Oballa O. Oballa,
Students Advisory Council President Co-Chair at Minnesota Office of Higher Education and current President at LeadMN which focuses on developing student’s leadership skills to tackle everyday life. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by me. You are a positive masculine role model. More young boys and men need to know you exist. These questions are tailored to encourage the youth in general.
What is the meaning of your name in your mother tongue?
My name is Oballa Oman Oballa, I was named after my grandfather Oballa the great. My father decided to name me after his father to keep his name and legacy alive. Naming someone after ancestors is something that my tribe has been doing since the creation. It is another way of tracking family trees and making it easier to create a family genogram.
What did you experience growing up in a refugee camp?
I can describe my life experiences in a refugee camp in two different ways: negatives and positives. The negative experiences, my ten years of life in Dadaab refugee camp was filled with hardship and difficulties.
Life is tough in the refugee camp because sometimes you might go two to three days without eating anything or taking a shower. The biggest concern was water for drinking. Sometimes I had to walk 7 to 8 miles to collect water from different blocks or camps and 5 miles to collect firewood from the bush for cooking food.
As I lived my life full of guilt and asked my mother tough questions such as what did our tribe do to deserve such living conditions. Many refugees when they fled their countries and sought refuge in the neighbouring countries, the hope for them is to go back one day to their country when the situations which led them to flee changes. But in my case being Anywaa or Anuak refugee from Ethiopia my family did not have many options like other refugees. My family and I fled Gambella, Ethiopia after December 13, 2003, Gembella genocide which took more than 424 life of my tribe within 12 hours, and thousands became displaced. Before we fled our home was burned into the ground and everything that belonged to us was looted by the Ethiopian highlander government and that was the reason we couldn’t go back to Gambella because we were afraid we would get killed.
The positive life of the refugee camp was that I got the opportunity to have access to get an education which I was being denied in my own country. I didn’t have the fear of being attacked anytime by the government or running away again. Going to school in the camp had given me hope and I started taking studying seriously because I knew that education could be the only way that will help me to advocate for my people one day.
Why are you driven in the areas of education and leadership?
The reasons I am driven in the area of education is very simple. Education is the only way to a better life and it is the only key that can unlock so many doors. The biggest reason it’s something that my parents didn’t have the opportunity to get and moreover the government of Ethiopia had denied access to education for my people and for so many years the government been looting our resources without most of our elders knowing anything about it.
If you are educated your eyes will open and this is what had happened to me. I don’t really call myself a leader but a public servant. Throughout my life, I always wanted to help people when they are in need and I also wanted everyone's voice to be heard especially when they expressed some concerns. I started doing it when I was in primary 4 back in the camp and it has been something I carry with me wherever I go.
When I was a child, I was always that kid who showed up very early in the morning for Sunday school services to clean the church before every other child came. I am that kid who never said no when an adult person sent me to bring something or do something. I didn’t know the things I did as a volunteer or just giving a hand to someone who needs can be defined as the character of good leadership today.
You are the first person to go to college in your family. How can we encourage more people to go to post-secondary?
Our countries are behind in everything due to lack of well-educated leaders and we had been suffering for so many years at the horn of Africa. It is time to tell our young men and women that education is the only way to get us out this long term suffering and they need to start prioritizing it before it is too late. Those who had the opportunity to come to the western world where education is available for them should take advantage of and use it.
Those who are still in the refugee camp should also take advantage of completing primary school and secondary school as well. For those who came to America and never finished high school should go back to school and get a GED so that they can go to college and further their education, high school should not be the finished line. We should thrive for post-secondary education and start competing with the world.
What are your future goals going forward?
I have the long and short term, my short term goal is to finish my bachelor’s degree in social work by December of 2020 and start my master’s degree in higher education and student affairs by 2021. Long term goal is to run for higher office one day in America so that I can be part of making decisions and bring change to this greatest nation on earth. My American dream is to serve at the state or federal office one day.
How can we encourage positivity in our boys and men?
One way we can encourage positivity to our young men and boys is by showing them positive things. We can do this by voluntarily being their mentors and start this while they are still young or when they arrive in these western countries when they are still new.
How can we as a family and community support young men in their journey to a brighter future?
We can do in many ways one encourages them with daily motivational words and inspiring. Attend their social events at their schools such as sports or leadership workshops. Be there as their mentors whenever they need us. Preach love and unity among ourselves and reject anything that tries to discourage them from doing great things.
Nyabuoy Gatbel is a South Sudanese Canadian currently living in Calgary, AB. She was born in Ethiopia in 1993 and moved to Canada as a refugee in 2002. She's currently a undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. Besides her studies she's a social entreprenuer focusing on the, ''Paarman Centre project,'' a fashion model, writer and author of the book, ''The Fire Within poetry in Thok Nath and English.''