16 August 2018

Africa: Ilhan Omar Closer to Becoming First African Refugee in US Congress

Photo: Kane Farabaugh
Ilhan Omar addresses supporters after her historic primary election victory to represent Minnesota's 5th District in the U.S. Congress in Minneapolis

The foundation of Democrat Ilhan Omar’s historic primary election win to represent Minnesota’s 5th District in the U.S. Congress was built on a simple campaign message.

“I am a millennial with student debt,” the 35-year-old state lawmaker told an audience in a crowded auditorium at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs during a pre-election forum with two of her competitors, both of them older.

“And a renter,” she added, someone who isn’t ready, or can’t yet afford, to purchase a home.

It was a simple yet effective message by Omar, conveying that — despite her origins in Somalia and the hijab upon her head — she was just like the many younger, progressive and liberal voters she needed to court in the Congressional district she seeks to represent.

It was ultimately a winning message, both now… and two years ago when she first made history in her election (which her campaign says saw increased voter turnout by 37 percent) to the Minnesota state House of Representatives.

“Before Ilhan, I think a lot of us didn’t know what type of government we had, but now that she was elected, a lot of us started paying attention,” says 25-year-old Somali American Khalid Mohamed. “She represented us at the state level and we saw how productive she was.”

Mohamed is just one of the tens of thousands of Somali Americans who voted on this primary election day for Ilhan Omar, who is one step closer to making history as the first elected refugee from the African continent — and the second Muslim American woman — to join the body. She follows in the footsteps of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American in Congress, who currently represents this Minneapolis Congressional District, but stepped down to pursue the state’s Attorney General’s office — an election which he too also won the same night as Omar.

“Around America it might seem odd that one of the whitest states in the country would be sending its second Muslim to Congress,” says University of Minnesota Professor Larry Jacobs. “But not so in Minnesota,” a state that is home to the largest number of Somali refugees in the United States. But Jacobs says their votes are only part of Ilhan’s success story.

“That is not enough to prevail in a district in which Somalis really numerically are not a large number and in this race were split with another Somali candidate,” Jacobs told VOA. “What Omar has been able to do for the second time now in a few years is build a broad coalition that includes progressives who agree with her Bernie Sanders light agenda and people who believe the Democratic Party needs to become more diverse and welcome in new voices.”

New voices that have new — and old — challenges to face.

“Right now I am well equipped to organize against an administration that is using the politics of fear to further their divisive and destructive policies at a time when our nation is at a dangerous crossroads,” Omar explained to the crowd during the candidate forum. She is the Democrat’s Assistant Minority leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and has spoken out against family separations at the U.S. border. She is also a critic of the Trump administration’s so-called “Muslim Ban.”

Khalid Mohamed agrees with Omar’s policy positions, and hopes her personal experience coming from a Kenyan refugee camp will shape the ongoing debate in Congress over U.S. immigration policy.

“As a refugee,” says Mohamed, “she had experienced the struggles of being a refugee, and the vetting process, and something Donald Trump has not understood quite well.”

“In my last race I talked about what that win would mean for that eight year old girl in that refugee camp,” Ilhan Omar emotionally explained to the jubilant crowd gathered for her primary election night victory party, acknowledging her improbable journey from Kenyan refugee camp to the doorstep of the U.S. Capitol. “And today, I still think about her. I think about the hope and optimism, of all those 8 year olds out of the country. And around the world.”

Many in Minnesota’s Somali Muslim American community are refugees like her, and Omar’s election represents an opportunity to change public perceptions — and misperceptions — about their circumstances, and their faith.

“Often our community are deemed as not very supportive of in terms of gender, especially towards females or women,” says 25-year-old voter Khalid Mohamed. “It would show the world and everyone in the state of Minnesota, that we often uplift and encourage Somali women, Muslim women, to run for offices… to be part of the democracy that we have here in America... to participate and also to vote. It will showcase that often the media portrays us that we oppress our women as a Muslim community - we always tell them what to do and they don’t have a freedom - but that would totally tell a different narrative today.”

Mohamed also believes that Omar’s election sends a message of hope to not just a larger religious community, but an entire continent.

“For her to be the first African born congresswomen, I think it’s a big deal on the continent," he said. "It sends a message to everyone from Africa… that you might be a refugee, you might have come here as an immigrant, but you have rights, and you can be whoever you want as long as you put the work in.”

Work that begins for Omar after a November general election that she is also likely to win, as the district she seeks to represent heavily favors Democratic candidates.

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