Child of Ethiopia, young man of America
WORTHINGTON — Imagine moving to a completely foreign country in your early teenage years. You leave behind your homeland, most of your family, your favorite foods and your language. Thrust into a new environment, you must sink or swim.
Desalegn “D” Zemenfes decided to swim.
Zemenfes experienced this understandably unsettling move, but in the last five years, he has adjusted easily to his adopted country, made friends and become a leader in his school activities. A recent trip to his homeland — Ethiopia — confirmed his commitment to family, but also helped him see how far he’s come.
Although Zemenfes has called Worthington, Minnesota, U.S.A., home for just a short time, his father has greater experience with America.
“My dad came first. In 2001, he was given a chance by the U.S. government, through the DV (Diversity Visa) program, to come the U.S,” Zemenfes said. “He’s been here for quite a while. He lived in Las Vegas for two or three years, had a great job opportunity at JBS, and then moved here.”
Seven-odd years later, Zemenfes and his younger sister, Netsanet, arrived in Worthington.
“My sister and I came at the end of July 2008. It is really great to be in this great country. I was probably about 13,” said Zemenfes.
Now the cheerful young man is 18, complete with a driver’s license and all the accompanying responsibilities, and his sister is 16. But, his mother and the rest of his family continue to reside in his hometown of Nazareth.
“My mother is still in Ethiopia; we’re hoping to get her [to Worthington] in the future,” Zemenfes said. “She is caring for my grandpa right now. My cousins are there, my uncle, aunt, pretty much everybody.”
Of his relations, Zemenfes said, “They always look up to us, living in America. It would have been great if they had lived here with us.”
Although though there are many people in the U.S.who speak languages other than English, Zemenfes is fluent in a couple that are not quite as well known here.
“Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia,” he related. “It has 32 letters, so more than English. It is a great language to have as a second language, very helpful.”
He also speaks another language, Gurage.
“I used to speak it (Gurage) before I came, and when I went back [during June], I got to learn it more,” Zemenfes said. “In Ethiopia, different ethnicities speak different languages, and both my parents spoke it so it was easy to learn. There are over 100 languages spoken in Ethiopia. It’s very similar to Amharic, it is really nice.”
Before Zemenfes made the big leap to the U.S., he received some rudimentary English instruction, but he was not initially a fluent speaker.
“There was English class, but I didn’t learn that much,” he admitted. “I only remember that I learned, ‘Can I go to the restroom?’ When I came here, they put me in sixth grade, which was where I would be in my country, but they looked at my age and asked me if I wanted to move up, and I said yes.”
But at the time, ‘yes’ was one of the few words Zemenfes knew.
“When they asked me, I didn’t really know what they were talking about, I only knew ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Zemenfes said with a smile.
With practice and experience, Zemenfes has now mastered the language. “It took me two years to speak fluently, and I do hear a lot of compliments. I think it is a great language to learn and communicate in,” Zemenfes said.
The drastic move from Ethiopia to rural Minnesota was eye-opening for Zemenfes, but not too difficult.
“I had never learned that there was a farm here, I never thought there were smaller cities,” he said. “I thought every city was like New York, D.C., Las Vegas.”
A major difference that Zemenfes explained is also not something many Americans would think about.
“My dad had to show me how to do laundry. Back home, we washed clothes by hand and dried them in the sun. It was really helpful to have my dad,” Zemenfes said.
He shared another interesting contrast: “The air is a lot different. I’ll always remember it [when I first smelled it]. It was clean, but not as clean as the air in my country. It was a really different experience. It smelled like when you open up a new product, like that.”
School and activities
For Zemenfes, “It started in eighth grade, in Ms. Martin’s ag class. She told us to get involved in high school, showed us power points about FFA, and I got interested in it,” he said.
Before he became a busy high school student, he joined his first sport.
“I started with track in seventh or eighth grade,” Zemenfes recalled. “In gym class, with ‘Schmitty’ [WMS phy-ed teacher Cory Smidt], I did the mile run, and people started commenting on how I did good. I wasn’t the best, but good. I started thinking about joining running, talked to Mr. Henkels, and he really helped me out.”
He also garnered his first nickname “D,” in middle school phy-ed.
“When I was in eighth grade, my first day in gym class Schmitty was calling names out to see who’s here, and when he got to my name he couldn’t pronounce it so then he told me he was just going to call me ‘D,’” reported Zemenfes. “After that, all my friends and teachers started calling me ‘D’”.
During his eighth-grade track season, former WHS cross country star Mubarik Musa recruited Zemenfes to join cross country, and he signed up the following fall.
Once Zemenfes did reach high school, he joined FFA right away, and has progressed to a leadership role.
“This year, I will be the president of FFA, and was the reporter last year. I think what helped was my involvement with FFA since freshman year, I did a lot of community service and really got involved,” Zemenfes said.
He also endorses FFA wholeheartedly.
“I think FFA is a great club to join and get leadership and public speaking experience,” Zemenfes said.
Although Zemenfes is the president of an organization once known as Future Farmers of America, he didn’t join it expressly to learn about farming.
“I like to learn new stuff, I will definitely try new stuff any time, and as far as going into farming, I have no really big interest,” revealed Zemenfes.
Truth be told, his interests lie in very different areas — robotics and computers..
“Right now, I am between software and computer engineering,” he explained. “I first joined Robotics in sophomore year — I saw posters in school that said ‘Join Robotics!,’ and I started asking people and finding more info.” At first, “I thought it was designing small robots; I didn’t think it was big ones.”
In the last few years Zemenfes has played various roles on the team, from building the robotic arm and other construction. After the team’s programmer moved away, he assumed the role of head computer programmer for its robot this past season.
First Robotics has been something Zemenfes has really enjoyed, and this season, “I hope to be the captain,” he said. “What robotics is, is to get you interested in math, science and engineering. That’s what we need in America — kids to go into those fields.”
At WHS, Zemenfes has also participated in Dynamic 507, Youth Making Changes, and was on the set crew for the WHS Trojan Marching Band Show “Over the Rooftops” in 2012.
Outside of school, he bring his happy smile to the aisles and checkouts of the Worthington Hy-Vee, where he has worked for a year.
“It is a great place to work — you get to know the community,” Zemenfes said. “I work courtesy, and some people come in and talk to you; it’s our job to find everything they need.”
This June, Zemenfes, his sister, and father took a month long trip to Ethiopia. He was able to visit his mother and family, sample favorite foods and simply enjoy his home country.
“My mom was the first one to recognize me — I was way taller than before! It was great, I really enjoyed the trip, and actually gained some weight. The food is great, and the fruit comes straight from the farm and is really natural.”
In the future, Zemenfes said, “I will definitely go on into software computer engineering, apply for scholarships, and get a four-year degree. When I get good money, I want to invest in something that helps my country, like opening a school.”
Zemenfes frequently is complimented on his politeness. Where does it come from?
“It is my parents, they really teach us to be polite and nice, mostly my mom taught me that. Because being nice isn’t a hard thing to do, just how I was born. When I hear the comments, it’s really nice.”
Rest assured, Zemenfes’ easy smile, laugh and upbeat, polite personality will continue to brighten Worthington.