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From Refugee to Representative, US Candidates Celebrate Election Victories

Oballa Oballa has been elected to the City Council of his adopted hometown of Austin, Minnesota. He is the first refugee, first immigrant and first person of color to serve on the council. (Photo courtesy Oballa Oballa)

Oballa Oballa’s trek to Election Day was a long and improbable one.

He grew up in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, where he witnessed mass killings that took the life of his uncle and hundreds of others. He survived a two-week trek across treacherous terrain to reach a refugee camp in Kenya. He spent 10 years in camps where he often didn’t have enough to eat.

Now he has been elected to the City Council of his adopted hometown of Austin, Minnesota. He is the first refugee, first immigrant and first person of color to serve on the council. He said he never doubted he’d reach this destination.

“I'm so proud to call myself an American citizen, whereby I can serve and help the community,” he said. “The American dream is that anything I put my mind into, if I work hard for it, I can achieve it. That's how I define my American dream.”

Oballa is one of at least five American political newcomers with African roots who won posts in city, state and federal races in Tuesday’s U.S. elections.

Esther Agbaje became the first Nigerian-American elected to the Minnesota legislature. Oye Owolewa is the first Nigerian-American elected to be Washington, D.C.’s shadow representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Liberian-American Naquetta Ricks of Aurora, Colorado, was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. And Omar Fateh, the son of Somali immigrants, was elected to Minnesota’s state Senate.

Oballa said he wanted to be politically active as soon as he arrived in the U.S. in 2013. He served as president of the student senate at his community college and helped pass state legislation to address food insecurity on community college campuses.

Since he was active in the community, he was already a familiar face when he began knocking on doors and asking for votes.

“I'm always volunteering. You go to Walmart, you see my name, a lot of people recognize me. So, when I decided to do door knocking, a lot of people are already familiar with my face -- that makes it easier for me and my team,” he said.

He still had to win their support by discussing the issues he is passionate about, such as access to daycare, affordable housing and the need for economic growth.

“I have to introduce myself to tell my vision and why I'm running, because I have to appeal to the voters and the residents that I will be the right person,” he said.

In Colorado, mortgage broker Ricks said she fled civil war in Liberia with her family as a child. Now, a mother of an adult daughter, she was elected to the Colorado House.

“This privilege to run for state representative is such an awesome privilege that I don't take lightly at all,” she told VOA’s Daybreak Africa. “I think that people are open to hearing where you're coming from. And that's what makes America great. This is the example that we set in a democracy.”

In Minnesota, Fateh, the son of Somali immigrants, said he believes his unique experience allows him to speak for all his constituents in one of the most diverse districts in the state.

“I felt that I was the best to bridge the gap between the immigrant and nonimmigrant communities,” he said. “I grew up in a Somali household, but I was born and raised in America. So, I had one foot in each culture. So, because of that understanding that I carry both identities with me, I’m able to best serve the communities in this district.”

He said his election is a powerful statement about the changing face of his home state.

“In Minnesota, we're inclusive. We're welcoming for everybody: our immigrants, our first-generation people,” he told VOA's Somali Service. “I’m able to represent one of the most diverse communities in Minnesota – and not just in terms of race but in terms of values. We value each other. We value our working-class residents, and we value putting our people first.”

James Butty and Somali Service’s Maxamuud Mascadde contributed to the report.