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Yonis recently met President Barack Obama at the White House. He and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak both were there January 5 speaking at a conference where the president unveiled a summer job initiative that he hopes will provide work for 250,000 low-income youth ages 16-24.
The Obama administration is using the STEP-UP program as a model for the president’s new national plan and wanted Rybak to speak on it, says Yonis, who was surprised when he received an invitation as well.
“I received a call from Mayor Rybak. He invited me to go to the White House with him to speak on summer jobs,” recalls the 23-year-old young man.
Through his involvements with STEP-UP and AchieveMpls, a local organization that works with Minneapolis Public Schools students to increase academic achievement, “I had the opportunity to connect with other professionals who helped me get to where I am,” believes Yonis, a school administrative manager at Roosevelt and Wellstone International high schools.
Yonis participated in the city’s STEP-UP Achieve summer jobs program as a student at Edison High School. “I was assigned to work at Faegre & Benson [a local law firm] for one summer. I was assigned there because I was interested in politics and public service,” he explains. His second summer job was at the Minneapolis public works department “where I got to meet the mayor. I got to know him and his office.”
While attending St. Olaf College, where he graduated with a degree in education and American history in 2010, Yonis also worked in the mayor’s office for three consecutive summers. “I worked with the mayor and the different departments, and helped the STEP-UP students” in their assignments, he notes.
He came to Minnesota 12 years ago after living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya as a small boy. “We came straight to Minnesota and to Minneapolis,” continues Yonis. “Coming from a refugee camp [then] coming to America for me was a dream come true. I don’t have to worry about walking miles to get water. I don’t have to worry about getting shot at. I don’t have to worry about food. I don’t have to worry about lights when it’s dark. My number-one job was to get an education.
“Coming to America was like the movie,” says Yonis of the Eddie Murphy film of the same name. “I’ve seen that movie multiple times; that was a great story.”
During his one-day White House visit, Yonis also met several cabinet members, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who was so impressed with Yonis’ story that she later talked about it on Twitter.
“More important[ly] I sat down with President Barack Obama and discussed the importance of jobs, education and youth development,” notes Yonis. “He was very friendly, very calm and eager to listen to what I had to say and my experience as a youth. He gave me a hug and said, ‘It is good to see you, my East African brother.’ That for me was huge… I never thought in my life I would be going to the White House. I went there because of my education.
“I strongly believe that education is powerful,” says Yonis, who plans to graduate this spring with a master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Mary’s College. “When you learn, you grow and expand your horizons.
“To go to the White House and to represent the city with the mayor… If I, a kid from the slums of Somalia, can come to this country and graduate from high school and graduate from one of the most prestigious private colleges in the Midwest, and be recognized nationally by the President of the United States, and locally by the superintendent, then anyone who’s born here can too…
“It was a privilege for me to represent the state of Minnesota…and talk about my story on how I got to where I was.”