Commissioners

A group photo of some of the Immigrant and Refugee Commission members in Council Chambers.

Reflecting the diversity of Seattle's immigrant and refugee communities, the commission has 15 members (eight appointed by the Mayor and seven appointed by City Council). Commission members will be appointed to one- or two-year terms, with the option of reappointment.

Medhanit Abebe

Medhanit Abebe

Appointed by: Mayor Jenny A. Durkan

More + -

Medhanit Abebe is an attorney from Ethiopia and currently a doctoral student at University of Washington School of Law. She has been named the 2018 Mack-Mayerfeld Fellow by the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington. Medhanit has over 10 years of experience in various sectors and brings in a unique social justice lens that intersects women, language access, and human rights issues. She is also a social justice activist and blogger.

Her most notable achievement was instituting Ethiopian National Women's Land Rights Task Force, a task force composed of legislators, judges, politicians, activists, business owners, and attorneys to lobby for gender equity and women's equal rights when legislation is enacted and amended. Medhanit has two children, Amerti, aged 8 years and Nibana, aged 8 months. She holds a Master of Law in Sustainable International Development Law, a Master of Arts in Gender and Women's Studies, and a Bachelor of Law (LLB).

Maya Babla Appaih

Maya Babla Appaih

Co-Chair
Appointed by: City Council

More + -

Maya Babla Appiah currently works as a program manager within Microsoft's Global Talent Acquisition team, strategizing creative ways to bring amazing, often undiscovered, talent to Microsoft from all over the world. She previously worked at LinkedIn in San Francisco, where she consulted with Fortune 500 companies on their hiring strategies in her core role, and supported LinkedIn's refugee program, Welcome Talent, as a volunteer. While in the Bay Area Maya joined the Leadership Council of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit supporting refugees and immigrants in landing professional jobs aligned to their skills. When she moved to Seattle in January, Maya began growing Upwardly Global's presence in the Pacific Northwest.

Previously, Maya worked at a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that partnered with women leaders in the developing world. This work inspired an ongoing commitment to find creative ways to have a positive social impact, and in particular, to use technology and cross-sector partnerships in order to do so at a global scale.

Jeniffer Calleja

Jeniffer Calleja

Appointed by: Mayor Ed Murray

More + -

Originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, has worked in social research and community development for over 10 years.  Since moving to Seattle, she has worked on issues of health equity, employment and labor and civic and family engagement, with low income community members, a majority of whom are immigrant and refugees and from diverse age groups.  She is passionate about empowering underrepresented individuals and communities to make their voices heard and participate in local decision-making processes from reporting a broken street light to pursuing complex policy changes. Currently, she works at Neighborhood House on a project to address health disparities in public housing communities.

Naheed (Gina) Aaftaab

Naheed (Gina) Aaftaab

Appointed by: City Council

More + -

Naheed is the Assistant Director of the University of Washington's Center of Communication, Difference, and Equity (CCDE). Prior to her work at the University of Washington, she completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and B.A. and M.A. at University of Washington. Her family emigrated from Afghanistan to the US in 1989.

Throughout her education she has been interested in politics, geography, and community activism in order to understand the complexities of immigration both locally and internationally. While her course work provided knowledge about history, policies, and institutions, her family and social life gave her a deep understanding of acculturation, belonging, and supporting communities in transition. Her goals are to advocate for and support communities that are at the margins through education, research, and outreach.

Vanesa Gutierrez

Vanesa Gutierrez

Appointed by: City Council

More + -

Vanesa was born in Medellin, Colombia and came to the U.S. as an asylee. She has a diverse work background from being an English as a Second Language instructor and television presenter to working with international non-profits, community-based organizations and local government. She interned at NGO CSW/NY, a non-profit that supports the work of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and UN Women.

At a local level, Vanesa has worked for the City of Seattle Mayor's Office and Department of Neighborhoods (DON) where she supported multiple programs including the Community Liaisons Program. She also has worked for the King County's Executive Office. Currently, she works as the Community Relations Manager at the Snohomish County's Executive Office.

Vanesa is fluent in Spanish and French and is currently studying Italian and Russian. She will soon get her Law degree from Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in her hometown. She hopes to one day receive her master's in human rights and genocide Studies and is hoping to use her experience on the commission to work on immigrant issues in North Seattle where she resides.

Eric Holzapfel

Eric Holzapfel

Appointed by: Mayor Jenny A. Durkan

More + -

Eric holds two roles at Entre Hermanos, a nonprofit that provides social, educational, and health support services to LGBTQ Latino/as. He is the Program Manager for the Immigration Program, and he serves as a direct support to the Executive Director, Luis Fernando. He originates from Ecuador and has worked in politics, health, interpretation, and immigrant rights in both Ecuador and in the U.S. He has been the Co-Chair for the Evans People of Color at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy and Governance as well as the Presidents of the Latin American Student Organization at the University of Kentucky.

Farhiya Mohamed

Farhiya Mohamed

Appointed by: Mayor Jenny A. Durkan

More + -

Farhiya has over 10 years of experience working with Seattle's immigrant and refugee communities. She has experience working for community organizations such as Refugee Women's Alliance (ReWA) and Southwest Youth and Family Services. She has worked as a community organizer and educator to help women victims of domestic violence and human trafficking in immigrant and refugee communities. She has also worked to provide environmental health education to the Somali community. She is fluent in Somali and is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work at the University of Washington.

Marilena Morales

Marilena Morales

Appointed by: Mayor Ed Murray

More + -

As a daughter of two migrant farm working parents from the Yakima Valley, Marilena was raised with values of family and social equity and to never look down on someone unless she was helping them up. With these values always in heart and mind, Marilena has pursued a career in community healthcare. To Marilena, the right to equitable and affordable healthcare is a basic human right. Currently at Neighborcare Health, a federally-qualified health center serving King County, a portion of Marilena's work is focused on strategizing to decrease costs per patient as well as identifying areas in the community with high utilization of emergency services in order to partner with supportive housing facilities, emergency departments and specialists deter avoidable costs. Marilena's work is to ensure that federally insured and uninsured patients, in particular, have access to the highest quality care.

Marilena is also a proponent of the right to equitable and affordable education. Marilena started a scholarship for farm working students from Grandview High School pursuing a 4 year degree in Washington State. Grandview, Washington is the same agricultural-based town where Marilena's parents grew up working the fields. The scholarship, awarding 7 students in 2014, has been a way for Marilena to stay connected her own cultural roots and work to ensure that monetary barriers are not the sole factor deterring students from pursing higher education.

Riddhi Mukhopadhyay

Riddhi Mukhopadhyay

Appointed by: Mayor Jenny A. Durkan

More + -

Riddhi is an attorney and longtime activist for immigrant and refugee rights.  Born in Kolkata, India, she has previously lived in North Carolina, Texas and now calls Seattle, Washington, home. Riddhi received her law degree from Seattle University School of Law and her bachelors from Duke University.  Since 2001, she has volunteered as an advocate for immigrant domestic and sexual violence survivors and is a former Berkeley Law Foundation legal fellow and attorney at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.  She has organized and advocated with different immigrant communities, including domestic workers, detained individuals and immigrants with developmental disabilities. Currently at Sexual Violence Legal Services, Riddhi specializes in representing and assisting survivors and victims of sexual violence facing challenges in accessing justice based on mental illness, developmental disabilities, limited English proficiency, and immigration status. She provides bilingual legal services in Spanish, and also speaks Bengali and Hindi.

Johnson Nguyen

Johnson Bach Nguyen

Get Engaged Commissioner
Appointed by: Mayor Jenny A. Durkan

More + -

Originally born in Saigon, Vietnam, Johnson moved to Seattle in 1997 with his mother. Growing up in Seattle, he found himself naturally drawn towards teaching and organizing within communities of color. As an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, Johnson served as the president of the Vietnamese Student Association, the director of the Asian Student Commission, and as an at-large member for the Student Advisory Board.

After obtaining his bachelor's degree, he worked as a bilingual preschool teacher for Hoa Mai Vietnamese Bilingual Preschool, organized with Friends of Little Saigon, and consulted for OneAmerica. Currently he is studying for his Master's in Public Administration at the Evans School, interning at King County, and serving a board term with the Vietnamese Friendship Association. Johnson hopes to study the intersection between effective early education policy and funding in public schools. He truly believes that early education is the best investment one can make in their children, as well as their communities.

Luis Ortega

Luis Ortega

Appointed by: Mayor Ed Murray

More + -

Luis Ortega is the founder and director of Storytellers for Change where he works as an education and leadership development consultant as well as a professional storyteller. Luis has over a decade of experience in youth leadership development, undocumented student issues, advocacy, social justice and equity work, and strategic and organizational development. Luis has worked on various consulting projects to develop and provide services for immigrant and refugee populations in the Seattle area, such projects include coordinating the expansion of the Leadership Without Borders Center at the University of Washington to better serve undocumented students and providing youth leadership development programming for the Seattle World School.

Luis serves in the board of Eastside Pathways and the advisory boards of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project and the Seattle MESA (Mathematics, Science & Engineering Achievement) Program. In addition, Luis is continuously traveling to visit schools, colleges, conferences, and community events across the nation to speak about the power of storytelling, empathy, and radical community building. Luis firsthand experience as an immigrant, social entrepreneur, and community advocate for immigrant rights, is at the heart of his passion and commitment to work vigorously for equity and social justice for all.

Ankita Patel

Ankita Patel

Co-Chair
Appointed by: City Council

More + -

As an immigrant from Zambia, Ankita has dedicated her career to advancing the social and economic status of people so that they can create change for themselves and their communities. Ankita has over a decade of experience working on social justice issues, including housing/homelessness, gender-based violence, migrant farmworker justice, and immigrant rights. Ankita brings strong leadership, team-building, and relationship skills that have allowed her to successfully build collaborative cross-sector partnerships and engage closely with communities to improve systems and create safe, thriving environments. Ankita currently works as the Public Policy and Advocacy Manager at Philanthropy NW, where she manages the Census 2020 pool-funded partnerships, develops cross-sector strategies, and develops advocacy and policy programming for the philanthropic sector.

Shelani Vanniasinkam

Shelani Vanniasinkam

Appointed by: City Council

More + -

Shelani emigrated from Sri Lanka with her family at the age of 14 and settled in Chandler, Arizona. Shelani, went on to receive a B.S. in Political Science from Northern Arizona University (NAU) and a Masters in Global Studies from Brandeis University. Her Master's Degree focused on Gender Violence in Kashmir. Shelani has worked in various social services roles throughout the years. At Sound Generations (formerly Senior Services), she served as the staff representative for the Refugee Forum of King County and was a member of the Staff Committee for Equity and Inclusion.

During her tenure at Boeing, Shelani was the Diversity Focal and Secretary of the Diversity and Inclusion Council. Currently, she enjoys volunteering at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) as an ESL Teaching Assistant and doing pro-bono work with KIND (Kids in Need of Defense) as part of her position with Amazon's Legal Organization.

Jessica Yu

Jessica Yu

Appointed by: City Council

More + -

Jessica, a graduate of the University of Washington School of Law (LL.M., Taxation) and Seattle University School of Law (J.D., cum laude), is currently an immigration and corporate law attorney with Lane Powell. She helps foreign nationals obtain investor visas and helps domestic companies hire foreign employees. She also advises domestic and international companies throughout the entire lifespan of a business — from entity formation, through operation and management and ultimate disposition of the business.

Jessica has broad exposure to refugee issues as an immigration attorney in family and corporate immigration, and through her volunteer work at Refugee Women’s Alliance. Dealing with many immigrant business owners, she has an in-depth understanding of their struggles with language barriers and access to justice. Jessica is fluent in Korean.

Maria Zepeda Flores

Maria Zepeda Flores

Appointed by: City Council

More + -

Maria grew up in Bakersfield, CA, the heart of the agricultural Central Valley. After obtaining a BA in Psychology from Yale, Maria spent time working with immigrant and refugee families as an AmeriCorp after-school program leader and as a case manager for a behavioral health nonprofit. These experiences motivated her to pursue an MPA to address the root causes of the inequities that she experienced growing up and that affect the families she worked with.

Currently, Maria is pursuing her Masters of Public Administration at the University of Washington Evans School, serving as a Board Fellow for City Year Seattle/King County, interning at King County and serving as a partner on the Education Collective Action Team at Social Venture Partners.