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When Zinet Kemal and her family stepped off a plane at Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport on January 2, 2013, she wondered whether she’d made a huge mistake.
Zinet, her husband Aman Hordofo, and their three-year-old child had left their home and extended families in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to come to a country none of them had ever stepped foot in. Zinet was seven months pregnant.
“It’s dark, right? The plane arrives at night, and the trees don’t have leaves,” Zinet said. “That’s what I noticed. It’s like, how do people live? It’s so cold—it sounds deserted… That was a bit of a shock at the beginning.”
Zinet and her husband knew just one person in Minnesota: a high school friend of Aman’s, who met them at the airport before, days later, leaving for a long trip back home.
Zinet, 35, remembers this period as a whirlwind. Zinet and her husband endeavored to figure out where to get social security cards and other critical documents. After their friend departed, they found themselves all but alone.
These days, Zinet and her family feel much more comfortable in Minnesota—though they are “still trying to get used to” the winters. The family lives in Blaine, where the child she was pregnant with is now a mature third grader. Zinet is working as a security engineer at Best Buy while pursuing a master’s degree.
She also, earlier this year, published a children’s book, available on Amazon: Proud in Her Hijab: A Story of Family Strength, Empowerment and Identity. The book follows the story of a girl named Iman, who faces and overcomes negative comments about her hijab. Zinet recently read it to a group of students from across the country over Zoom, and wants to continue sharing it widely.
Much of Zinet’s family has now settled around her in the United States. But the journey to establishing herself in her career, and in American life, took the kind of will that is both extraordinary and also familiar to many recent immigrants.
On a recent call with Sahan Journal, Zinet recalled the sharpest points of that journey with pride and humor, while also reflecting on the continued anxiety of living and raising her children amid violence and uncertainty in Ethiopia—and, at times, in Minnesota and beyond.
“You just need guidance,” Zinet said. “It’s about having that support system.”
A U.S. visa offers a pathway to stability
Zinet was born and raised in Addis, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital. She remembers immersing herself in the world of school and fondly remembers making traditional home decorations during her summers off.
But Zinet also recalls spending several years as an eight- and nine-year-old, living in the eastern part of Ethiopia. Her parents were unemployed and her mother was seeking employment in Harrar. Her parents applied multiple times to come to the U.S., but couldn’t get a visa.
Zinet and Aman did not want their children to experience the kinds of financial challenges that she saw up close as a child. They were both outstanding students at Jimma University—she in law, he in computer science. While pregnant with their second child, she decided to send a pair of applications for a diversity immigrant visa that could bring them to the United States.
When Aman’s application was accepted, they both felt shocked. In Addis, their income left them struggling to rent stable housing. They felt they had no option but to go.
Welcome to the icebox
It was immediately difficult. Aman took hours-long bus trips into the suburbs for job interviews as the family figured out the logistics of life in the sub-freezing Minnesota winter. One day, Zinet, in the final stage of her pregnancy, got an intense pizza craving after seeing a television ad.
“There is no way for me to go out and get a pizza for her, because I don’t drive, I don’t know where the pizza store is,” Aman, 36, said.
Eventually, he figured out how to order a pizza online. But all Aman had in the way of cash was a $100 bill, and the pizza delivery person didn’t have change. A Spanish-speaking neighbor wanted to help, but couldn’t fully grasp the situation. After several minutes, the delivery person said, “I’m sorry,” and left with the pizza.
Little came easily in their first days in Minnesota. But Aman eventually landed a job in computer science, and Zinet began thinking about her next steps.
Zinet and Aman had reconnected with Zinet Ismail, another former classmate from back home, who’d settled in Chicago to attend Rush University. The couple started turning to Zinet Ismail as a resource for questions about life in the U.S.
Zinet Ismail remembers fielding those questions about American life, particularly about college: “Since I was in college back then, she started asking me how the school system worked here,” Zinet Ismail said. “I told her how I started, and she kept asking how she can continue.”
Zinet was debating whether to keep pursuing a career in law, or move into a different field.
“I’ve always been fascinated [by technology], but I always thought that I’m not as good as I am at math,” Zinet said. “So I’d always avoided that space.”
Now, though, she decided to go for it. She took her placement exam at St. Paul College—receiving permission to take a break midway through the test to comfort her crying newborn, who waiting outside the exam room with a family friend—and aced it.
She received her associate’s degree from St. Paul College, and then enrolled at Metropolitan State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
Work, school, parenting. Repeat.
Both Zinet and Aman describe those years as a haul. Zinet would take care of the children during the day while Aman worked at his software development job; when he returned, she’d head out to attend night classes. They had scant childcare support.
After returning home from class, she’d tackle her homework, sometimes finishing around 3 a.m. She’d often start her days just a few hours later. Her determination, Aman said, was inspiring.
“One thing that I have in my behavior is, if I’m tired, I’m tired,” Aman said. “I have to sleep. That’s not working for her. If she’s tired, yes, she’s tired. But she has an assignment and she has to get it done.”
Zinet graduated from Metropolitan State in 2018 and began working as IT auditor for Hennepin County. She quickly enrolled in an online graduate program in cybersecurity at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and began spending time on creative pursuits as well.
“One thing I always admire about Zinet is that she always does her best and she doesn’t settle for less,” Zinet Ismail said. “So there’s always something new. She finishes school, and it’s like, what is she going to do next? And she’s writing a book.”
Explaining the hijab to kids (and adults)
Having moved on to elementary school, Zinet’s children started coming to her with questions about their hair and hijabs. Other students speculated that they were wearing a hijab because they were bald or because their hair wasn’t clean.
“I would simply answer them and move on,” Zinet said. “But at one point, I thought, if these questions get asked here, they will get asked in other families.”
So Zinet began studying up on the self-publishing industry. After connecting with a United Kingdom-based illustrator, Zinet wrote the children’s book Proud in Her Hijab: A Story of Family Strength, Empowerment and Identity. It has a five-star rating on Amazon.
Aman says that the book is pertinent for adults too, especially as countries like France continue to legislate against the hijab and other Muslim headcoverings. In the white- and male-dominated cybersecurity field, Zinet has encountered her own off-putting remarks.
“I have received comments in professional settings, like ‘Oh, it’s too hot today to be wearing that.’ And sometimes those comments come in so suddenly that you don’t have time to respond,” Zinet said. “But they stick to your mind.”
Zinet said that the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. She is getting ready to self-publish a second children’s book about how children can stay safe online in the coming months..
Political disturbances in Ethiopia–and Washington
Zinet and Aman have built rewarding lives in Minnesota. She loves going to parks in the summers with the children, and she expresses hope that they may finally be ready to embrace winter. They all love going to The Original Pancake House, whatever the season.
They’ve stayed connected to the Ethiopian community in the Twin Cities, too, through their mosque and various parents’ groups, weddings, and social events. Ethiopia is frequently on Zinet’s mind.
Like many in the community, she and Aman closely follow news from Ethiopia’s devastating civil war and humanitian crisis. While many of Zinet’s family members have immigrated to the U.S., much of Aman’s family remains in Ethiopia.
Zinet also expresses about the political situation in the U.S. She recalls her anger at the January 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol and the murder of George Floyd.
“It makes me feel worried for my kids, and my son growing up, like what kind of place am I raising them [in]? Those children look like my children,” she said. “What will be the challenges that they will be facing?”
What’s clear is that Zinet has no plans to stop her work on behalf of herself, her family, or her community. Her friend, Zinet Ismail, calls her a “role model.”
“What we do never stops, because we have now four kids,,” Zinet said. And since the onset of the pandemic, they’ve often been all together at home. “So I see things relatively and in perspective. I think that helps.”