When Yema Khalif – the co-owner of a new Main Street clothing store named YEMA – was a kid growing up in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, he had two dreams: to be in a movie and to go to a university.
He got his chance for both wishes to come true when the Danish movie, “Lost in Africa`” was filmed in Kibera, staring actress Connie Nielsen – who lives in Tiburon.
Yema scored a bit part in the film and struck up a friendship with Nielsen. Impressed by both his personality and his craving for a college education, she promised she would do what she could to help him.
After much effort, she landed a full scholarship for him at Dominican University in San Rafael, but he still had to pay for his final Nairobi school exams before Dominican could accept him, so his mother sold the family’s radio to pay the school fees, and Nielsen offered her Tiburon home for him to live in while he went to college.
He repaid their trust by earning an A+ grade average and made the dean’s list four years in a row, hosted two radio shows, founded a campus soccer club, was appointed student ambassador for prospective students (a first for a foreign student) and was elected student vice president.
He graduated as a valedictorian and gave the senior class commencement speech. Then, Dominican gave him another full scholarship to get his masters degree in business, which he accomplished in one year.
YEMA’s cofounder, Hawi Awash, is an Ethiopia native who was a refugee in Kenya before moving to Minnesota at age eight. Three years later, she was recognized by the State of Minnesota for her community work.
At age 11, she became a young fashion model and sent what she earned back to rural Ethiopia so women could start small businesses.
She and Yema met at Dominican University where she was a pre-med student with a minor in public health. “I am passionate about working with vulnerable communities,” she says. “I was once a refugee, and I know first hand what having nothing feels like.”
With their common interests in fashion, Yema and Hawi founded a clothing company during their senior year that makes and sells action-faction street-wear inspired by African culture. YEMA clothing store opened in February and held its Grand Opening in March at 10 Main Street, on the corner where the former bike shop sat.
Their intention is to use a percentage of their profits to help those in Africa get out of the slums with an education.
“Our dream was not just to launch a clothing company, but a company with a meaningful mission – to make beautiful products and to use the income generated to support the education of orphaned children in Kibera slums in Kenya and in Ethiopia,” Hawi says. “We are crazy enough to believe that buying out poverty starts by investing in education! And, yes, education helps alleviate ignorance and hatred.”
The colorful men’s and women’s classic track pants ($100 & $80), classic track jackets ($100 & $120), parka jackets ($180), jogger pants ($120), Bamboo T-shirts ($45) and caps ($35) are unique and well-made, and 20-percent of each sale goes to help educate orphaned children in Kibera slums in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Although the store is now closed due to the coronavirus, you can check out the items for sale on-line at yemacalif.com. When the store opens again, hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Phone: 415-488-7770.
Photo: Hawi is wearing: YEMA GJH Crew Neck Crop Top in White and YEMA Jill Hamer Pants in Clay
Yema is wearing: YEMA Klassic Tracksuit in Addis Black (Jacket and Pants).