Learning How to Change the World

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

At four years old, already aiming  to “fix things,” Milen Gebreamlak decided she would become president of Eritrea to make things better.

When Milen was born in Asmara, Eritrea, in 2001, Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war. Fearing her teenage daughters would be forced to serve in the military, Milen’s mother made two life-changing decisions: to separate from her husband and to flee Eritrea. After a secretive trip to evade Eritrean government forces, the family of six spent a year in Ethiopian refugee camps before settling in Addis Ababa.

Milen, eight at the time, made friends easily due to cultural similarities with her peers, though she couldn’t speak Ethiopia’s Amharic. She doesn’t consider herself a naturally gifted student but devised her own strategy for success. “I would practice remembering everything the teacher said,” she recalls. “And I would make friends with the people who got the right answers.”

While still in Eritrea, the family had applied for refugee status in the U.S. Suddenly, after nine years of waiting, their chance came. “My mom’s phone was broken so she missed the messages,” says Milen. “Then one day she came rushing home, saying ‘Get up! Get everything ready to go!’ By then we had only three days to get ready to leave for the U.S.”

When she arrived in Portland, Milen was a teenager and again encountered language difficulties. Her family spoke no English, not a word. She quickly joined a Bible study group for kids in her Gresham housing community. “That’s where I opened my mouth with English,” she says. “Then, I just wanted people. I wasn’t aware of people being different. I came from Ethiopia where everyone looks the same. Now that I’ve been more exposed to America, I know what race is.”

With the support of only one ESL class, Milen struggled at Reynolds Middle School.  Classmates teased her about her language, her hair, and her clothes from Goodwill. She cried instead of going to class, disappointed that she couldn’t be the great student she wanted to be.

Instead of giving up, she decided she had to keep pushing herself. “I used the same tactics I used in fourth grade. I listened to the teacher. I looked things up if I didn’t understand,” she explains.

By the time she started at Reynolds High School, Milen had learned enough English to function in class. Her sophomore year, Debra Tavares, a language arts teacher, took an interest in her. “At first I didn’t like her, she was very strict,” Milen recounts. “But she saw I was capable of achieving more, and she offered me opportunities and that was huge for me…I never imagined I would be close to her. Now she’s met my mom and sisters. We’ve all prayed together.”

Their relationship has deepened to this day. “She and I do work with story exchange, storytelling and equity work. We have the same passion for service,” Milen says, crediting her “mentality of service” to the model Tavares set for her.

Once again, Milen’s passion for fixing things was ignited. She quickly became involved with Africa House Council, Young Leaders in Action, Black African Student Success, Poetry Club, Multnomah Youth Commission, and Unite Oregon, among others. She co-founded her school’s Women’s Empowerment Club during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, feeling there should be a safe place where students, especially women, could express their thoughts.

It takes Milen a while to name all of her activism. It’s apparent she’s spent more time serving her community than quantifying her credentials. “I love community building, socializing with people, talking to new people, organizing an event,” she says. Milen will graduate from Reynolds High School this spring. She plans to attend an Oregon college and focus on political science,and hopes to intern for a city commissioner this summer.

As her priorities have become clearer, her determination has prevailed. Just getting good grades is not what life is all about for Milen.

“I don’t want to be isolated from the real world. There is a lot that needs to be fixed but will only be fixed if we get up and do it.” Current U.S. law would prevent Milen from realizing her presidential aspirations in this country. “But maybe a governor,” she beams.