‘To be immigrant is to be American’: Candidate poised for historic election victory

Ilhan Omar is poised to make history.

On Nov. 8, she is set to become the first elected Somali-American woman in the country. She’s running for a seat in the Minnesota House, and with no opponent on the ballot, is virtually assured victory.

She won her August primary with the most votes anyone has ever earned in the district. She defeated incumbent Phyllis Kahn, who had represented the area for 44 years, and helped break up the “boy’s club” of the Minnesota legislature. She called Omar’s election “a new historic event” for the district.

“I made the decision to run for office because I knew that we needed a different voice representing us,” Omar told Refinery 29. “There is a beauty and uniqueness in living in one of the most diverse districts in the country.”

Omar was born in Somalia and moved to the U.S. after living in a refugee camp in Kenya, where her family fled when civil war broke out. She lived there for four years, alongside 30,000 other refugees, mostly from Somalia.

“To be a refugee means to be in between,” Omar said. “The refugee camp was sort of where I developed my resilience.”
After being sponsored by a Lutheran church, Omar’s family arrived in the U.S., eventually landing in Minneapolis. That city has one of the largest East African populations in the country, with many who also fled civil war in Somalia.

“Being an immigrant, it’s not a dirty word. It’s not something to feel bad about or to be shamed for or to be ostracized and outed for,” Omar said. “It is to be American. To be immigrant is to be American.”

She is a community organizer and has been active in progressive politics, working for a Minneapolis City Council member and the state’s Democratic Party, the Democratic-Farm-Labor Party (DFL). She has three children and is the director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women.

Omar said she is looking forward to representing all the people in her district and facilitating dialogue between people of different backgrounds.

“There is a huge diversity in class and in socioeconomics. What is the responsibility to people in upper middle class society to those who are their neighbors who are struggling?” Omar said. “These are the kind of conversations I’m looking forward to having in a unified district that sees themselves as one.”

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