In the Horn of Africa, the country’s evolving political climate fueled a struggle for democracy in the 30-year Eritrean War for Independence. Taking up arms to break down social injustice, a young peasant herder named Tes Yohannes, Yohannes’s father, became a freedom fighter in 1978. As he walked alongside compatriots with similar fates, Tes Yohannes stepped on one of the region’s innumerable landmines and was blinded in one eye as a result. Despite this life-changing injury, Tes Yohannes held strong to his belief in democracy, equality, and self-autonomy. He passed these values to his son, who would grow up to put them to work lessening disparities between the haves and the have-nots.
Born and raised in the United States during the 1980s, Yohannes wanted to be Ronald Reagan or a lawyer when he grew up. In that order. “I would hold a broom and give these speeches as if I was Reagan, and my parents knew that their son was (a) a dork and (b) a little too ambitious for his age,” he said.
Yohannes’s lawyerly ambitions were more grounded in reality, as his family’s entry to the United States was sponsored by a lawyer named Peter Oddleifson. Upon arriving, the Yohanneses lived with Oddleifson for weeks and remained close for years to come.
“He became a second dad to me. He’s our family superhero. He’s the one that led the legal agreements and helped us establish life here in the United States,” Yohannes said.
Early in youth, the guidance of mentors began to shape Yohannes’s conscience. What he didn’t know is where that guidance would one day lead him.
An alternative route appears
Yohannes’s childhood held the imprints of a fellow human’s generosity, a gift that followed him to the University at Buffalo School of Law in New York, where he studied human rights and immigration. During his studies, he received the Barbara and Thomas Wolfe Human Rights Fellowship to clerk at the Monroe County, New York, Public Defender’s office. Later, he went on to clerk for the chief justice of the New York Supreme Court, Eighth District. His public service was underway.