Earlier this year, Oballa Oballa, a 27-year-old Ethiopian refugee, announced a bid for Austin City Council. Credit: Courtesy of Oballa Oballa

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Oballa Oballa, a former refugee from Ethiopia who became a naturalized citizen less than one year ago, made history this election by winning a city council seat in the southeast Minnesota city of Austin. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, Oballa, 27, held a 14 percent lead over candidate Helen Jahr and declared victory. Oballa, who had been campaigning for the seat since the beginning of the year, said he is the first person of color to win elected office in Austin. 

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. 

Oballa is just one example of how immigrant communities are shaping Minnesota politics well beyond the Twin Cities, and are now starting to win seats for public office. Oballa said his record of civic engagement earned him voters’ support.

“This makes me feel great, it makes me feel really happy and proud,” he said. “My work, I think, will still give hope to refugees who think the American dream is dead.”

He added, “Just seven years ago, [I] was living in a refugee camp and now am officially elected. I think that will give them hope that one day, when they come to America here, they will accomplish whatever they put their mind to.” 

A man walks into the mayor’s office

Oballa, who works as a health unit coordinator at the Mayo Clinic, told Sahan Journal on election night that he ran for office after receiving encouragement from the city’s mayor and some of its city council members. His civic engagement with the community began shortly after moving to Austin, Oballa recalled, when he walked to the mayor’s office, announced he was a new resident, and asked if there was anything he could do for the city. 

“He said, ‘Who are you?’” Oballa recalled, laughing. 

This would lead to his appointment on the city’s Human Rights Commission; there, he formed relationships with the city’s elected officials. 

Austin, a meat-packing city known nationally for a grueling and unsuccessful Hormel strike in the mid-1980s, has seen its population rapidly change over the past 30 years. Once heavily white, the city’s population of 25,000 people has seen a rise in immigrants originally from countries like Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Guatemala. Many moved to Austin for jobs in the area’s food-processing industry. 

Still, Oballa says, in the city’s more than 150 years, no person of color had been elected to local office. (A call to the Mower County Historical Society did not immediately turn up any previous officeholders of color.)

Oballa won in a city that saw a much closer race in this year’s presidential election than the state overall. According to voter data from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, as of Wednesday afternoon, Austin voters narrowly favored Democrat Joe Biden over President Donald J. Trump by less than 200 votes. 

At first, Oballa said he was nervous to announce a run for office because he saw no other immigrants or people of color running in elections. But that nervousness went away quickly as he began campaigning.

On the city council, Oballa said his priorities would be focusing on developing more housing, bringing more “21st-century jobs” to the city, and finding ways to expand affordable child care. 

“It’s all about the work,” he said. “America is a great country whereby if you come with a big dream, you can make your dream come true.”

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...