As a young girl, Semhar Araia worked to bring attention to the war happening in her family’s home country of Eritrea in Africa.
In elementary school, Araia received permission from the principal to hold a fund-raiser to support people in Eritrea suffering as the result of a long war.
She spoke to different classrooms, held an event in the school gym and created a banner for students to put their handprints and write “peace” on it.
Through the years, including as a student at Northdale Middle School and Coon Rapids High School, Araia remained interested in international affairs.
This passion took her from law school to working on foreign policy for a congressman to working as an African analyst for “The Elders.”
Formed by leaders including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former South African President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the organization promotes peace and human rights.
As the founder and executive director of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), an organization whose mission is to develop and support talented women and girls of the African diaspora focused on African affairs, Araia is now a frequent speaker on U.S.-Africa policy, diaspora engagement, effective advocacy strategies and community organizing.
For her work, Araia was invited to the White House in January with 11 others to be honored as a “Champion of Change.”
With Araia and another honoree hailing from Minnesota, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, a St. John’s University graduate who grew up in Stillwater, stopped by to greet the group.
While Araia thought that was amazing, months later she would get an even bigger surprise.
In April, Araia received an invitation to return to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama about her work.
Araia said at first she thought the e-mail invitation was fake and she had to read it a few times.
It wasn’t a joke and Araia joined 11 other former Champions for Change who spent an hour with the president.
Araia was the only Minnesotan and the only champion working on international issues.
She recently visited Northdale Middle School to talk with students about her experiences and how they can use their voices to create change.
In the 1960s, Araia’s parents left Eritrea to study in the U.S. Because the country was at war for independence from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, Araia didn’t have the opportunity to visit her parents’ home country and meet her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins until 1992.
A student at Northdale at that time, Araia said Northdale students today have a much easier time getting information then she did.
“When I was in school there was no Internet at all,” she said.
“Think about what that means. I had to carry all the information around, carry all the books. The Internet has completely changed how we learn about things.
“It’s an exciting time. You have the opportunity to see what’s going on around the world and wonder what you can do about it.”
Araia spoke with the students about the “Kony 2012” video released in March.
Created by The Invisible Children Inc., the video’s purpose was to bring attention to the search for Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony.
The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Kony has used brutal guerilla warfare tactics, including kidnapping children and forcing them into military service. The goal is for Kony to be arrested by December.
The video spread virally and as of March 30, it had more than 86 million views on YouTube.
The campaign resulted in a resolution by the U.S. Senate and contributed to the decision to provide 100 military advisers to help Central African troops remove Kony.
The film also called for an April 20 worldwide canvassing campaign, called “Cover the Night.” People were asked to do charity work in their community during the day and hang up Kony 2012 posters at night.
While few people knew about Uganda or Kony before March, people around the world, including students at Northdale Middle School, now know what is happening.
The Internet has made it easier for people to learn what is happening in other countries.
“Knowing what’s happening is one thing but it’s more important to do something about it,” Araia said.
“Take your concerns to the government, to people who make decisions about things.
“Coming from Northdale it might seem impossible to make a change in something that is happening halfway around the world, but the best thing our country affords us is the right to speak out.
“There are people who work every day to make our country better and they rely on hearing from you.”
Araia was invited to speak at Northdale by Pam Zimba, a seventh-grade advanced integrated language arts teacher.
With a passion about the issue of child labor and history of encouraging students to stop the violation of human rights, Zimba said she had shared the “Kony 2012” video with her students.
Soon after that, Araia moved home to the house across the street from Zimba.
“During a casual chat in her driveway, I mentioned Kony as I knew her background and work in Africa,” Zimba said.
“That started a conversation about social media during the course of which she said that she would be willing to come and talk with my students.
“I wanted the students to hear Semhar’s perspective, ‘the voices on the ground,’ that are so often missing from our news coverage and/or YouTube sensations.”
Through Araia’s presentation, Zimba said she hoped students, in the context of social media, learned to be aware of emotional appeal, consider voices and stories that are “missing,” to be active in their communities for change and to imagine a life that extends beyond Minnesota.
“I liked that Semhar told them about her personal journey along with the back stories about perceptions of Africa,” Zimba said.
“She facilitated a positive, calm and reasoned discussion and drew upon the questions and the insights of the students to frame the conversation.
“Semhar not only speaks about the importance of giving to your community but does that locally, nationally and internationally.”