When Hani Garabyare was a little girl, she prayed that she would be an American.
The 27-year-old Somali native is now a U.S. citizen and finds herself walking up Capitol Hill each day to work in the Senate.
When Garabyare was 3 years old, Somalia descended into civil war. Both her parents were members of the warring clans, so the ensuing chaos forced her family to flee the country.
“Everything that I knew collapsed,” said Garabyare.
Her mother recalled Garabyare praying each night to become an American. Even at a young age, Garabyare believed she would have a better life in the United States.
“America is always put on this high pedestal,” said the young Senate staffer. “It’s a land of freedom with an opportunity to rise.”
Garabyare and her family lived in the Utanga refugee camp in Kenya for four years. Her older brother had previously been sent to New York for schooling, so he helped the family through the asylum process that brought them to the United States.
With the additional help of Christian missionaries, the Garabyare family emigrated. They traveled first to Arlington, Va., and eventually settled in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Garabyare credits the U.S. government with helping to bring her family to America, which is why she wanted to work on Capitol Hill.
“I wouldn’t be in this country had it not been for United States legislation and people putting in an effort for immigration, especially refugees,” she said.
After receiving a master’s degree in public policy at Queen Mary University of London, Garabyare came to D.C. to intern for Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y. In 2012, the Somali native jumped at the opportunity to work for her home state’s senior senator: Democrat Carl Levin.
As a legislative aide with a focus on foreign policy, Garabyare relishes the opportunity to work on policies she is passionate about. She described meeting with various human rights groups as a fulfilling part of her job. “I feel like I have a role in helping them,” she said.
Garabyare is also active in the Congressional African Staff Association and said she feels a unique responsibility in being the only Somali staffer on the Hill.
“People can say a lot about Somalis or Somalia,” she said, noting that people often talk about her native country in the context of piracy, terrorism and anarchy.
“I want to give them a different perspective of what it is to be a Somali,” Garabyare said. “We are resilient people; we’re hard working and we’re also, if given the opportunity, we can excel very well in this country.”
Garabyare hopes to continue excelling on the Hill, although her future remains a bit uncertain with Levin retiring at the end of the year.
“I do want to stay on the Hill,” she said. “I feel like there’s more I can do.”
In the long term, Garabyare hopes to continue working in the foreign policy arena, with a special focus on human rights and women’s issues. Perhaps one day she will even find herself working in the White House.
As a woman who came to the United States during President Bill Clinton’s administration, she noted that her life would come full circle if Hillary Rodham Clinton runs for president and wins in 2016. “I would love the opportunity to work for her,” she said.
But for now Garabyare is taking it one day at a time, grateful for her journey from war-torn Somalia to the Senate.
“I’ve known the journey between war and peace,” Garabyare said. “I’m just blessed to be here.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.