Oballa Oballa- Honorary member of the Austin City Council City, Activist, and Former Refugee

Mohamed Malim

Thank you very much for this opportunity. My name is Oballa Oballa, I was born in Gambela, Ethiopia, and in 2013 we moved to America here but before that I was a refugee in Kenya, so I fled Ethiopia due to genocide in Gambela and we sought refuge in Kenya. So we lived in Dadaab for almost 10 years. The trip was long, as a refugee in Kenya it took us almost 6 years for our resettlement to be approved, we had to go through every process, so the department of UNHCR gave us the resettlement, then we got an interview, and then it took us another 2 years before we even got our second interview, and then after 2 years we went to something called JVA, and then the United States finally approved our resettlement process in 2013, so in December 2013 we moved to America and the day we arrived in America, we were like “wow we finally made it.” 

Well, I arrived not during the summer, we arrived in December so it was snowing. It never snowed back in Africa, I had never seen snow before, I didn’t know what it was, but when we arrived here everything looked white, snow everywhere. So first I was wondering if the movies were lying about America because we couldn’t see any buildings since there was snow everywhere. So we first settled in Maryland, and after that we couldn’t quite get adjusted to the environment there. I think it didn’t work out for me because I was trying to go to school, because I had no high school diploma, so after Maryland I had to move to South Dakota. 

The biggest challenge coming to America as a refugee, especially at a young age, when I arrived here I was turning 20 and I didn’t have my high school diploma, I was barely speaking English, so those are the biggest obstacles because finding a job, you have to have something like a degree to get a better job, so my biggest struggle was to get a high school diploma in America. That didn’t work out because my case worker told me that I needed to find a labor job like working in an onion factory in Baltimore. I refused that, because I didn’t come here to pick onions. I have better training than that. She told me, “well you don’t have any degree, so this is the only job you can do.” So from there I totally disagreed with her, and that was what made me move to South Dakota to attend a program called Job Corps in Sioux Falls to get my high school diploma. 

Well the biggest thing coming as a refugee is that refugees are coming here to take our jobs, refugees they are lazy, refugees they are here they don’t want to work hard, they like to receive handouts. Personally, I didn’t come to America to receive handouts or free things. When I moved here I had no high school diploma, I came to America with only one pair of pants and one shirt, and the biggest thing is that I want to achieve the american dream. So to do that I have to prove to people that I am here for a reason, I am not just here to beg. So then I got my high school diploma, I graduated from high school within 9 months, and then I moved from Sioux Falls to Austin, Minnesota, where I attend college. So when I began college there, I became involved with the community, I graduated with my associates degree in human services, and then two years later I graduated with my bachelors degree in social work, and then after that I became involved, I lead a student-wide organization for student governance with a president and vice president, I worked really hard, and then I got elected to city council. So when I moved to Austin, I went straight to our city hall and asked our Mayor, “Mayor my name is Oballa, I just moved to Austin, three months ago, and now I’m a student at Riverland. Is there anything I can do to help the community of Austin?” so the mayor was shocked. He looked at me like “who are you? Did someone send you here from the community?” and I was like “No, I’m just a regular kid, just moved here, I wanna get involved.” And he told me “this is my first time in 14 years, I’ve never seen a refugee come and ask me.” so through that involvement, the mayor saw a potential in me, so he appointed me to the human rights commission where I served for almost 2 years and then after that the city council appointed me as an honorary city council member, and then in december 2019 I got my citizenship and right away when I got my citizenship in 2019, all the city council told me, “Oballa you have to run for city council,” so in 2020 I ran for city council in one of the most difficult campaigns, through a pandemic, and I won the election. 

I think as a refugee, I cannot forget the life I’ve been through as a refugee, my life in Dadaab was really difficult because sometimes I could go a day without eating food, sometimes two days without taking a shower because of lack of water. So all those challenges, you know lack of water, food, education, so coming to America for me I see it as an opportunity because most refugees who live in Dadaab especially those who come from Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, they all have war in their countries. So coming to America is a time to reflect back: “we’ve been in a refugee camp, our countries still need us as a young man and woman, so we have to work hard, get education, and then gave back and empower those communities through diplomacy to solve tension in our region.” because America is the land of opportunity and we can do that if we have the resources here. 

The biggest thing that I’m working on now is to empower those refugees still back home to see me as a role model for them. Since I moved here I’ve been helping some of the refugees, communicating with them, helping them out with some ideas like what I’m doing here and sometimes sending money back to my friends who are struggling. My biggest project in the future is to build some schools back in Ethiopia because in my village we don’t have a lot of schools, like building hospitals, because there’s no clean water in some of the buildings. So those are some of the things that I’m working on in the future, hopefully all those dreams will come true. And also supporting refugees when they move here to direct them in the right direction so that they don’t fall in a bad path. 

The biggest thing that gives me energy and motivation is the life I’ve been through. When I look at my mom – my mom never went to school, my dad never went to school – and my mom always will talk to me and say, “Oballa if I had the opportunity to go to school, I could be president of Ethiopia.” looking at her, and she’s like “now you have every opportunity. You are in America. What are you lacking?” so when I see her talk to me and watch her through that, I feel like “if my mom has this big dream at the age she is now, why not me?'' So when I go to sleep, I know I have to compete with myself. I feel like my 10 years living as a refugee were wasted because I didn’t have any opportunity, but I’ve been in America for almost 7 years now so with 7 years coming here with no high school diploma, now I’m a graduate with a bachelor's degree, I’m a city council member, I lead state-wide legislature that has passed called Hunger Free Campus, I’ve been travelling across the state speaking at different schools, so those are the things that if there is anything I can do to empower another kid, another refugee out there, now is the time, I don’t have to wait for another miracle to come because I am a miracle myself.

The biggest accomplishment is getting my high school diploma because I never had that, second becoming the first person in my family to graduate from college, to have a bachelor's degree, and then the third thing to be elected the first refugee in my city, the first person of color, after 152 years, in my city to be elected, that is the biggest accomplishment.

America is so special in so many ways. Because in America it’s just getting into America is difficult but once you are in you can do anything. You can do big things you can dream. If you have the energy, if you have the commitment, and you’re consistent to your dream, you will accomplish it. This is the land of opportunity. And when they say that, it’s true. You just have to go outside, knock on that door, when I moved here I had never held a dollar before. Now I can hold it, I can work for it, people can call me “Hey Oballa can you come do this for us” so that is one thing I would tell every refugee “when you come here, if you follow the right path and the right direction, you can accomplish any dream.” 

This is one thing I would tell them: It’s challenging. Even though America is the land of opportunity, there are some obstacles. And as an immigrant you will be faced with all those racism or other discrimination but the biggest thing is, there’s a reason why you are here. Ignoring them and speaking up at the right time. Always respect the law and regulation, don’t be in a bad company, always watch out, go with the people who have dreams. If you see some of your friends are leaving you because you’re not following their path, good. As long as you know where you’re going, don’t get caught up in the wrong area. So that’s what I would tell them. It’s challenging, but it’s up to you, you have to ask yourself at night “Who am I in 10 years? Who am I? What will I do to make my family proud?” It's up to each individual so the biggest thing is to follow the right direction, there’s no shortcut in America, always just do the right thing at the right time. 

The biggest thing is to tell them “Don’t look for a job right away.” America is a land of everyone who wants to work, you will work for the rest of your life until you’re 100. If you want to have a comfortable life when you are old, get a good education now, and find something you’re talented at, focus on a skill that you’re interested in. Don’t go do a job you’re not comfortable in. Figure out something you want to go to school for, go to school for it, and do it for the rest of your life. I would always empower other refugees to seek advice from other people who have been here, to get a good education, and to live your life.

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