Oballa Oballa| From refugee camp to city council chambers

In less than a year, Oballa Oballa became a U.S. citizen, welcomed his daughter into the world, and won a seat on the Austin City Council. He expects to graduate in December with a four-year college degree.Written

By Jordan Shearer | Post Bulletin

AUSTIN — Oballa Oballa marched into the mayor’s office three months after moving to Austin in 2015. He wanted to get involved with his new community — he wanted to know how he could help with whatever it was that needed to be done.

As noble as his intentions may have been, the receptionist told him he would have to make an appointment and come back later. Relatively new to the United States, it wasn’t quite the reaction he expected.

“I wasn’t ready for that because in Africa, you don’t make an appointment; you just walk into someone’s office and wait until they have time,” Oballa said.


That didn’t stop him though.

The young refugee made local history on Tuesday when he became the first person of color ever elected to the Austin City Council, Randal Forster, the executive director of the Mower County Historical Society, confirmed.

Oballa won his seat by a healthy margin. He took 56.98% of the vote, more than 12 points ahead of his competition.

Born in Ethiopia, Oballa moved to a refugee camp in Kenya before making it to the United States in 2013 at the age of 20. He moved to South Dakota to finish his high school education. From there, he moved to Minnesota to join his mother who had settled in Austin.


It’s been a packed year for the 27-year-old. It was just last December that he gained his American citizenship. His daughter was born three months ago. In December, he expects to graduate with a four-year college degree. He currently works at Mayo Clinic as a health unit coordinator.

Even prior to winning the election, Oballa had been plenty busy in his adopted country and city.

“I always want to help people who are in need,” Oballa said.

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He has served on Austin’s human rights commission. He’s been the Student Senate president at Riverland Community College. He then went on to serve as the president for the organization LeadMN, which represents 180,000 two-year college students in Minnesota.

He was recently appointed as a trustee on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) Board of Directors. The Minnesota Department of Human rights recognized him with the Refugee Young Leader Award. He testified at the Minnesota Legislature, advocating for the passage of the Hunger Free Campus Act.

He simply doesn’t stop.

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“When I was back in (the) refugee camp, my mom always would tell me: The only thing to make you successful is to work hard,” Oballa said.

He would hear the same message from friends.

“They’re like ‘when you come to America, you just have to work hard. You just have to be bold. You just have to take any opportunity that comes across you,’” Oballa said.

In spite of his fast-paced trajectory, Oballa is modest about his future prospects. Does he have bigger plans? He’s open to what may come down the road, but right now he’s just focusing on issues affecting residents of Austin, like housing and day care.

“I don’t know what the future will hold for me,” Oballa said.

Oballa Oballa spoke with Minnesota DFL Representative Jeanne Poppy at the State Capital to advocate for college students. (Contributed photo)

The presence of a person of color might be a first for the city council, but it certainly isn’t for the city itself. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the white population of Austin is about 71%. The Hispanic population comprises a little more than 16%, and the Black population comprises 5.5%.

He likes to think that his election to the city council will be an example for others.

“This is a message to young folks who think that ‘oh, I may not be fit to be in that position because I’m the only person of color or I’m just a refugee in this community,’” Oballa said. “This will motivate those young kids or those refugees who work hard to be part of this community.”

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