Zefer Tesfamariyam spent 2 years in Maryland's Foster Care System

At age 14, Zefer’s parents sent her (alone and as a minor) on a journey to the United States because the war situation in her home country of Eritrea (on the horn of Africa) proved too dangerous for her family, and they wanted her to have the opportunity for a safer, better life. She travelled 112 miles on foot through 7 countries in Africa and South America. She relied on her own instincts to survive and eventually ended up in foster care in Washington, DC. Because of her journey, Zefer missed almost two years of high school. Despite the setback, Zefer tested into the 11th grade and has consistently achieved a 3.5 GPA or above every quarter. She will graduate this spring and has already been accepted to four colleges.

Once she chooses a school, she is planning to pursue a Pharm.D. degree in pharmacy. Zefer’s academic accomplishments are particularly amazing considering she was just beginning to learn English and adjust to American culture. Her native language is Tigrinya, and she also speaks Amharic. While she was adjusting to school, Zefer also had to adapt to her new life with her foster family, who fostered her through the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA).

“I had to explain what my religion and culture required in a way that my foster parents could understand and respect where I was coming from. Also I had to learn what their culture expects of people,” says Zefer. “It took some time before we all understood each other.”

Zefer is dedicated to sharing her experiences in foster care in hopes of helping other kids in similar situations. When Zefer learned that a young man was coming to the United States from her home country as a refugee and would be entering foster care, she immediately volunteered to mentor him, interpret for him, cook meals from his native country, and help in anyway.

Her foster parents write, “She has truly enjoyed this opportunity to give back and pass on the knowledge that she has learned. The young man s foster parents recently commented that they could not have done it without Zefer.” Zefer is also an active participant in a local leadership program for kids in foster care, Extra Ordinary Life (XOL).

According to the director, “The mission of XOL is to provide extra-ordinary life changing experiences to teen girls in foster care environments that inspire them to DREAM BIG and ACHIEVE.” Last summer, Zefer was one of the few XOL members selected to travel to South Africa.

She volunteered in a South African childrens agency. She still keeps in touch with her South African pen pal. When she’s not at school or participating in her various volunteer and leadership activities, Zefer works as a teacher’s assistant at Head Start. She enjoys playing tennis, swimming, reading, cooking, and spending time with her friends. Perhaps Zefer’s mentor explains it best, “Zefer brings a maturity and caring, concerned attitude to all she comes into contact with. She is that wise, calming presence, often times in environments that are completely new and unfamiliar.

Zefer is an amazingly smart, strong, independent, courageous young woman having travelled to the United States on her own; but more importantly she continues to challenge herself and push the boundaries to excel and achieve.”

Team(s) or Cohort(s)
2011 Outstanding Young Leaders