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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of short videos and written pieces examining the impact COVID-19 has had on immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. The project is produced in partnership with the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. 

Oballa Oballa, a city council candidate in Austin, Minnesota, planned to meet almost every voter in Ward 1 before Election Day by visiting their homes and inviting them to events. But COVID-19 had a different plan.

“COVID has brought things down,” Oballa, a 27-year-old Ethiopian-born health unit coordinator at Mayo Clinic in Austin, said in a recent interview. “By now, the campaign would have gotten a lot of energy. I could have reached so many people.”

The pandemic has forced Oballa, like many candidates across the country, to shift his campaign strategy from in-person visits and public events to phone banking and social media postings.       

Oballa said he doesn’t think campaigning from a distance is the best strategy to reach many voters and earn their trust. He said that he wanted to shake their hands, to look them in the eye and assure them that he’d be there to voice their concerns at city hall.   

But shaking hands and organizing public meetings is not an option, he added, when the virus has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Minnesotans and more than 100,000 others have tested positive. 

Oballa, who arrived in the U.S. in 2013 as a refugee, is a rising star. In September, Governor Tim Walz appointed him to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees. He also received the 2020 Young Leader Award from the Minnesota Department of Human Services’s Resettlement Programs Office.

As part of this series, which documents the experience of immigrants and refugees in the pandemic, we spoke with Oballa to understand how the virus has impacted his campaign. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity. 

Before we get to the core of the interview—which is about how you’re dealing with COVID-19 as a candidate—I wanted to know a little more about your journey to the U.S. 

My journey to the U.S. started in 2003. I was 10 years old and lived in Gambella, Ethiopia, with my family. One day, we woke up to a brutal violence. It was bascially a genocide against my tribe, the Anuak. The attackers killed more than 424 people, including some of my relatives. About 10,000 more were displaced. 

We were among people who lost their homes. We left for a refugee camp in Kenya. We walked more than two weeks to South Sudan. From there, we caught a small airplane to Dadaab refugee camp. We ended up living in the camp for 10 years.

That is, you lived there until 2013. What happened after that?

My family and I left for the United States. We first settled in Maryland; then we moved to South Dakota; and eventually we established home in Austin, Minnesota.

I know there’s a growing number of immigrant populations in Austin. Where did they come from and what do they do here? 

Yes, we have immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Mexico, Central American, and many other places. Many of them work for meat-processing factories and manufacturing companies in Austin. They also work in neighboring cities such as Albert Lea and Owatonna. Some are opening small businesses. 

Are they also active in politics? Or are they not as established yet as the immigrant communities in the Twin Cities?

There are some leaders who run non-profit organizations that provide social services to new immigrant and refugee families. Unfortunately, the community doesn’t have strong representation in the local government. 

So, I’m assuming that you’re running for a city council seat to fill that void?

That’s definitely part of it. We need more public servants who have lived the immigrant experience, who understand what it means to be an immigrant in Austin. So, I really hope to be a strong voice for our community, while I also serve all the people of Austin. 

If elected, my goal is to help expand the economy in our city; to find ways to attract high-paying jobs; and to advocate for the creation of workforce training programs that prepare our youth for good jobs. These are basic things that everyone needs to have, despite their race, religion, and language.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way the world operates. Many schools and businesses have been closed for fear of the virus. I know that you’re a health worker at Mayo Clinic. What was it like to go to work, especially in the first few months of the pandemic?

Yes, I’m a health unit coordinator at Mayo Clinic in Austin. I was very, very afraid. I was scared to death. Every single day I went to work, I prayed to God. I would say: “God, I’m going to work again. Please let me come back home safe.”    

God has answered my prayers. But I know a lot of people in the community who have tested positive for COVID. We hear in the news many people who have died of the virus. This is very dangerous.

How has it impacted your campaign then? What are you doing to stay safe while you also continue with the campaign? 

It’s been a big challenge for us. COVID-19 has made things very difficult. 

My priority right now is to make sure my team, the voters, and I are all safe. I’ve decided not to hold in-person events. We are not door-knocking. Instead, we’re focusing on social media to reach voters. 

I’m following you on Facebook and I see your posts. It seems like you have over 3,000 friends. Is that enough? Can you actually reach enough people that way?

No, that’s not enough. In fact, many people I need to reach, including the older generation, are not even on social media. But that’s all we have now. I just hope the people who see my posts would share my campaign with their family and friends.  

What other social media platforms do you use?

Just Facebook.

How do you share information on Facebook?

I share campaign information in words, pictures, and video. I also share news articles and video segments about my work and campaign. I then tell friends and volunteers to share those posts with their friends. 

I have heard from people who asked me to get them yard signs over the past few months. They send me their home address. Then I take the campaign signs to them. Of course, I can’t enter their homes because I want to protect them and myself. So I just wave at them and leave the signs in front of their homes.   

How do you feel about your campaign? Do you think you have a chance at winning?

It’s hard to predict the outcome of the election, given the pandemic situation. But we’re excited to get out the vote. My team and I have been working hard over the past few months to reach out to as many voters as we can. I love this city—and I hope the voters will give me a chance to serve it and its people.   

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...