Friday June 29, 2018
A week ago, Wengel Tessema Ayalew was getting ready to go to work in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia when the U.S. Embassy called her: she was to leave for Indianapolis the next day.
The 30-year-old program coordinator at a migrant services nonprofit would be joining the Mandela Washington Fellowship, an annual government-sponsored program started by President Obama that trains young African leaders at universities around the U.S.
“I was really happy and excited that I got in,” she said.
nnsidenewsWhat she didn’t know, until she arrived at the Indianapolis airport last Saturday, was that she was taking the place of a Somali man who had been accepted to the fellowship but then told he couldn’t get a visa. Somalia, a majority-Muslim country on the eastern tip of Africa, is on President Donald Trump’s list of mostly Muslim countries banned from visiting the U.S.
The Supreme Court upheld the ban Tuesday. President Trump has said the ban provides greater security.
Ayalew, however, characterized the situation with the Somali man as "unfair.”
“For someone who actually deserved a chance and who could have actually made a difference," Ayalew said, "... just to be denied without specifically looking to his personal case, just to generalize about him.”
Abdiwasa Idiris Jelle, the Somali man, was accepted into the competitive fellowship in March, joining 699 other young leaders who are chosen from across 49 sub-Saharan African countries to visit 28 American universities. Jelle is the founder of the nonprofit Somali Youth Civic Organization and is pursuing a master’s degree in development studies, according to his Mandela fellowship bio.
He said he and another Somali woman, who was accepted into the Mandela fellowship in Georgia, were unable to get visas.
The IndyStar reached out on Thursday to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and IREX, the organization that implements the Mandela Fellowship.
"We became so sad and frustrated because we were ready to go there," Jelle told IndyStar Thursday morning. "I was very excited to be there and learn."
Jelle said he wanted to meet Mayor Joe Hogsett and youth organization leaders around the city.
“All of us knew he was coming,” said Wedadu Sayibu, a fellow from Ghana. She said she and the other fellows found out he wasn’t coming when they arrived at the airport last Friday. “He told me it was about the government policy, the current government policy of limitations on certain countries.”
Jelle missed out on a six-week civic leadership program between Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Indiana University Bloomington. The Mandela fellowship introduces African leaders to businesses, government entities and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. for networking and training. In Indiana, 25 fellows have met with Eli Lilly and Company, Lutheran Child and Family Services and the city’s community engagement director.
On Wednesday night, about 70 people gathered at IUPUI’s Eskenazi Fine Arts Center for a networking and storytelling event with representatives of 20 African nations and members of the community.
“That immigration is a huge issue right now made it that much more urgent, for lack of a better phrase, to be supportive to truly represent what we’re supposed to represent,” said Philip Shelton, a resident of Westfield who attended the event. “We’re a country of diversity. We’re a country that welcomes people of all countries for them to maximize the opportunities.”
Ayalew, the Ethiopian replacement for Jelle, said the Mandela fellowship has already started training her in the last week on the work she wants to do: Ayalew hopes to start a nonprofit organization that informs people about the dangers of irregular migration.
“This makes my dream more achievable,” she said. “Because now I get a lot of trainings, relevant trainings I have been wanting to take for a long time. … And I have the chance to learn from the U.S.”
Ayalew was one of several social entrepreneurs at the Mandela event Wednesday night. The fellows are chosen as leaders who have records of “positive impact” on their communities, according to the fellowship website.
The evening featured five speakers who stood in front of a colorful array of flags to tell about how they used sports, pain, medicine and law to lead in their communities at home.
On the walls hung posters of each fellow, including Bisharo Ali Mohamed, a Somali-Kenyan fellow who grew up in Isiolo, Kenya, a region populated heavily by Somalis. She said she had no problem obtaining a visa to travel to the U.S. from Kenya, which neighbors Somalia on the west.
Trump’s executive order, issued in March, allows for custom officials to waive the ban if a foreign national “seeks to enter the United States for significant business or professional obligations.”
"We are not asylum seekers. I'm also not an immigrant," Jelle said. "We will see in the future."