ThreeSixty Focus on . . . Ilhan Omar

A month before the election, the woman who would become the first Somali-American legislator in U.S. history talks her candidacy, marriage controversy and future.

Omar and her family. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas French Portraiture)
Omar and her family. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas French Portraiture)

When Ilhan Omar first came to the United States from an African refugee camp at age 12, she knew only a few words of English (“Hello” and “shut up”).

More than two decades later, Omar has made history as the first Somali-American legislator in the United States. Omar, 34, was elected on Nov. 8 as a State Representative for House District 60B in Minneapolis.

As a child, Omar and her family fled Somalia once the civil war broke out, and they lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years. After those four years, they immigrated to the U.S. when Omar was 12 and eventually moved to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis in 1997.

A Minneapolis Edison graduate, Omar discovered politics at an early age and went off to North Dakota State University to study political science and international studies. Since then, she has worked as a community health educator as well as a campaign manager and senior policy aide in the Twin Cities. Most recently, Omar was the director of policy and initiatives for the Women Organizing Women Network.

Ilhan Omar and her supporters
Omar and her supporters celebrate after she won the primary in August.
(Submitted photo)

In August, Omar won the DFL primary in House District 60B, defeating Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who was tied for being the longest-serving legislator in Minnesota history. Her Republican challenger, Abdimalik Askar, suspended his campaign later in August due to family issues, which meant Omar had little Republican challenge in the November election.

Shortly after winning the primary in August, controversy followed Omar. An article published in Power Line, a conservative website, raised questions about Omar’s marital status and whether she had committed immigration fraud by marrying her brother. She later responded to the controversy with a statement on her website, explaining her marital history and saying that the accusations were “false” and “ridiculous.”

ThreeSixty sat down with Omar in October, about a month before the November election, to talk her candidacy, her marriage controversy and the election.

Ilhan Omar head and shoulders photo
In November, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in U.S. history. She was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives to represent House District 60B in Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy of Nikita Gupta)

Awad: What was your childhood in Somalia like? And what was it like to live in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years before coming to the U.S.?

Omar: I was born in Somalia, in Mogadishu, the capital, and I was born in a neighborhood called Hodan, and we lived right next to the market. It was a very vibrant neighborhood to grow up in, and a very diverse neighborhood.

We ended up moving to a smaller place called Baydhabo. I started early in school. The traditional age you start school is 6 or 7. They had a weird requirement: if you lose your first tooth, then you’re old enough to go to school. Or for some kids it was, if you went to Islamic Studies … then you started. Most of my family were teachers and I was the youngest, so I ended going to school super early, because I just was complaining all the time about wanting to go. I started school at 4, first grade, and then we moved after second grade.

We were in Baydhabo until the war started, and then we moved back to the capital and then fled from there. I was about 8.

Then we came to Kenya, started out in Nairobi, made our way to Mombasa where the refugee camp was. It’s very different from a lot of the refugee camps that exist right now. A lot of refugee camps now that are still in existence are in desert areas. This one was in Mombasa, a coastal city, so it was very jungle-like, so we had different problems than the ones [such as] famine, the problems you have when living in a desert.

We had problems with malaria, so a lot of people were dying from malaria and there was a struggle for water that was sanitary. It was a little hard for people to be mobile … The refugees stayed in the refugee camp. And so for my family, since I was the youngest and the one less likely to get in trouble for leaving the camp, I would fetch water and wood, the necessities for the family. I didn’t really get to go to school or participate in a lot of the educational opportunities that existed.

About four years later, then we got the opportunity to come here. We came here when I was 12.

A: Your website says your interest in politics began when you were age 14, attending DFL caucuses with your grandfather and translating. Was there a specific moment when you realized politics could be in your future?

O: I think I always found politics interesting. My grandfather was born during colonial times in Somalia. The country was colonized, and it was freshly colonized when he was born, so he grew up with the ideals of freedom and independence. They were very politicized, because when you’re a country fighting for freedom, everybody knows about it. There’s a revolution happening.

He always shared those stories with us about what the struggle looked like, what life was like when they didn’t really have complete freedom in their own country. I listened to the news with him a lot. He’d translate for me because he listened to a lot of Italian news, and sometimes I translated for him the ones that were in English.

When he came to America, he was really excited about the possibility of getting involved in a political party without being part of an elite system. You didn’t have to be a particular class to be involved in grassroots political party functions. That was exciting to him.

I took him to his first DFL meeting, and I remember being excited for him because he really wanted to be in this room and finally felt like there was something tangible politically that he could do. I think that experience of this process that is tangible for us to use for good was intriguing and inspiring for me.

Knowing that there were accessibility problems, because people like my grandfather who were really excited couldn’t fully participate because there were language barriers, my thing was making sure that we made politics very accessible, especially party politics very accessible, to the people that the party is supposed to care about, is supposed to serve. And making sure that we lived up to our ideals of saying that, as the democratic party, it’s the party of inclusion, that it actually was inclusive for everyone. Throughout I would continue to attend my caucuses, I voted as soon as I could, took my grandfather to vote every election cycle, watched debates with him. So politics was sort of part of my upbringing.

A: Some Somali politicians like to appeal mainly to the Somali community, but you’ve also broadened your circles to people from different ethnic backgrounds. Why did you do this and how is that helping your campaign?

O: I always think of myself as someone who likes to work collaboratively and likes to build coalitions. Our district is one of the most diverse districts in the state, and the persistent problems in tackling our issues was that we weren’t unified as a district, as a community, to move an agenda that would be beneficial to all of us. When you’re thinking about a representative democracy, when you’re thinking about reflective democracy, you want someone who has fluency in all of the issues and the cultures of the people that they’re serving.

I wanted to make sure that if we’re saying that this is the problem with our current representation, that I wasn’t going to be a repeat offender of that. That I was going to make sure to include everyone in that process, that we were going to create a unified district, that we were going to create a coalition that would help us not only win, but would help us build a movement that can be used throughout the state, throughout the country, where people can see themselves as part of this process that is just for few, they can see themselves and they can see what it means to build power together, what it means to build power for community, what it means to build power for yourself.

A: There are so many communities in Minneapolis. I’ll see the younger generation mix a little bit, but at the same time parents and older people don’t always do it, so as a student you’re like, “Maybe it’s not acceptable. I don’t know.”

O: When I first came to this country, I came as a teenager, I was 12. I didn’t really speak English. I only knew three words of English. They were “hello” and “shut up.” They weren’t very helpful in having friends. I started out in Arlington, Virginia, so there weren’t a lot of Somalis or Muslims or people who look like me who I can instantly build relationships with together because of our identities. Being stuck in this isolated world of not having friends, not being able to communicate with anyone.

My dad was very encouraging to say, “You focus on learning the language, because once you’re able to speak English, you’re able to communicate with people, they’re able to understand you, you’re able to understand yourself, and all of the ‘othering’ that you find yourself in and that people see you as will disappear, because then you’ll just be peers. Then you’ll see your- selves as just teenagers [who] are trying to figure out how to survive middle school, high school, college, whatever.”

That sort of has changed my mindset of what it means to be in community. It’s once we are able to communicate together, once we are able to see each other as individuals beyond our cultures, our races, our genders, then we’re able to connect.

A: Take me back to the night you won the primary, beating Mohamed Noor and Phyllis Kahn, one of the longest-serving legislators in state history. When you found out you had won the competitive primary for House District 60B, what was going through your mind? What was your family’s reaction?

O: In order for me to answer that, I have to take you back. Today is actually the anniversary of the day I announced to run for office: Oct. 6 in 2015. …

It was challenging because a lot of people didn’t really think this was doable. A lot of people didn’t think that there was a path to victory. You have a 44-year incumbent, that’s already hard enough. And then you add another Somali candidate to the mix, which the media was very stuck on the fact that there are two Somali candidates, they’re going to divide the vote. That was the narrative they were interested in. They kept perpetuating this narrative that as a Somali, we’re only going to fight for the Somali votes. We can’t get other people to vote for us. The odds were starting to stack up against us. Then we got to the caucuses and sort of won the caucuses. I think about eight of the 12 precincts went our way. And then we got to the convention and then there were deals being broken, and we were there for 14 hours.

You needed 60 percent to get the endorsement. I got 55 at the last ballot, and then it was just stuck, it couldn’t move. It was really hard for a lot of the young people who up to that point were really excited about the tides turning, about this possibility of us coming together and seeing the bigger picture. …

I remember going through to the fifth ballot, making the announcement, “The convention is adjourned,” and I told my supporters that day that this wasn’t the end, that tomorrow we start door-knocking, tomorrow we start having conversations with people. If we believe in the possibility of our power and collectively what we are able to do, then we must continue, and we must continue stronger.

And so on primary night, it was sort of like a validation of all of our hard work, of the hopes and dreams we had of this belief in that sometimes the little man wins. That if you put in the work, that you will be rewarded.

The other thing that was pretty exciting on primary night, more than the victory, was that we did it without compromising. We did it without destroying our community, without playing dirty politics, without contributing to the chaos that people on the opposition were trying to create to divide our communities. That for me was more rewarding than the actual victory, was that we got to the finish line, but we got to the finish line together. And that was particularly exciting.

A: About a week later, there was controversy. Starting with an article in Power Line, a conservative website, the media began to question your marital history and whether you committed immigration fraud by marrying your brother to bring him into the U.S. You issued a statement saying the accusations were “absolutely false,” “baseless” and “ridiculous,” and later explained your marital history in a statement on your website. Looking back a couple of months, what is your reaction now that you’re a couple months removed from this ordeal?

O: My reaction is still the same. These are allegations that are very rooted in anti-immigrant fear-mongering, hateful allegations. And they are baseless. There is no immigration fraud, there is no wrongdoing in regards to how I handled it or why I didn’t address certain things during my campaign.

When I think back on the effect that it’s had on me, I think about the intended effect that people want it to have on me, which was to diminish our power, to sort of stunt the progress that our movement was making, to put a cloud over this tremendous, well-deserved victory that we had, and to sort of allow for that negative image that people want to portray about immigrants, to fall for it to exist.

They knew that I have no real opponent for my general election. As far as winning in November, they’re wise enough to make the calculation that that really isn’t going to make an impact. So this really wasn’t for me, it was for our com- munities. It was to cast a shadow over Somalis, over immigrants, over Muslims.

That is why I spoke, and what I want to fight against, and what I want to make sure that the particular news media that are interested in furthering a narrative that isn’t about the hard work that immigrant communities do; the positive contributions that Somalis are making for our state and for our nation; the thriving successful young people who are making a mark on this world, who happen to be Somali, Muslim, black; those of us who are overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve success that many don’t think is possible—those are the [news media] people that I am not interested in having them be part of my narrative or entertaining their ideas of sensational news and headlines.

I refuse for my campaign, for my community and for my religion to be used to sell papers and for negative narratives to be furthered about us.

A: If elected, you’d be the first Somali-American legislator in U.S. history. How does that make you feel?

O: One, it makes me hopeful that we can finally have representation in the level that a lot of people didn’t think would be possible because we are new immigrants.

Two, when you think about those who are representing us at a school level [who] are Somali, and those who are representing us at the municipal level [who] are Somali, they often struggle to make the case for their resources that they want to get for our communities. And now, that struggle will no longer exist, because I will be there to make sure that resources are allocated to our communities.

When you think about funding for schools and when you think about funding for city government, municipal government, and you think about funding for the county, the state does allocations for them. When we’re thinking about the resources that Somalis across the state need, when it comes to their needs as service providers or those of us [who] are public servants [who] are trying to make sure particular resources are allocated, these people, these Somalis [who] represent us at lower levels no longer have to beg and plead and make the case, because they will have someone like me advocating for them, who will be at that table, who understands what our needs are, where the barriers are and how do we go about making sure that there is equitable distribution of resources for all communities.

A: If you’re elected in November, what messages will you want to send to other young Somali men and women? And how do you think your candidacy will affect future generations?

O: I hope the effect that my election has is one that is inspirational, one that is a validation of what hard work looks like, one that tells young people that once we believe in our- selves, we put our trust in God, and we put our best foot forward, that everything is possible.

I hope most that not just young people but everyone sees that it’s a worthy investment to encourage young women in our communities to seek leadership positions, to seek public office, to not deter or create hurdles for them because they’re supposed to be the lesser gender.

I hope that to the young men, to the young women, to the parents, to the grandparents, that I set as an example what is possible for both their daughters and their sons.

This transcript was edited for length and content.