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In a room with 11 White House Champions of Change, Semhar Araia ’99 was meeting with the president.
Her cohort that day in April 2012 included individuals who had dedicated their lives to causes such as veterans’ issues, housing and health care. They had an hour with President Barack Obama and each was given the opportunity to describe their work. Semhar Araia ’99 was the last to present.
When it became her turn to speak, Araia described her life’s work. As the daughter of Eritrean immigrants, she is an advocate for the African diaspora. Her professional background is a collection of assignments resulting in a rolodex that includes names such as the late Nelson Mandela, President Jimmy Carter and other national and world leaders. On this particular day, she was talking about the importance of community organizing for underrepresented voices to another child of an African immigrant who is, perhaps, the best-known community organizer in the world.
“It was just one of those humbling, deeply inspiring moments. It’s a complete honor and validation of not just my story, but of the immigrant story,” said Araia (pronounced Ah-Rey-Ah) of her meeting with the president.
The journey that led her to the meeting at the White House, however, was one that she never planned.
Araia’s mother left Eritrea in 1968 amid a war of independence from Ethiopia, to earn a nursing degree in the United States. She planned to return home, but after marrying and having children, her home country was still at war and unsafe.
Instead, her parents became activists within the diaspora. They felt compelled to do everything they could in the United States to help their family back home.
“Today we see a lot of spaces where the diaspora are organized,” said Araia. “But in the ’70s, it was so new. Brown people and immigrants were just beginning to organize.”
From a young age she developed a global mindset. Her parents brought her to activist events supporting Eritrea’s struggle for independence. “I would go to demonstrations and would be the only child there,” she said, describing how her parents and she embodied the “Afro-hippie” lifestyle of the 1970s and 80s. “I’ve always felt connected to Eritrea because it was our reality and our existence.”
Even Araia’s name is significant to her parents’ lives as activists. Semhar is a coastal province in Eritrea that was a battleground during the country’s war for independence. “My parents chose the name because in 1978 while Eritrea was fighting Ethiopia, Ethiopia wanted access to the sea,” she said. “It was a reminder of our existence. To this day, Semhar is very symbolic.”
As a family, they agreed that her mother and father needed to stay in Washington, D.C., where the pulse of decisions were being made about Eritrea. They were living in D.C., when, at age 10, Araia and her brother Fnan ’05, M.A. ’07 were sent to Minnesota to live with their aunt and uncle. She describes the experience as a jolt.
While life with her parents involved a lot of activity and moving around, her life in Minnesota provided stability. “In hindsight, I really needed it because it gave me a sense of roots and foundation of family in a healthy, stable way,” she said. Despite the distance, Araia remained in close contact with her mother.
Her parents’ struggle and Eritrea’s struggle were always forefront in her mind. Then, on her 13th birthday, her mother called with good news. “She said to me, ‘Happy Birthday. Eritrea is free.’ Being raised in that consciousness, it kind of shapes your whole existence,” she said. “This thing that I had been exposed to my whole life was supposedly over. It’s surreal looking back at it.”
In high school, Araia attended football games and was voted homecoming queen. She graduated as salutatorian from Coon Rapids High School, but it was not always easy to relate to her peers. “My consciousness was always going back to how I could help Eritrea,” she said. For her 14th birthday, she donated all cash gifts to the newly independent country.
She did well in school and had aspirations of attending an international university. She wanted to travel the world studying international business and human rights. After skipping a grade, she was on track to graduate high school a year early, a week after her 17th birthday.
Those plans came to a halt when Araia’s mother died six months before graduation.
Araia was forced to re-evaluate her future. “Her loss was a hugely influential moment in my life,” she said.
Remaining close to her family became a priority in her college choice. Although St. Thomas offered the international curriculum she wanted to study, she was not convinced it was the place for her until she and her aunt visited campus.
Araia’s tour guide was Ryan Schlief ’97. The two hit it off immediately. “My aunt and I walked around the campus and fell in love with the school because it was warm and beautiful. But it was Ryan’s graciousness and kindness that showed me what exists at St. Thomas,” she said.
“When we first met, Semhar knew what questions to ask about St Thomas. She cared about the academics and the campus life for students of color,” said Schlief. “I could tell there was something special about her immediately. She was dedicated to education for a greater purpose.” Schlief was the 1997 Tommie Award winner and, as an alumnus, has earned the St. Thomas Day Humanitarian Award. He and Araia have been friends for 20 years.
Araia works in the incubator space where she has her office in Washington D.C. (Photo by Mike Ekern ’02)
A commuter student, Araia felt out of place at first. But it did not take long for her to find space to thrive. “I decided to become really involved because you have to work with the environment you’re in and help make it better,” she said.
She began a work-study position with the Multicultural Student Services office, where she met staffers Onar Primitivo, Alice Grider, Carla Peraza and Sonia DeLuca. “They were the welcoming committee that every student needs,” she said. “They created a community in the multicultural office that attracted everyone.”
Araia became involved in the Center for Student Leadership and Activities and held leadership roles with the All College Council and Hana (a student group that cultivates multicultural awareness on campus). As a senior, she was an R.A. in Morrison Hall. St. Thomas Dean of Students Karen Lange recalled Araia’s prolific involvement. “If there was an opportunity for an in-service, program or anything student-related that she could learn outside the classroom, Semhar was there,” said Lange, noting that Araia also was an exceptional student academically. “She really took advantage of every opportunity that students have on campus and made the most of her experience at St. Thomas.”
Despite living in an environment where she saw herself as different from her peers, Araia was able to surround herself with a network of inclusion. “We had such a vibrant community of changemakers, those of us who came from different backgrounds,” she said. “We saw it as an opportunity to really learn from each other, but also learn from everyone on campus.”
In some ways, becoming so involved served as a way to help cope with the loss of her mother. “I realized my freshman year I was numb, my sophomore year I was sad, my junior year I was angry and my senior year I was busy,” she said. “But I think that out of tragedy, you realize your possibilities. I’m passionate and ambitious because I know what I could lose. If you have time on this world, why can’t you wake up every day and make the most of it?”
As a senior, Araia was honored with the Multicultural Student Services Medal of Courage for actions that helped to create an inclusive, civil and welcoming campus community. “I came out of St. Thomas with this huge honor after entering school thinking, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I in Minnesota? What happened to my mom?’” she said. “To be able to come through the pain and still be able to get up the next day means that you can actually do more. Because it didn’t break you.”
Creating spaces for conversation and collaboration for herself and others became a priority – and it was a conviction she would carry forward throughout her career.
From St. Thomas, Araia went on to Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin. She had been accepted to the law schools at American University and Michigan, but again chose to remain closer to her Minnesota family.
During her time in law school, Eritrea was embroiled in a border dispute with Ethiopia. Araia’s thoughts remained with her family’s homeland. “I was born in the United States but I still had this immigrant reality,” she said. After she completed her degree, an opportunity arose to apply her professional abilities to something that was most personal to her.
As an attorney, she volunteered for the Eritrean Claims Commission. She signed on for a summer in Eritrea to help sort out the legal aftermath of establishing a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. She did not expect to remain in the country for three years. “It turned into a full-time job,” she said. She had visited Eritrea as a child shortly after the country became independent, and again after her mother died. But experiencing it as an adult gave her a different perspective.
“Going back as an attorney was fascinating because I was no longer a visitor,” she said. “I was paying bills, I knew the bus lines, taxi drivers knew me – I was a resident, but a privileged resident because I had this exposure from abroad.”
Araia described her time in Eritrea as transformative. “I found a certain sense of peace and place in my heart as an Eritrean,” she said. In the claims commission office, where attorneys from all over the world were employed, her Eritrean-American identity allowed her to serve as a conduit and interlocutor among her colleagues.
That idea of serving as a bridge inspired Araia. She returned to the United States in 2005 with a fresh outlook on what she, as a member of the diaspora, could do to support her home country while using the resources she had as an American.
After returning from Africa, Araia began to add to her already impressive resume. She spent time as a foreign affairs legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives, worked under former President Jimmy Carter with The Elders and served on the Obama-Biden presidential transition team.
With each appointment, she encountered women who viewed Africa with her same excitement, hope and commitment. She also discovered that some of the loudest voices speaking on behalf of Africa did not look like her or see things through her unique lens. She found it troubling.
“After living on the continent, I came to know an Africa full of promise and possibility,” she said. “But I returned to the United States and noticed that a lot of people want to be fixers and diagnose a problem that might not need it, but actually needs partnership.”
She created a solution. In 2007, she began the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN).
“As a woman sitting at a table trying to make a recommendation, to put your voice in the conversation, it can be challenging,” she said. She recognized a need to create a space for connecting African women to network for professional purposes.
“Women are really adept at creating safe spaces,” she said. “We don’t realize it when we invite someone for dinner at our house, when we offer to take a walk with someone and listen to them, when we sit for coffee on the weekend.” She wanted to apply the type of relationship building women do as friends as a way to build trust.
DAWN started out with the primary goal of diversifying the African Affairs workforce. “I was sorely irritated at the lack of African diaspora leadership on conversations about Africa,” Araia said. “I wanted more brown people at the table and I wanted more brown women at the table.”
For the first three years, DAWN focused primarily on social programming.
Since then, the organization has evolved and now helps advance women’s leadership in the workplace. “I’ve been told by employers that they will give someone an interview if they see DAWN listed on their resume,” she said. As more women joined, DAWN became a sought-after resource. “We’ve really become a reliable source for understanding what the role of the African diaspora is in the continent’s growth and development,” she said.
To Schlief, it is no surprise that his friend has been able to make such an impact. “Semhar and DAWN are harnessing the expertise and energy of African diaspora women,” he said. “You just need to meet another ‘DAWNer’ to see how the work trains and inspires the next generation of women community leaders.”
Araia devotes a significant amount of her time to DAWN and its members. But as a nonprofit, she and her entire staff of 10 are unpaid. “Of course we are working toward eventually making an income, because that’s what we need,” she said. “But our goal is for members to understand that this is for them.” To make a living, she pieces together a number of consulting jobs and also works as an adjunct instructor at George Washington University.
In 2012, she traveled to Mexico for a meeting of social entrepreneurs. While there, she ran into a friend: then-provost of the University of San Diego Julie Sullivan. It was near that time that Sullivan was being contacted by the Board of Trustees to be considered as a candidate for the next president of the University of St. Thomas.
Araia’s story is one that holds personal resonance for Sullivan, who, along with her husband, has two Ethiopian children. “I was very fortunate to grow up in a family that gave me a very strong sense of self-esteem and a sense that I could do whatever I wanted to do. But many women don’t grow up in that environment,” said Sullivan, punctuating the importance of Araia’s work building connections among women of the diaspora.
“Sometimes we see problems as huge and we throw our hands up and say we can’t do anything about it,” Sullivan said. “But one life at a time, one person at a time, we really can make an enormous difference.”
And Araia is making a difference. In addition to receiving recognition from the highest office in the country, DAWN recently was honored with the Diaspora African Forum Bridge Builder Award from the African Union. For Araia, the recognition is validation that what she has dedicated her life to matters.
But perhaps more meaningful are casual nods she receives. On July 10, Araia, a prolific Twitter user, tweeted “Was in line for coffee this morning, when the woman behind me told me she’s a member of @DAWNInc & that she loves the org. Best. Day. Ever.”
Throughout her life, Araia has felt what she describes as a duty to do what she can from her place of privilege to give back to Eritrea. “My parents instilled in me a sense of not just activism, but ownership in my own life and also a sense of obligation to help others who are in need,” she said. But to talk to her is to understand that it is less of an obligation, and more of a calling.