Zubeda Chaffe, 18, is a typical high school senior in many ways. She played soccer, basketball and ran track, participates in City Wide Student Council and works at the Hennepin County Library with the Teen Tech Squad. But those examples belie the extraordinary effort required of Chaffe to get to this point. At 7, she and her Oromo family fled Ethiopia fearing for their lives. She started school knowing only her name in English. On March 19, Chaffe will be one of five honorees at the 28th Children’s Defense Fund-MN Beat the Odds celebration. A full-time PSEO student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, she shares childhood memories, her take on American kids and her goals after college.
Q: Before your harrowing journey from Ethiopia to the United States, do you have happy memories?
A: I remember that me and my sister used to play with shiny rocks. They were so beautiful. We collected rocks and we played house. I’d go to the lake with my friends to get water and we’d spend the whole day there. I remember watching the cattle with my brothers.
Q: But no school?
A: I was a girl and girls didn’t attend school. Besides, in my village of Welega, there wasn’t a school for kids my age. None of my 11 siblings attended school either, because that was not a goal of life where I lived.
Q: At 7, your world shifted dramatically. What do you remember?
A: My Oromo people are a minority so it wasn’t safe for us in Ethiopia. We first traveled to the capital city of Addis Ababa where we stayed for about six months. Then my father told us we had to flee secretly to Kenya. Two of my siblings and I, all of us under age 8, were put in a truck. There was no other way. Some of the truck drivers were really mean and just gave people water. We had a pretty nice driver. He fed us twice. But we didn’t know if we’d ever see our parents again.
Q: Happily, you were reunited.
A: We were reunited in Kenya where we lived for two and half years, moving constantly, separated, reunited, moving again. We learned basic English in a school there. Finally, we got our visas.
Q: How did you end up in Minnesota and what were your first memories?
A: I have an older brother living here. He wanted us to leave Ethiopia. We arrived in Minnesota on March 18, 2008. It was freezing. I expected more because of the stories I heard about America. I thought there would be kings and queens (laughs). But I was happy to come to America at last.
Q: You began elementary school knowing only the alphabet and how to say your name in English. Did you consider begging your parents to let you stay at home?
A: I had to repeat first grade but I did it and I kept going to school. One of the main reasons my brother brought me to America was to get an education and give back. My family and friends back home don’t have that opportunity. I want to show them it’s possible and I hope that they do not have to move across the world to have such opportunities.
Q: Your Beat the Odds award comes with $5,000 for college. How do you plan to use it?
A: I’m looking at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College. I want to major in global studies, join the United Nations and go back home to Oromia and teach children, maybe open a school. I want to help in any way possible.
Q: The immigration question is front and center in our country’s conversation today. What do you want people to understand about the immigrant experience?
A: Being a refugee, I can understand and empathize with the immigration problems going on today in this country. I’ve faced all of that. Being away from my parents to have a better life than what they had. They had hopes for me in the same way many parents feel when they are apart from their children today. I know the fear. I want people to know who we are, understand our struggles and the fact that we leave our homes and everything behind to find safety.
Q: Do you still have family in Ethiopia? What do they tell you about the political climate there?
A: There’s been an internet shutdown for the past five months due to the election process. I haven’t heard from my extended family. I don’t know if they’re alive.
Q: When you think about the adversity you’ve faced in your life so far, do you ever get frustrated with your peers who complain when they can’t get the newest iPhone?
A: I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s different the way I grew up. I see the American kids and compare myself; their moms are calling to them, “Dinner is ready!” I have to go work for my family’s next meal. I have to compete against people who already know about life here. I’m just trying to catch up. They have to sometimes put their feet in somebody else’s shoes. Sometimes I wish I was an American child whose parents had everything. But I also know that I am blessed to have had the opportunity to experience American culture and mix it with my own.
Q: CDF received more than 300 applications for Beat the Odds candidates, from which only five were selected. That must make you feel pretty good.
A: I was happy and surprised. I didn’t know my story was good enough. But I have actually beat the odds. Now I have to put that in my heart and believe it.