On Nov. 8, Ilhan Omar made history when she was elected the first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S.
“My election win offers a counter-narrative to the bigotry in the world,” Minnesota State Representative-elect Omar, 34, says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “This is a land of immigrants, and most come here for opportunity, a second chance.
It’s our time to fight for the America we know we can have.”
Omar herself is an immigrant, having fled her civil war-torn home country of Somalia as a child.
“The war started when I was 8,” says Omar, who recalls witnessing the terrors of conflict. “One night militia tried to break into our home, and the exterior was riddled with bullets. My family left our neighborhood, passing through dead bodies and debris.”
Not long after, Omar says she and her family left their home and relocated to a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya.
“I no longer had a bed of my own, the privacy of a shower in my own bathroom — we were essentially homeless,” Omar says. “I would fetch water, and my family would reward me with a shilling at the end of the day, so I would go see a movie in the village next door in a makeshift theater: a hut.”
After four years years in that Mombasa refugee camp, Omar and her family were sponsored to move to the United States, arriving in New York before moving to Arlington, Virginia, where Omar, then 12, began middle school.
“ had missed years of education, so I didn’t really speak English,” Omar says. “My sisters and I learned by practice,
watching TV with the captions on, reading and trying to repeat words back to each other.”
After two and a half years, the family moved once again, this time to Minneapolis, where Omar faced another difficult adjustment: high school.
“Not a lot of the kids knew how to coexist with people of a different background, so we created a unity and diversity program,” Omar says. “We’d have meals together and connect through experiences and stories. I was finally just ‘Ilhan,’ not ‘that Somali girl.’”
Originally a refugee from Somalia, Omar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for several years before emigrating to the United States at age 12. The inequality she witnessed upon coming to the U.S. inspired her to get involved in politics and advocacy. Now the 34-year-old mother of three fully embraces the value of being boldly visible as a Muslim woman and immigrant, and refuses to be held back by differences.
“Oftentimes, you are told to be everything but bold, but I think that was important for me in running as a young person and running as someone who is Muslim, a refugee, an immigrant,” she said. “To believe in the possibility that all of my identities and otherness would fade into the background, and that my voice as a strong progressive would emerge if I was bold and believed in that — that made a huge difference for me and my candidacy.”
Omar’s platform includes expanding support for clean energy sources, finding ways to make college more affordable, reforming the criminal justice system, and addressing economic inequality. She says her first move as legislator will be to introduce a bill that automatically registers voters when they turn 18 or get a driver’s license. We hope her election continues to inspire Muslim women to get involved and make a difference in our communities!