By Charles Hallman
Gada Roba of Minneapolis, Gino Nelson of Lakeville and Ibrahim Hussein of Owatonna were among six Minnesotans recently honored by The McKnight Foundation for their community service.
Named for the late former chair and president, since 1985 the foundation has given out Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service to 271 individuals, including this year’s recipients. Candidates are nominated confidentially by someone familiar with the individual’s work, and then a six-person committee selects the finalists.
More than 70 nominations were received this past spring. “We read every nomination,” admits committee member Jolene Anderson of St. Paul. “It is a lot of conversations, and it is a process. We work together as a group.”
Roba, Nelson and Hussein each were emotional in their brief remarks as they accepted their honors in front of family, friends and others at a luncheon August 24 at The McKnight Foundation’s downtown Minneapolis offices.
“This is an amazing honor,” said Hussein, who immigrated to the United States from Kenya in 2007. Being fluent in both English and Swahili, he first was a Somali liaison and a tutor at a Owatonna elementary school, and later started the Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna to “build a bridge” for that city’s Somali community and help empower them to become more active in the area.
Nelson has worked nearly 30 years at Catholic Charities and St. Stephen’s Human Services as a community activist, direct service provider and mentor. He helps homeless individuals and former offenders find housing and employment. He also volunteers at the Neighborhood Involvement Program in Minneapolis.
“It is important to touch the lives of others,” he pointed out. “There are systems in place that have failed people. My faith is too deep to turn my back [on others]. The community is stronger when you extend your hand to all and not just people who are like you.”
Originally from Oromia, Roba grew up in a country at war, which forced him to leave for Kenya, where he was a refugee for three years. He left Africa and arrived in South Dakota in 1998 at age 16. He moved to Minneapolis the following year and lived in a homeless shelter. A family took him in, and Roba graduated from Roosevelt High School in 2003 and later from the University of Minnesota in 2009.
Instead of accepting an internship with a U.S.-based agency in Kenya, Roba accepted a position with the American Oromo Community of Minnesota, where as executive director he helped move the organization from a refugee resettlement operation to one that provides mentorship, tutoring and leadership opportunities for Oromo youth.
“I met a lot of young people like me,” said Roba, who works at both Roosevelt and Wellstone International high schools. “I have an opportunity to give back whatever I can.” He briefly talked about the fact that he left his family behind in Oromia, and thanked the local family who took him in.
“I just want to say thank you and thank my village for supporting me and nurturing me in what I do. Each of you holds a special place in my life.”
Diane Kinney of St. Paul, Cheryl Meld of McGregor and Mary Farley of Crookston were the other awardees. Each award winner receives $10,000.
The MSR talked to Roba, Nelson and Hussein afterwards.
“It is really a great honor,” said Hussein. “That’s why I was so emotional.”
Nelson added, “I believe I found my purpose. God has a purpose for everyone, and I think this is mine. I will continue as long as God gives me the inspiration to fight for a better quality of life… We have so many young people today who are lost. Once you find your identity and who you are, [you] become a stronger person.”
Roba said, “We all have the responsibility to really look out for our community. Those of us who have the opportunity to see how things work, I think we should go back and help [others] come out of the situation they’re in.
“It was a great opportunity for me to share my story, and also be able to continue to do what I have been doing,” he continued. “It was difficult for me to leave my family [behind in Oromia]. Coming here was a scary situation. I found myself in a shelter and going to school.”
Anderson, who is in her third and final year on the award selection committee, noted that selecting this year’s McKnight award winners were no different than past years.
“It does get harder every year,” she concludes. “They always are challenging.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.