Abel Amene needed about $10,000 to return to the University of Maryland after dropping out of the university in 2006.

Throughout the next decade, Abel, felt “trapped.” He worked various jobs and experienced homelessness, often sleeping in university buildings, he said. As a result, he said he was banned from this university’s campus in 2013.

More than a decade later, Abel returned to College Park in the fall 2023 semester as an economics and physics major. On Feb. 21, the 38-year-old Ethiopian native was appointed as a representative for this university’s Student Government Association as an off-campus outlying representative.

As an SGA representative, Abel, who immigrated from Ethiopia as a teenager, wants to help students with issues that are close to his heart as a first-generation immigrant.

“I think a lot of the issues I want to focus on have to do with transportation and food access and things that affect people with low income [and] first-generation immigrants like myself,” Abel said.

Abel hopes to improve transportation for commuter students at this university by increasing the frequency of university shuttles to public transportation stops, he said. Allowing students at this university to better access SNAP food benefits on campus is also a priority, Abel added.

Members of the SGA’s legislative leadership declined to comment on Abel’s appointment, citing that they do not comment on individual legislators.

Abel began studying at this university in 2003 as a physics major. After losing financial aid caused him to drop out from this university, Abel said he worked several jobs, including as a taxi driver and in restaurants.

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But in 2022, a new law in Washington, D.C., helped Abel begin the next phase of his life.

Lawmakers in the district enacted a policy that allows eligible noncitizens, such as Abel, to vote in local elections.

Abel advocated for the law as part of the DC Immigrant Justice Platform — an organization that promotes policy initiatives that benefit immigrant communities. That activism helped Abel immerse himself in politics and motivated him to run for public office, he said.

“A lot of how justice systems apply to us disadvantages working class people and poor people,” Abel said. “I want to make changes to those things.”

In 2023, Abel was elected to become the neighborhood advisory commissioner for Ward 4 in Washington, which encompasses the northernmost portion of the city. That election made Abel the first noncitizen to hold public office in the district.

Alexandra Melinchok, an alum of this university, said Abel was a mentor for her when she first began in the community organizing space. She highlighted Abel’s caring nature and high level of community involvement.

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Abel’s diverse experiences have had a great impact on his activism and personality, Melinchok said.

“His organizing and the way he carries himself is rooted in his lived experiences,” Melinchok said. “The passion and the commitment and also the patience, and the empathy that he brings to advocacy and everything he’s involved in has been shaped by his life experiences and the struggles he has had to go through.”

Kush Kharod, who worked with Abel in the DC Immigrant Justice Platform, said one of Abel’s most important skills is helping others advocate for themselves.

Abel has built great relationships with residents in Washington, D.C., especially with people of similar backgrounds, Kharod said. Abel has also helped connect people to decision-makers in the district, such as city council members, and has prioritized involving others in community activism, Kharod added.

“Abel did that with no complaints, but just a drive to … make sure that voices are being heard,” Kharod said. “When I think of Abel, I think of moments like that where they shined and also gave the spotlight to someone else for them to shine, too.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Kush Kharod’s name. This story has been updated.