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NIJFON annual fundraiser

Posted: October 19 2019 at 10:23 AM

State Sen. Delia Ramirez (4th District) receives one of two Champion for Justice awards during the NIJFON annual dinner and fundraiser on Sept. 29. Photo by David Quinn

On Sunday, September 29, more than 150 supporters gathered at Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora for the Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors’ (NIJFON) annual fundraiser. Fifteen NIC churches were represented at the event, which raised more than $20,000 for NIJFON and featured a variety of speakers such as Christian Coon (Pastor River Forest/Urban Village), Congressman Bill Foster (11th District), former JFON client Mazen Ataya, and the 2019 Champions for Justice Award Winners. 

“It is a crucial time for our organization and our immigrant community as a whole,” said Executive Director Claudia Marchan as she welcomed attendees. 

NIJFON presented their 2019 Annual Champions of Justice award to the Rev. Paula Cripps-Vallejo (Pastor, Humboldt Park UMC) and State Representative Delia Ramirez (4th District). Award recipients are determined by their contributions to their professional field as well as NIJFON’s mission and vision. 

“Our 2019 Champions of Justice not only represent the work of JFON throughout the years but embody the true meaning of Justice in the work that they do every single day,” said Marchan. “They inspire all of us to continue to do the same.” 

The atmosphere was a mix of celebration and determination. Just three days earlier, the Trump administration had placed further restrictions on the total number of asylum seekers that would be allowed into the U.S. in their quest to seek safety from violence and harm in their home country. According to the New York Times, the administration said it would accept 18,000 refugees during the coming 12 months, down from the current limit of 30,000. That, said Cripps-Vallejo, was unacceptable. 


Rev. Paula Cripps-Vallejo, Pastor, Humboldt Park UMC is the second honoree as a Champion for Justice. Photo by David Quinn

“For me, as a white American U.S.-born citizen, it breaks my heart to see what is happening time and time again,” she said. “I accept this award with deep honor and privilege because I know that I’ve been able to do this work for immigrants’ rights because I’ve been surrounded by so many other champions for justice.” 

In accepting her award, Ramirez paid tribute to her mother (“my heart, my hero”) and to Cripps-Vallejo. “One of the reasons I am able to stand before you today is because of that woman--she is my pastor!” she said, recalling growing up in Humboldt Park and asking questions about homelessness and poverty and other social issues. 

“As people of faith sometimes we have to ‘get inside’ to change the rules,” Ramirez noted. “Sometimes we have to be closest to the center of power to change it. Our representation matters!”

The event also served to kick off JFON’s Justice Campaign. An initial $3,100 was raised toward the $50,000 goal, which will help NIJFON continue to increase its capacity and bring on two more legal staff at the end of the year, another full-time attorney and a paralegal assistant. It’s all to help JFON support more clients and claim justice for one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S.

In his address, Coon (River Forest/Urban Village Church) noted the idea of justice for our neighbors is supported in what some view as an unlikely place in the Bible: Leviticus. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in  Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19: 33-34 NIV). Coon summed it up for all attendees: “We are called to support immigrants and treat them well!”

A board member for the past two years, Brian Straw, Esq. mobilized his own efforts in January 2017 when the refugee ban was put into place, participating in the protests at Chicago’s O’Hare airport and eventually representing refugees on a pro bono basis. He soon learned he could quadruple his impact by working to get the word out and get more people involved in supporting NIJFON. 

“Our goal is to keep growing because there is more demand right now than we are ever going to be able to meet,” Straw noted. “Every additional dollar we raise is going to have a massive impact in somebody’s life. Tonight we heard from Mazen Ataya, whose life was saved by NIJFON. Last year we heard from an asylee from Africa whose life was at risk and NIJFON worked and got his asylum case granted and now he’s a legal permanent resident in the U.S. That’s incredibly exciting.”

Harry Nicol, NIJFON Board Chair, noted the organization was very pleased with the fundraiser’s outcome. “We hoped to have those who attended left with knowledge of the work being done by NIJFON and of the challenges we face to continue to meet the tremendous needs that come to us,” he said. “It is clear that the financial and prayerful support of individuals and churches throughout the Northern Illinois Conference will be critical for us to continue to provide quality legal services.”

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