Ilhan Omar is a former refugee, a Somali-American activist, and a proud Democrat.
On November 8, the 33-year-old is poised to become one of the few Muslim women ever elected to a state legislature in the country.
Omar is on the path towards winning a spot on the Minnesota State Legislature, after defeating a 44-year incumbent during the state’s primary election. Her Republican opponent in the heavily Democratic House District 60B suspended his campaign in August.
Born in Mogadishu, Omar was forced to flee her home when she was about eight years old, after war broke out in Somalia. Her family lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for several years. She was 12 years old when she arrived in in the United States, soon becoming part of a wave of Somalis who settled in Minnesota during the 1990s. Her political conscience was awakened when she was 14, after she began attending local Democratic caucus meetings with her grandfather and acting as his translator.
Omar worked in community health and then as a senior policy aide for a Minneapolis City Council member before deciding to run for Minnesota’s state House of Representatives herself.
The Huffington Post caught up with Omar to talk about her remarkable story, her activism, and her faith.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The Huffington Post: What was life like for you when you first arrived in America?
When I first arrived in the country, I really didn’t speak much of the language. I knew two words coming here, and they were “Hello” and “Shut up.” I had a lot of challenges starting school and my dad says I would come home every day crying and feeling bad about the problems I was having with some of the kids. And he would tell me to work hard on learning the language. As soon as you can communicate with people, then you’re able to build friendships, then the otherness of being an immigrant, being Muslim, East African, black, would disappear because you can talk to them and they’ll see you for who you are.
That idea of working to build bridges and relationships stayed with me when I started high school. I had the language ability, but I was confused with the problem a lot of students had, who didn’t see themselves as a family, but saw themselves as a separate entity from each other.
There were tensions between American-born blacks, the African-born blacks, the new immigrants, Latinos, Native Americans, Arab Muslims, East African Muslims. You put a diverse group of kids together without creating programming to build relationships for them, then you’ll have racial and cultural clashes. I knew that we had to work towards creating a cohesive community for ourselves, just to make it easier to survive through high school. It was about finding students who saw themselves as also bridge builders and working with the leaders in the school, the principal, others. We created an atmosphere where we eat together, we do retreats, have mediation set up so we can talk about our issues before it got violent. It made my remaining years of high school a very safe, rewarding experience.
I think it sort of sharpened my desire to continue to work in building bridges and working towards collaborative efforts, figuring out our commonalities so we’re able to tackle persistent issues and learning that not one person has a solution, but as a community, collaboratively, we could figure out a solution.
How did your faith help you during that time?
I think my faith as a Muslim is very important. One of the core values is that you are always trying to build consensus. So when it comes to figuring out if something is permissible or not in Islam, it’s usually a discussion and people have to come to a consensus in order for something to be approved. So this idea of consensus building was innate in me and in the faith I was born to, in the culture I was born to. These ideas were driven by my upbringing and the ideology that I grew up with.
How does your faith inspire your political activism now?
I think a big part of my faith teachings is to work together towards equality, that we’re all created equal and under the eyes of God, we all have a right to freedom and to access our rights equally. From that premise, I work for equality and I work to make sure our systems are just for all of us.
I work for equality and I work to make sure our systems are just for all of us.
What do you think some of your challenges will be?
I think the biggest challenge for me is going to be that I serve a very diverse district. And so making sure to continue that consensus building, so we don’t approach our issues with a particular lens. I’m working on behalf of a particular community, but I’m also working on behalf of the rest of us. Approaching policy making that kind of way will be a challenge because that’s not what most people expect, being the first East African Somali Muslim woman to serve in the legislature, there are a lot of people who are there to further the narrative that I’m here for a particular group. I’m an uplighting voice for people share my identity, but I’m also someone working on behalf of everyone.
I’ve seen Muslims organizing around the election, campaigning to get the vote out. What do you think has awakened this political consciousness?
This is not like any other election cycle where you can sit on the sidelines and say this isn’t jiving with me, but it is one that our existence and wellbeing depends on us voting and making the right choice. That’s why a lot of people are doing this heavy mobilization, we’re finally waking up like the rest of this country to the realization that this can go horribly wrong.
I think that this is the first time in my lifetime and probably in our nation’s history where we have a candidate who is running and gaining popularity by using fear and Islamophobia to incite people to vote. I think we are seeing the side effects of that kind of rhetoric, with all of the hateful attacks and hate crimes that have gone up, and reports of hate against against children, against men who could be perceived as Muslim. I think it’s really important for us to remember this is just as a candidate. If we have someone like that working as our president, what will our life be? We have to make sure that we are not part of our demise, that we help set a different trajectory for what our history in the U.S. is going to be.
What’s your biggest hope for your career as a politician?
I hope my election proves that we can actually run in areas where not everyone who lives there looks like us or has a shared identity with us. It isn’t a majority Muslim community that is influencing my election. We’re actually a minority in my district. Oftentimes, when it comes to minorities and women, we are only encouraged to run when the demographics are in our favor and discouraged when the demographics are not. I hope my candidacy would allow people to have the boldness to encourage people who don’t fit into that particular demographic to seek office. And to believe in their message and to believe in the good will of the people to select someone they believe shares their vision and not necessarily their identity.
What would you say to a young Muslim woman right now who is thinking about getting involved in politics?
Just do it. Believe in yourself, believe in your community. Believe in the message that you are bringing forth. Remember that you’re fighting for the people and expect that they’ll have your back.
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