Like many emigrants fleeing the brutalities of war, Gada Roba of Ethiopia has seen the worst of humanity. Yet his passion for peace has only grown, inspired by a world leader who understood the power of forgiveness better than most.
"I struggled so much with my past," said 31-year-old Roba, whose father died for protesting government oppression of his Oromo people. Roba ran for his own life for three years, beginning at age 10. At 16, he found himself homeless in America.
"I'd lost everything. I never thought I'd get over that feeling," said Roba, an academic adviser for Upward Bound, a college-preparation program housed at Edison High School in Minneapolis.
"When I went to South Africa, it was an amazing experience. It changed me around 180 degrees."
In 2007 Roba, a University of Minnesota global studies major, attended an international youth leadership conference in Cape Town, where he "came face-to-face with the power of human forgiveness." His group took a ferry with former apartheid-era boat captains, jailers and prisoners to Robben Island. There, they toured the sparse, damp cell where Mandela, the former South African president who died earlier this month at 95, was held for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.
Roba stared through the cell to a narrow window and considered the will it took Mandela to move from militant to Nobel Peace Prize winner. Roba also spoke with a South African judge who had been imprisoned with Mandela.
"He told me, 'Look at us. We paid a heavy price, but we never gave up hope of becoming free and equal.' He encouraged me not give up, either."
The trip refocused Roba's life. In August, Roba will begin a fully funded, two-year Rotary Peace Fellowship to Uppsala University in Sweden. The award was granted by the Rotary Club of north Minneapolis.
He plans to use the fellowship to launch Mandela-style reconciliation work around the world. It's a heady goal, but those who know Roba say he's the guy for the job.
"The story of Gada is the story of perseverance," said Ellen Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide, housed at William Mitchell College of Law. She met Roba through a high school service-learning program, then reconnected with him years later.
"He has persevered in ways I could never imagine."
Roba's father was a respected and knowledgeable chief and elder in Ethiopia. At 8, Roba began following his father around to learn the oral tradition of negotiation. But government leaders began to crack down and his father was tortured and imprisoned many times. He became paralyzed and died in 1999.
Roba began to speak out after the family house was repeatedly raided. His name came up on government lists and he was sent to a government-mandated propaganda school. At 13, he was smuggled into Kenya where he lived in a refugee camp for three years.
Life, he said, "was just about running, running, running."
At 16, he was sent to live with relatives in South Dakota. An uncle wanted him to work full time to send money back to Ethiopia, where his mother still lives. But Roba, a strong student, desperately wanted to return to school.
A family member bought him a ticket on a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis. He enrolled at Roosevelt High School and lived in a homeless shelter for nine months.
One day, Roba was at the downtown YMCA "trying to shoot hoops" when a man approached him. "I threw the ball at him and walked away," Roba recalled, wondering about "this big white guy. What does he want from me?"
Casey Streich, a lawyer, was at the Y for his usual workout with his wife, Elizabeth. He had been watching the kid's poor attempts to dribble and run. Streich showed him a few moves. Roba began to tell Streich the story of his life.
"It was so unbelievable that I investigated it for a few days," Streich said, "and it was true." A month later, Roba moved in with Casey and Elizabeth, where he lived for more than a year.
Streich helped him with his homework and English skills. "We'd be doing the dishes and talking, new words every day." Streich was humbled by how many opportunities Roba seized, taking advantage of tutorials at the library at night and on weekends, practicing English on long bike rides with Streich, or on the basketball court (improving quite nicely), and endearing himself to anyone willing to help.
"His middle name should be network," said Streich, who still sees Roba weekly. "When I'm walking down the street with Gada, you can't believe how many people know him."
When living quarters got too tight, Roba moved in with Ann Longfellow and David Bryan for more than three years. He calls the Uptown couple "another true family who gave me a second chance."
He graduated from high school at 21, then earned a double major in global studies and political science at the U. Along the way, he built a multipage, rock star resume, including serving as president of the Oromo Student Union and as a bilingual educator in the Minneapolis public schools, traveling to the South to study civil rights and to Kenya to document postelection violence, and attending an international conference in Morocco.
Eventually, though, the young man's wrenching past caught up with him. He struggled, he said, with "the theory of this beautiful world we can have," and the world he had seen in practice.
For two years, Roba was a client at the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture, finding support from staff and people from Rwanda, Cambodia and other corners of the world who understood. It was another turning point.
In 2012, Roba was named a Humphrey School of Public Affairs fellow and recipient of a Virginia McKnight Award in Human Services for his work in the Oromo community. That community will soon expand globally, and graciously.
"There is no peace without justice," Roba said. "I was able to forgive, but I will never forget what happened to me, my family and my people.
Historical injustices need to be addressed, but violence is not the answer."