We first met Ms. Yeamelake Aklilu, full-time staff volunteer at the Interreligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF) on Saturday, January 14th at a spaghetti dinner that was put on by the IRTF to raise money to finance Ms. Aklilu’s to 10 day trip to Central America starting on February 17th.
As the notes on the fundraiser flyer stated, “to complement her work (and IRTF’s), Yeamelake has chosen to participate in a delegation being organized by IRTF partner, Alliance for Global Justice. Her delegation is titled ‘Honduras and Nicaragua: Contrast and Compare.’ Delegation participants will compare rural and women’s social movements in the two neighboring countries whose shared history contains many similarities and even greater differences.”
As Ms. Aklilu wrote, “I want to do the delegation to Honduras and Nicaragua for many reasons. Since I started by volunteer year at IRTF, I have learned so many new things: about people, about solidarity and community, about fair trade, and especially about Central America and Colombia. Through this delegation I could actually see and develop my own perspective of countries I’ve been learning so much about. I want to be in the country, see the struggles, and listen and talk to the people there to form my own understanding.”
That evening, in between helpings of excellent vegetarian pasta, we spoke to Ms. Aklilu for a few minutes and found her to be both delightful and full of genuine concern; just the sort of person we would like to work with on a tough project. Thus, we wanted to get to know her better so we arranged to meet with a few days later in the IRTF office. The office was packed with energy and activity at the time so we conducted this interview next door at the office of the Earth Day Coalition.
First of all, we were stunned to learn that Ms. Aklilu, who has the maturity of a college grad, is only 18 and a recent high school graduate. She was born and raised in the suburbs of Hilden, Germany to loving parents whose countries of origin were Ethiopia (father) and Eritrea (mother). She is an only child but has a lot of cousins and her parents have been very supportive of her social consciousness and constructive efforts to assist those less fortunate. Along these lines, one of the first areas where Ms. Aklilu volunteered to help concerned the mentoring of young children whose parents immigrated to Germany from such places as Turkey, Afganistan, and the Balkans.
This prompted us to talk a little about the so-called refugee crisis that Europe is now experiencing which Ms. Aklilu believes might actually help Germany in some ways because people are now coming there who otherwise would not have and are putting their special talents to work. To be sure, this is a controversial topic but Ms. Aklilu is not afraid to challenge people whom she hears talking in low voices around her in places like public transit because they assume that because she has a dark complexion, she is foreign-born and misusing their country’s hospitality thus creating bitterness and resentment. From conversing with Ms. Aklilu ourselves, we believe her when she says she does not speak in such a situation out of anger and fear but because she wants to impart the facts in order to change the perspective of those she believes are good people but ill-informed.
All told, Ms. Aklilu has been working at the IRTF since September, 2016 and will here until the very end of August, 2017. It is not her first trip to the United States; she visited family in San Francisco for three and a half weeks the summer of 2015 and really loved the experience. When we asked her about the change in culture she replied that one of the things that really impressed her was the large portions of things that are available. For example, a soda bottle is generally a lot bigger in the U.S. than a soda bottle in her native land and when she ate at IHOP the amount of food she was served was a lot more than would be served in Germany.
When we asked her about how she hooked up with the IRTF, she explained to us her involvement with the noted and respected organization, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace or ARSP which whose website reads in part:
“For over 50 years ARSP has been committed to working toward reconciliation and peace, as well as fighting racism, discrimination and social exclusion. Today, these aims are continued and realised through the long-term international peace service programme. This is known as peace service because, in co-operation with our partners, volunteers develop their understanding of history and other cultures and societies, whilst experiencing and accepting different patterns of thought and behaviour. Nowadays, due to generational change, ARSP volunteers do not act from a feeling of personal guilt, but rather from the conviction that they want to make a positive contribution toward a more peaceful, just and tolerant world. Every year around 180 volunteers, mostly aged between nineteen and twenty five are active for ARSP in thirteen different countries on a variety of educational, historical, political and social projects.”
Ms. Aklilu told us that she applied to ARSP in September of 2015 by filling out a “yellow letter” in which she put down which countries that she would like to work in and what projects she would be open to taking part in (it was almost everything) and in January, 2016 she was accepted into the program. By March, 2016 she was given the assignment of traveling to Cleveland to work with the IRTF (which has accepted other ARSP volunteers over the years) because Ms. Aklilu was especially interested in human rights issues.
Jumping ahead, Ms. Aklilu definitely plans to enroll in college when she returns home to Germany. She will probably obtain a BA in business administration and an MA in International Relations. She believes that human rights will always be her focus and a “dream career” for her would be a job at the United Nations.
If she had not been assigned to Cleveland, Ms. Aklilu told us that other places would have been acceptable (she was in New York City on New Year’s Eve and had an exciting time) but is really glad that she was selected to come here because it is easy to get around and she loves our city’s diversity as well as our weather which is generally cooler than that of Germany.
Moreover, she loves to interact on a daily basis with the kind, generous, socially conscious people who compose the staff of the IRTF.
Plus, as special bonuses, she had a selfie taken with U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a Tri-C rally and has come to love something that is hard to find in Germany…
And that something is…Mexican food!!!