Lifting Up Young Leaders: The Nahom Berhane Scholarship for Leadership and Inclusion

By Heather Corbin, Communications & Resource Development Officer, Access Alliance
A woman stands in front of a colourful mural with a painting of a young man and a cityscape.
Arsema Berhane stands in front a mural painted in remembrance of her brother, Nahom

As dusk fell on a warm evening this past June, a crowd gathered in the AccessPoint on Danforth atrium. Live music played while attendees buzzed with excitement, snapping photos, filling plates with food and greeting one another. In the background, a slideshow played, its visuals—a series of smiling teenagers—reflecting the night’s purpose. In the crowd were four excited young community leaders embarking on their post-secondary education: the most recent recipients of the Nahom Berhane Scholarship for Leadership and Inclusion. The event was a celebration of their many accomplishments and a reflection on the legacy of the young man whose life’s work inspired this scholarship.

Nahom’s Journey

When he was 9 years old, Nahom Berhane moved from Eritrea to Canada with his family. He quickly became aware of the inequities faced by Toronto’s marginalized communities and the damaging social impacts that resulted, especially for immigrant and racialized families. He dedicated his education and career to the service of these communities, eventually joining Access Alliance as a health promoter. His work combined a passion for social justice and a commitment to community empowerment, as well as a lot of laughter and creativity. In 2014 Nahom was killed by a stranger on the streets where he served, and this loss—like his life—impacted many.

To honour his life and legacy, Access Alliance and the Berhane family came together to establish the Nahom Berhane Scholarship, which provides assistance to youth enrolled in post-secondary education who have demonstrated a commitment to leadership, volunteerism and community service. The scholarship has evolved to prioritize youth of African descent, addressing inequities in access to resources for young Black students. For the past 8 years, the scholarship has allowed us to continue breaking down barriers to success and to champion engaging young leaders.

Smiling young man holds up a microphone for a small boy.
Nahom in his Health Promoter role, with a young client

Championing changemakers

At this summer’s ceremony, we celebrated four accomplished and ambitious young students. They all captured Nahom’s drive and commitment to positive change, eager to move forward while also giving back. Every year the scholarship receives many applications, but the final few are chosen because of how they stand out. As Nahom’s sister, Co-Chair of the Scholarship Committee, Arsema explains, they’re the applicants who, “against all odds, continue to not only stick to their goals and really continue to work hard, but find ways to give back to community. That’s the true spirit of Nahom. . .”

Robel Gebreselasse moved to Toronto from Ethiopia only three years ago. In that time, he has volunteered as an Ambassador and Board Member in the Youth Advisory Committee for the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), and manages mentorship resources at SEDS-Canada. He had been working two jobs to save money for his Engineering Science tuition at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), but after receiving the scholarship was able to cut back on his work hours. With the scholarship, he said, “[I have] time to volunteer more, to study more, to spend time with my family more, with my brother.”  

While born in Canada, 2023 recipient Akosua Badu watched her newcomer parents, neighbours, and other family members struggle with finances. “From speaking to lots of people in my community, I feel like . . . [the] different aspects of finance like investing and all those kinds of stuff, they are very unaware of it.” She was inspired to pursue a degree in Business Administration at the University of Guelph-Humber in order to learn the skills necessary to help newcomers better understand and manage their finances in Canada.

La’Miyah Woldegiorgis also identified a barrier to success and worked to address it. As a high school student, she organized her classmates and advocated for a course for students who identified as Black. In her last year at the school her thoughtful leadership and hard work paid off, and the course was taught at the school. She encourages future applicants to apply, regardless of how they see their successes. “Even the little things you do, you should still apply for it because everything matters. The little steps you take can lead to something bigger.”

A drive to change the world for the better led Simon Chitumba to apply for the scholarship to assist with his tuition at TMU. Inspired at a young age to become an engineer like his uncle, Simon fell in love with coding in grade 8, decided to pursue Computer Engineering, and hasn’t looked back. He agrees with La’Miyah that applying offers a valuable opportunity, saying, “the sky’s the limit. Apply for the scholarship. Why not? I mean, everybody is really nice to me here. The award . . . will lessen my financial burden, and you get connected to other youth whom you can make friends with.”

Two young women and two young men smile for the camera
2023 scholarship recipients (from left): Robel, Akosua, La’Miyah, Simon

Donate, and make a difference

Over the past 8 years, we have been privileged to offer scholarships to 24 community-minded young leaders. Many of our early recipients have now graduated from their post-secondary institutions and gone on to realize their early career goals, while also continuing to serve their communities. It is an honour and a joy to have been a small part in the big impact these young people are making.

A young man speaks into a microphone at a podium. A young woman holds a scholarship certificate while standing next to an older woman in front of a painted mural.
2019 scholarship recipient Stephen Mensah (left) is currently serving as the Executive Director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet. Melanie Manning (right, with certificate), was our first recipient in 2016 as she entered nursing school, and is now working in her community as a Registered Nurse.

In order to offer a total of 34 scholarships—honouring Nahom’s 34 years of life—we still need to raise $40,000. For the 9th year of the Nahom Berhane Scholarship, we hope to give 4 scholarships of $4000 each to worthy young students. While continuing to pursue corporate donations, we are calling for support from our community members, no matter how small, to help us get closer to this lofty goal. Donations have a direct impact, breaking down barriers and shaping the futures of recipients and the communities they serve. As Arsema Berhane points out, contributions have “such a ripple effect in our city. Not only are you removing barriers for a young person who is absolutely deserving, but you’re [also] investing in someone who is already contributing to our city and will do even greater things once they can achieve their goals, their academic goals so that they’re able to strengthen themselves and lift their families.”

The Berhane family, Access Alliance staff and volunteers, donors, recipients and members of the community have come together many times over the past eight years, united by Nahom: his legacy, his work, and his spirit. We will continue to work together to ensure his commitment to fairness and his passion for community development work lives on. We will continue to celebrate his life, and the lives of other driven young leaders committed to building equitable and empowered communities. We invite you to join us on this journey.

To donate to the Nahom Berhane Scholarship, please visit our donation page now.