Isabel Bolivar   13 November 2018

As a descendant of Eritrean immigrants, Semhar Araia was raised in a diaspora community. This inspired her to go on and support people of the diaspora and promote international development. And so today as UNICEF USA’s Managing Director for Diaspora and Multicultural Partnerships, she advocates engagement within the diaspora communities of more than 70 countries in the United States.

She’s dedicated to building partnerships with influencing individuals and organisations within diaspora communities, in order to create a support system for Africa’s development. It’s this work that’s been recognised by The White House Champion of Change award.

As remittances play a key role in supporting the diaspora we, at WorldRemit, can closely relate to Semhar’s mission. We were delighted to interview Semhar and hear her very interesting story.

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Hi Semhar! Please tell us about yourself and your journey to where you are now.

I was born to Eritrean parents and raised in the United States. I didn’t go to Eritrea until I was 14 years old. But I grew up speaking Tigrinya in my home, going to language schools, community celebrations and fundraisers. So by the time I entered college, I felt strongly about my identity as an Eritrean living abroad. Part of my journey was also figuring out the other part of my identity as an American.

When I was in my mid-twenties I moved to Eritrea for work, which allowed me to recognise and embrace both parts of my hyphenated self – Eritrean-American.

I’m where I am now because my upbringing taught me to think of my skills and contributions in a holistic sense. That’s allowed me to make conscious decisions about my professional path and think about how I can best be connected to Eritrea from where I am. I’ve had to turn down some job opportunities along the way so that I can accept the ones which truly connected my Eritrean and American identity.

What would you say your biggest accomplishment was?

My biggest accomplishment and greatest honour was being part of the Eritrea Ethiopia peace process after the war ended in 2000. I had the opportunity to live in Eritrea for the first time and worked as an American attorney. It was an eye-opening experience which allowed me to get to know my family well and to deepen my relationship with the country.

It was more than just a job. The experience gave me room to grow and learn who I am. I began to understand my strengths and limitations as a member of the diaspora. I realised how much more I want to do for Eritrea, for Africa, for the world and the people of the diaspora.

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What are the challenges of being a minority in public affairs and how do you overcome them?

The challenges are similar to what many marginalised or under-represented people feel in the workplace.

As a person of colour and as a woman with an immigrant background, it’s important to navigate the workplace as thoughtfully as possible.

The real challenge in international development is that predominantly white people support those in need. And those in need are overwhelmingly people of colour. I, too am a person of colour and can completely relate to their country’s history of colonialism and recent independence.

I’m proud to be a member of a team which has a diaspora skillset. And I’m determined to find areas of alignment with my colleagues on our shared goals and mission. It requires a lot of trust and respect. We share honest and, at times, difficult conversations. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with incredible people who’ve helped me share my views in honest and safe ways.

“I’m proud to be a member of a team which has a diaspora skillset.”

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What do you want the world to know about Eritrea?

Eritrea is a beautiful, young country with an old soul and a hugely important, diverse and passionate diaspora. As Africa’s second newest country, it’s just beginning to come out of two decades of war with Ethiopia. We’re all following and waiting to see what developments will happen next.

Eritrea has a lot to offer the world, but there's still so much to rebuild.

If you want to get to know Eritrea and truly understand it, you must understand that it was shaped by colonialism, forced annexation and independence from Ethiopia.

I want the world to know how intent Eritrea is in charting its own future and its diaspora is a big part of that.

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Please tell us about your part in the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace agreement.

It was a life changing experience. I had the honour to serve as a junior research attorney after the peace agreement was signed, serving on the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission.

The commission was set up to determine the damages and liabilities incurred during the war, which started in 1998 and ended in 2000. I travelled through all parts of Eritrea and talked to people from every walk of life - from the village to city to the diaspora. Many people were directly affected by the war – they experienced loss or witnessed the destruction. As a person from the diaspora, it was a humbling experience. I learned what true strength and perseverance looked like and how much safety and privilege I had.

I was driven to do what I could to support those who needed it most. I remember listening to so many different people and capturing their stories for our work.

Their humanity and strength were evident. The least I could do was receive it with honour, humility and respect. I’m proud of the work we did, as well as the outcome. I feel very honoured to have played a small part in it.

“People affected by the war taught me what true strength and perseverance look like.”

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What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were growing up?

Be kind to yourself and take the time to discover who you are, beyond your diaspora identity. Explore your hopes, passions, questions, dreams and fears.

In my transition from high school to college, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I did not want to fail, so I didn’t give myself any room to explore who I am. Part of the reason was being the firstborn in an immigrant family, but also my own trauma and healing.

I lost my mother during my high school studies and felt like I needed a plan that would serve me and her well. While I’m proud of what I did, I didn't really explore every opportunity. I didn't understand that I needed to. It wasn’t until after graduating school that I finally began to realize that.

Another piece of advice that I wish I’d had was to lead from a place of service and gratitude. Leadership was presented as something you took classes in and learned for business purposes. It wasn't until much later that I learned that leadership is service, and it depends on working from a place of gratitude. Gratitude comes with responsibility and service - that’s something that we, in the diaspora, can do.

“Explore your hopes, passions, questions, dreams and fears.”

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And what about your family abroad?

How do you keep in touch with your family?

I have family all over the world - in Canada, the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. We keep in touch all the time, on the phone, through WhatsApp, email and social media. Fifteen years ago, it was a lot harder to keep in touch.

I remember the first email I got from my cousin after not seeing her for many years. It was mind-blowing and so exciting that we could communicate instantly, for free and anytime we wanted to.

We communicate through social media even more regularly.

Do you support some family members by sending money? 

Yes, I do it in a variety of ways. I send money to relatives all over the world. We all send money when it’s needed. Sometimes, it’s for specific events such as a graduation or birthdays. I also love to bring gifts and special items for my family during visits. It feels good to be able to support them. It keeps us connected and helps me understand where they are in life.

“The support keeps us connected and helps me understand where they are in life.”

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