“I grew up in communist and post-communist Bulgaria,” says Lili Nikolova. “During those times, having a voice and speaking up wasn’t encouraged.” Nikolova eventually moved to the United States, finding not only her voice but also using it to advance human rights for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Her calling has brought her to conflict-ridden regions where she assists victims of some of the worst human rights abuses—torture, gender-based violence, and human trafficking—and helps them recover and start new lives.
“The work I do saves lives, but those results happen through improving systems, services, and support for victims and survivors over the long-term,” says Nikolova, now Heartland Alliance International’s (HAI) project director of counter human trafficking in Northeast Nigeria. Working on the ground, she strengthens mental health and social services for individuals who’ve suffered under violence carried out by Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP), a crisis that’s displaced nearly 2.5 million people. HAI’s services are lifesaving and range from helping trafficking victims obtain safe shelter to providing comprehensive mental health services and community reintegration for women and children survivors of war.
Part of Nikolova’s job is overcoming resistance and potential backlash from local governments. “Because it’s human rights, it’s always political,” she says. Still, that hasn’t deterred Nikolova from winning crucial allies in those institutions to effect systemic change. While assigned to an anti-torture program in Iraq, she oversaw legislative advocacy efforts that contributed to the passage of a landmark witness protection law. And in Iraqi Kurdistan, she partnered with UNICEF on a pivotal research study that shed light on the prevalence of female genital mutilation, a practice that still affects up to 45 percent of women and girls in the region.
Nikolova admits human rights work is “sometimes very difficult, but it’s also very rewarding if you find meaning in it.” She recalls a survivor who’d endured severe physical and psychological trauma and sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS and later while imprisoned. “Her testimony had been extracted under torture for political reasons,” remembers Nikolova. The legal aid Nikolova and her team provided during the case enabled the woman to testify and “stand up for herself” in court. “Some of our programs’ participants have gone through extremely traumatic experiences,” says Nikolova. “Yet, they keep going. So if they can keep going, then why shouldn’t we?”