to HAI’s emergency shelter where I would spend six weeks. At this stage I was relieved to be out of my village, I felt constantly insecure. When I went out of my house, community members would point and stare at me. In the center, I found immediate refuge and security. My physical needs were tended to, I was finally relieved of my severe contractions. Additionally, I was supported psychologically, they changed my way of thinking, of seeing myself. I started to find myself again, to feel confident. When it came time to return to my village, the center prepared me economically, enhancing my ability to manage finances and equipping me with the finances and material to perform my own income generating activity.

I cannot sincerely express the impact the center has had on my life. Returning to my village I began selling merchandise and gaining profits. I used the interest gained to support my family, to pay school fees for my children and purchase food for the home. I feel confident in myself and proud of my small business.

Today, women have begun to confide in me, denouncing trafficking cases and discussing how human trafficking has impacted their lives as well. Many women once too scared or embarrassed to discuss their experiences have begun looking to me as a role model. As such, it is my hope that HAI continues to expand its services to others.



Protecting Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

With 1.2 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon is host to the highest percentage of Syrian refugees per capita—one in five—of any country in the world. Women and children make up 79% of the registered refugee population, with children constituting 53.2% of this figure. Violence, overcrowded shelters and insufficient incomes are the most pressing issues among this community.   

HAI has been working in Lebanon since 2008 in the following ways:

Combatting gender-based violence and expanding access to services. HAI has created and continually staffs safe spaces that serve over 2,700 women and girl refugee survivors of violence and those at risk of experiencing violence. These walk-in safe spaces include mental health and legal services, vocational training and child care services. These locations also share information about the rights given and services available to refugees.

Healing trauma and restoring well-being. HAI collaborates with existing social and health clinics to provide sliding scale and free services for Syrian refugees. The organization has trained clinic staff to provide mental health services for refugee survivors of violence.

  • Paving a path to sustainability. HAI brings together high-level national and local government, along with non-governmental organizations to help them better understand and respond to violence against Syrian refugee women and Lebanese host community member In addition, HAI partnered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to expand gender-based violence response and prevention in eight community centers inside eight Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
  • Protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) refugees. LGBT individuals have the right to be safe, healthy, engaged and empowered. HAI works with local partners to meet the most pressing needs of LGBT communities and increasing acceptance and support from within the larger refugee and host communities. HAI conducted the first assessment of its kind on the specific vulnerabilities facing LGBT refugees in Lebanon. This landmark report informs HAI’s and other organizations’ programming in working with this particularly vulnerable group of refugees.

Ensuring education for all. HAI provides training for Syrian refugee adolescent girls and children who are unable to participate in formal education because of language barriers.

Healing in Colombia

The Colombian civil war is the most destructive conflict in the Western hemisphere, causing widespread displacement and a legacy of pervasive, severe human rights violations dating back decades. Fighting among guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), government forces and various paramilitary groups has especially affected rural communities along the Pacific Coast, home to the third largest African diaspora community in the Americas. Hundreds of thousands have fled massacres, torture, kidnapping and forced conscription. During a high point in violence in 2002, more than 4,000 civilians were killed for political motives, over 1,000 people “disappeared” and at least 2,700 people were kidnapped.  Severe human rights violations continue, with 200,000 individuals fleeing their homes each year. A vast majority of torture and abuse cases are not reported at all, as a result of fear of retribution and lack of data collection.

In 2011, HAI began delivering mental health services to victims of torture in Afro-Colombian communities, and the organization is working with civil society organizations to address the needs of torture survivors. HAI is increasing mental health treatment for victims of Colombia’s internal conflict by providing treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as suicide education and prevention tailored to indigenous communities. These projects have been developed in a manner that can be replicated throughout the country, and HAI is working with partners from universities, civil society and Colombian government agencies to expand the reach of its models to new regions and diverse populations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.