Spotlight: Meet The Trailblazing Ethiopian American Office Holders in U.S.

The highly competitive 2020 U.S. election saw not only an active participation by Ethiopian American voters across the country, but also the growing political power of the community as more Ethiopians were elected into office, including Samra Brouk of New York and Oballa Oballa of Austin, Minnesota. (Courtesy photos)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Updated: November 13th, 2020

New York (TADIAS) — As Ethiopian Americans we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the 2020 U.S. election is behind us. This year’s highly competitive election saw not only an active participation by Ethiopian American voters across the country, but also the growing political power of the community as more Ethiopians were elected into office including Samra Brouk, a daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, who won a seat in the New York State Senate and Oballa Oballa, a refugee from Gambella, Ethiopia who captured a City Council seat in Austin, Minnesota.

Samra and Oballa — who both became the first Black candidates to win their respective races — follow in the footsteps of other trailblazers such as Assemblyman Alexander Assefa of Nevada who two years ago became the first Ethiopian American to be elected into a statewide office; Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson of Florida, the first Ethiopian-American judge in the United States who was re-elected to a third term this year; and Girmay Zahilay, a Councilman in King County, Washington, as well as the late Mike Mekonnen who served as Councilor for the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts for more than a decade.

Below are the bios of the current Ethiopian American office holders in the United States:

Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson


Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson has served as a Leon County Judge in Tallahassee, Florida since 2008. (Photo: Tallahassee Democrat)

Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson, who is the first Ethiopian-American judge in the United States, was re-elected to a third term in 2020. Born in Ethiopia, Nina came to the U.S. as a young girl. She was raised by her late father Professor Ashenafi Kebede, the renowned Ethiopian composer and musicologist, who was the Founder and first Director of the Saint Yared School of Music in Ethiopia. According to her bio: “Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson has served as a Leon County Judge in Tallahassee, Florida since 2008. Prior to her election, she spent the majority of her career representing teachers and university faculty as in-house counsel with the Florida Education Association and as adjunct faculty at Barry University’s Tallahassee campus. She has distinguished herself as a first in many categories, including as the first Ethiopian-American judge in the United States and the first African-American elected president of the Tallahassee Women Lawyers and the Tallahassee Bar Association. She is also a former president of the William H. Stafford American Inn of Court. The Conference of County Court Judges of Florida awarded her the Distinguished Leadership Award in 2016, and she was also the recipient of the Florida Bar’s 2019 Distinguished Judicial Service Award.”

Assemblyman Alexander Assefa


Assemblyman Alexander Assefa was elected to the Nevada state Assembly, where he has been representing the 42nd district since November 7, 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Assemblyman Alexander Assefa is the first Ethiopian-American elected to a state-wide office in the United States and the first African immigrant to serve in elected office in the State of Nevada. According to his bio: “Alex was born and grew up in Ethiopia. While still a teenager, he was subject to life as a refugee in Kenya. In Nairobi, he had the opportunity to root himself in the Christian faith while he lived where refugees are not always welcomed, often faced persecution and intolerance. Harbored in his church family, he avidly studied the bible. He then went on to serve his fellow refugees in various roles in the church, including in the choir, as audio/video technician and a bible study leader at several locations in Nairobi. In the year 2000, Alex immigrated to the United States and was resettled in Alexandria, VA. He learned English as his third language and attended TC Williams High School. Alex attended flight school at Averett University in Danville, VA and became a pilot. He continued his education to earn a Political Science degree. He moved and permanently settled in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2006.”

Girmay Zahilay, a Councilman in King County, Washington


Girmay Hadish Zahilay, born May 6, 1987, is an Ethiopian-American attorney who serves as a member of the King County Council in Seattle, Washington. He was elected in 2019. (Photo: The Daily)

Girmay Zahilay is a Councilman in King County, Washington. Per his bio: “The son of Ethiopian refugees, Zahilay moved from Sudan to South Seattle at the age of three. His family spent some time in a Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter before bouncing between a number of Seattle’s public housing projects. He graduated from Stanford University and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Later on, he interned at the White House during the Obama administration, worked for the Congressional Hunger Center in Washington D.C. and at a corporate law firm in New York, and founded Rising Leaders, a nonprofit that partners with middle schools across the nation to give underserved students access to mentorship opportunities and leadership training.” He was elected in 2019 as a member of the King County Council from District 2 in Seattle, Washington.

Samra Brouk, New York State Senator-elect


Samra Brouk was elected in 2020 to represent NYS 55th district in the New York State Senate. (Courtesy photo)

Samra Brouk was elected as a New York State Senator representing the 55th district, one of 63 districts in the New York State Senate, during the 2020 election. Samra, a daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, is the first Black woman to win her seat. According to her bio: “Samra was born in Rochester, New York and raised in the suburbs of Monroe County. After serving in the Peace Corps, she worked for organizations that protect the environment, help seniors age in place, and address education inequities.” Samra who credits her parents for her decision to go into public service says her father “fled his home country of Ethiopia during the civil war, overcoming major cultural and financial barriers to earn his degrees in math and engineering here in Western New York. She adds: “From my parents, I learned the importance of education, hard work, and the need to be resourceful when faced with obstacles.”

Oballa Oballa, newly elected city council member in Austin, Minnesota.


Oballa Oballa, who fled genocide in Gambella, Ethiopia 17 years ago, is a newly elected city council member in Austin, Minnesota. (Photo: Courtesy of Oballa Oballa)

Oballa Oballa, a refugee from Gambella, Ethiopia, is the first Black city council member in Austin, Minnesota. He won his seat during the 2020 U.S. election. According to the website Africans in America, Oballa who became a naturalized citizen less than one year ago, made history this election by winning a city council seat in southeast Minnesota. On the campaign trail and in interviews, Oballa described a dramatic personal history. His family fled Gambella, Ethiopia, in 2003, following what he describes as a genocidal attack on his community. They spent the next 10 years living in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. In 2013, the family moved to the U.S., and by 2015, Oballa had settled in Austin.”

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