Tecle Gebremicheal was surprised to find a handwritten letter in his mailbox. No one really sends handwritten notes anymore, he thought. It read:
“Dear Mr. Gebremicheal, Following last week’s mayoral and city council forums, I wanted to write and commend you for your candidacy, for your decision to offer yourself as a candidate and for the exceptionally articulate way you are addressing public issues in Boise. I think you have raised the caliber of public discussion in this city. As such, you have already emerged as a winner. I am still aspiring to be a good American citizen. You have already achieved it."
Tecle was left speechless, holding back his tears. Last year in November, he became the first Ethiopian refugee to run for city council in Boise, Idaho. His experience as a refugee coming to the United States inspired him to run for local office and bring a fresh perspective as an immigrant and new American.
“When I first came to America, I promised myself that I will do everything I can to give back to the country and community that welcomed me,” he says. “I want to show that when refugees come here, we try to integrate and contribute however we can.”
Tecle, 29, came to Boise in August 2012 with nothing but two pairs of shoes and a strong sense of determination and resilience. He arrived with a long list of goals: learn English, go back to school, get a job, buy a house and become an American citizen.
“I feel people are losing the respect of others, but I believe we respect stories,” says Tecle. “When they hear the story of a young person who spent eight years in a refugee camp, who came to the U.S at age 21 with only seven years of schooling, trying to do these things, it’s just inspiring for many. That’s the American story.”
“You realize it’s life or death”
Tecle’s family were farmers in northern Ethiopia. He was seven years old when the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out in the late nineties. One night, Tecle was jolted awake by his mother.
“We need to leave,” she told him as she left a small pile of clothes for him to pack.
As soon as he heard the deafening gunshots outside, he knew why. “You realize it’s between life and death,” he recalls, describing that night. “You don’t really think about anything but just running away.”
It was dark, Tecle recalls, but the sky lit up with artillery fire. As he ran, Tecle realized his parents were not with him. Afraid to turn back, he continued to flee, encountering some of his friends who joined him on his journey to safety. They ended up in Eritrea where they were placed in an orphanage.
Tecle stayed in Eritrea for five years, attending school and dreaming about seeing his parents and siblings again. But the violence intensified, and Tecle now had to leave Eritrea and return to Ethiopia. Unable to find his parents, he was sent to Shimelba refugee camp. He would live there for eight years.
Tecle filled his days with frequent trips to a small library established by the International Rescue Committee. He was curious about the world beyond the camp. He mostly read historical biographies with the help of a dictionary, allowing himself to become immersed in the struggles, ambitions and achievements of world leaders. He dreamed of becoming one of them.
When I first came to America, I promised myself that I will do everything I can to give back to the country and community that welcomed me.
“I didn't know at the time that what I was reading would help me when [I left for] the United States,” he says.
“I wanted the opportunity to serve”
When Tecle landed in Boise, he immediately recognized that he was being given a second chance. With the help of a local resettlement agency, he secured his first job at a warehouse and enrolled in English classes to strengthen his language skills.
He was most impressed with a class trip he took to Boise State University and the Idaho state legislature. Mesmerized by the imposing buildings and the state’s rich history, Tecle had an epiphany.
“I told myself that I will graduate from this school and I will one day work at the state house. I wanted the opportunity to serve the community that changed my life,” he said.
Tecle worked three jobs, studying at night to earn his GED. He enrolled at the College of Western Idaho and volunteered for local political campaigns. Tecle now studies political science at Boise State University, where he will graduate in May 2020. He served as an intern at the Idaho Capitol Statehouse 2019 legislative session.
As if this wasn’t enough, Tecle joined the U.S. Army Reserves as a petroleum supply specialist and became a certified interpreter for the Boise Police Department. He volunteers as the head soccer coach for high-school students at Nation United, a soccer team for refugee and immigrant youth, and works for the International Rescue Committee as a volunteer coordinator for BSU students. He most recently started working at a local high school, helping students with math, English and planning for college.
“The election will determine the narrative”
Jimmy Hallyburton, executive director and cofounder of Boise Bicycle Project is also running for city council. “I think Tecle has really helped us build a bridge and a relationship with our refugee and our new American community,” Jimmy says, having just congratulated his friend on running an inclusive campaign. “And unless we have those voices, those advocates within the community, it is hard to bring people in. And it's hard for us to recognize the barriers that might prevent them from engaging in the first place.”
Tecle admits he has faced several challenges during his first campaign. He didn’t have role models to guide him as he reached out to the local Boise community and new Americans. He also talks about encountering voters who hold preconceptions and prejudices about refugees and why they are in Boise.
“I always brought it back to the issues,” Tecle explains, noting that people were receptive to his ideas after he began a dialogue. “Boise is growing, and with growth follows affordable housing, public transportation and public safety. These are issues I personally experienced as a new American, and I feel the majority of Boise is experiencing, too. We need to be a city that provides these basic public needs, and I need to contribute my part in solving these issues. That's what I've been doing, bringing the issues to the table.”
But as Jimmy notes, Tecle is not just educating voters: He has put great effort into registering new voters. “He's already won in that way because nobody, not very many other people, were willing to put in that same amount of work and to reach out to this part of our community,” he says.
Tecle believes Boise is a welcoming and supportive community, but without inclusivity, refugees and other new Americans may never feel like they truly belong. “I think the election will determine the narrative that we have in Boise,” Tecle says. “Do we [really have] a welcoming and inclusive community? Does the [community] really appreciate diversity?”
“Nothing else other than Americans”
It’s election night. At Kibrom’s Eritrean and Ethiopian Restaurant, dozens of family, friends and supporters come together to celebrate what they hope will be a victory for Tecle.
I think Tecle has really helped us build a bridge and a relationship with our refugee and our new American community.
“Even if Tecle doesn’t win, he has opened up a new chapter in Boise,” says Fidel Nshombo, 35, who came to the U.S. as a Congolese refugee. “This is how far we’ve come. Everyone’s now thinking that this is possible not just for Tecle, but for everyone who is trying to get involved, trying to integrate and be part of the decision-making of everyday life. Our kids are nothing else other than Americans.”
On this momentous night, Tecle remembers his parents. Right before he was resettled in the U.S., he found out that they died from poor health in Ethiopia.
“I don’t know if they would probably believe this,” he says, his voice somber. “But I know they would be proud.”
It’s almost 10 p.m. and most of the election results are in. Tecle sits in fourth place. The minority leader of Idaho’s House of Representatives, Matt Erpelding, for whom Tecle had interned, has joined the party. He encourages Tecle not to give up.
“Welcome to the rough and tumble of politics,” he says. “You ran a great campaign and you have a bright future. So this can't be the only race. You need to run again.”
Tecle agrees. He even allows himself to dream out loud—someday, he might run for mayor of Boise. He reflects on the handwritten letter he received from a supporter. “Our goal has always been to focus on educating both sides, the new Americans, and the locals. I think we hit our goal.”
Watch a mini-documentary about Tecle's groundbreaking run for public office: