Posted by Guest on November 01, 2016 in Blog

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12615252_830234030418558_4632316447467639862_o.jpgBy Mahamad Omar

Community activist Ilhan Omar’s run for State Representative (district 60B) in Minnesota has been as extraordinary as it is inspiring. In an upset, she defeated 40-year incumbent Representative Phyllis Kahn and fellow challenger Mohamed Noor in the Democratic-Farmer Labor (DFL) Party nomination by a solid margin. After Omar’s strong showing, her Republican opponent suspended his campaign citing family issues. Now, she is on the brink of becoming the first Somali-American legislator in the United States, the first Arab-American state legislator in Minnesota, and the first American Muslim woman in Minnesota to hold office.

Omar arrived in the United States as a refugee seeking asylum at the age of 12, leaving a camp in Mombasa where she resided after escaping the Somali Civil War. Her father is Somali and her mother, who died when she was young, was Yemeni. At the start, her transition in the United States was difficult. Like many before, she had to confront the challenges of entering a society where her identity, her “Blackness” and her “Muslimness”, were seen as a problem. As her English skills improved, she was better able to communicate and find a “home” in Minnesota’s Somali community.

For the most part, Omar was raised by her father and her grandfather. The latter left a significant impact on her future choices. Her grandfather had always held a deep interest and admiration for democracy. They bonded over their desire to be part of the political process. Omar served as her grandfather’s linguistic and cultural translator so that he could participate in local party conventions. This was the beginning of Omar’s career working to extend the American ideals of “liberty and justice” to all members of society.

Omar began honing her political skills at North Dakota State University where she involved herself in organizations like the Muslim Student Association and earned a degree in Political Science and International Studies. In particular, she worked to shift the perception that Islam and social justice were at conflict. She pushed the message that her Islamic background strengthened her resolve to advance justice and equality. Omar said, “A lot of the social justice issues that I care about stem from this idea of wanting equality and fighting for equality. That is something that is very much part of the principle of the teachings of Islam. That we are all created equal and that we should all be treated equally in our society… I wanted to live that out.”

Following a family tradition of public service (teachers, nurses, public employees), Omar worked as a community educator for the University of Minnesota in 2005. She taught new Americans about nutrition, education, and financial management. “Giving back to the community was the kind of work I was looking to get into. It is a part of my principles,” she said. Over the years, her work would become more politically-orientated. Omar focused on political access for immigrant communities so that they could meet with policymakers. She organized Meet-Your-Representative events and sent out invitations for constituency caucuses to help demystify the political process. It was the start of her efforts to help new immigrant communities understand their power and influence.

Omar soon became directly connected with political campaigns, serving on several political action committees and working as campaign manager for Minneapolis City Council candidate Andrew Johnson in 2013. After Johnson’s victory, she was hired as a Senior Policy Aide. Her time in City Hall, being a part of the changes and accomplishments of the Council, excited her. Omar realized that she could be a part of that change in an impactful way at the state level which spurred her to run for office.

Omar’s campaign is grounded in a progressive agenda focused on economic, social, racial, and environmental justice. On labor issues, she supports raising the minimum wage to $15 and paid sick leave. In education, she backs universal Pre-K, a reduction of school suspensions, and an increase in funding for higher education. In civil rights, she is in favor of women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and criminal justice reform. And for the environment, she advocates groundwater sustainability, reducing agricultural pollution, and reducing farm runoff. A champion of social justice causes, Omar has put the issues of community empowerment at the forefront of her movement. 

Omar’s political rise is happening in the midst of xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric becoming prevalent in national politics. As a Woman, a Muslim, a Somali, an Arab, and a former Refugee she is at the intersection of a diverse America. “[On her intersectional identity] It gives me the bravery to continue to push forward… My identities are a bonus, and it encourages me to continue to do this work,” Omar said. 

Her bravery has been tested. In 2014, she was assaulted while serving as the Vice Chair for her senate district at a DFL Party caucus, as she tried to enforce caucus voting rules. "I took a lot of punches to the head so I can’t really remember who was hitting me," Omar said after the attack, which left her bloodied, "I was trying to get my face not scratched off.” Her attackers were arrested as the police quelled the disturbance. She was diagnosed with a concussion and a sprained neck by emergency services. The next day Omar was at City Hall, continuing her work in advocating for the causes she’s fought for her entire career.

At the end of my conversation with Ilhan Omar, I had to ask what keeps her going. She left me with this response: “Survivors are bold. Women, in particular, have a unique strength to look at adversity in its face, and to still continue. I think with the combination of also being a Muslim and also being an immigrant, a refugee, whose overcome so much, there isn’t much that scares me. There isn’t much that holds me back. I feel powerful and bold and brave.” Oftentimes, Omar talks about being an example for her daughters as a motivating factor. “How can I give up if their primary example is their mother giving up if life got too hard… I want my daughters to know that nothing can get in their way but themselves.”


Mahamad Omar is a Fall 2016 Intern at the Arab American Institute.