In 2016, Ilhan Omar made history when she was elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives, becoming the first Somali-American to win a state office in the United States.
Omar had humble beginnings, as her family was uprooted from her home country as a child during Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s. She came to America as a teenager after spending time in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Last year when she entered the Democratic primary race against an incumbent of more than 40 years, few gave her a chance. But door-to-door campaigning and outreach to young voters helped Omar increase turnout in the district by 35 percent and win an upset victory. Her general election victory in November made international headlines and inspired young girls around the world.
Speaking to VOA in our Washington office, Omar said her story shows what is possible in the United States, but also the need for protecting American ideals in the face of rising xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This transcript has been lightly edited to improve flow and clarity.
Salem Solomon: So there’s a lot of rhetoric in America in relation to accepting refugees and immigrants. President Donald Trump … he’s making an effort to decrease the number of refugees entering into this country. Do you believe your story and the story of somebody in Minnesota shows the value of accepting refugees? And if someone would say they believe refugees are a drain or even a threat to American society, what’s your response to that?
Ilhan Omar: I think we forget that for a really long time, this country has been a place that has welcomed many refugees who have made it home and have tremendously contributed to this country. And so it is not just about the successful story of the Somalis in the U.S., but of the Hmong and others who have come here and who have made this country their home and we know how much they’re contributing to the societies that they live in.
And it’s unfortunate. This is a country that often has rhetoric that is about acceptance and now we are turning our backs on the most vulnerable people in the world. And most of the countries that are currently on the Muslim ban, we know that most of the conflicts that are happening in those countries and the reason people are fleeing their country has to do with America’s quest on democracy … There is an involvement of our government in those conflicts in those countries, and we can’t go and start a fire and say that we can’t save the people who are inside.
Solomon: There’s a lot of rhetoric around Islamophobia. Do you still believe that this is a country that welcomes people who are fleeing from different kinds of oppression? Do you still believe this is a country that welcomes people, despite the rise of Islamophobia and Islamophobic rhetoric?
Omar: Yeah, I really do. I believe in the ideals of America, in liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. And I believe that this is a country that is founded on those ideals, and there are a lot of people in this country that still believe in those ideals and there are a lot of people that go out of their way to make America a welcoming place for others. In just my own neighborhood, you can’t go one block without seeing a sign that says, you know, everyone’s welcome here, refugees are welcome here, I love my Muslim neighbors, and so there is truly this spirit of generosity and compassion and openness that still exists.
But what we are seeing right now is that there are people who … have forgotten what the identity of their country is supposed to be. And they’ve forgotten what those ideals are supposed to be, and so many of us don’t recognize those people. We’re trying to make sure that they are waking to their senses, and that they realize that they are in the wrong and their fear is misplaced.
Solomon: Speaking of another form of fear in your community … measles. There are anti-vaccine campaigners that are specifically targeting your Somali constituents, going so far as translating some of the documentaries into Somali, so they can penetrate people (and convince them not to get vaccinated for measles). What are the efforts that you are putting forward to address this issue?
Omar: We’ve had multiple community meetings to have a conversation about where the fear is coming from, where the misinformation is coming from, and how could we infuse actual facts into that process. We are in a very oral community and word of mouth is very much trusted. It’s our most common source of information and so we’re trying to equip a lot of different people with proper truthful information and actual facts so that they can have conversations with their neighbors and their family members … I sought funding for that and we secured $5 million in this year’s budget to make sure that we are able to do some nature of education in regards to measles and other infectious diseases.
Solomon: What type of efforts are you implementing to address or avert young Somalis who might be misinformed and are susceptible to extremist ideologies? (Editor’s note: Dozens of Somali-Americans have gone to Syria or to Somalia over the past decade to join militant groups such as Islamic State or al-Shabab.)
Omar: I think it’s really important that we sort of step away and we think about what causes people to radicalize in this particular political climate that we’re living in, and really have an honest conversation about our politics and the politics of the United States and what our foreign policy has been … We know that a lot of these young people feel pretty angry and upset, and avenues don’t exist for them to have a discussion about what’s happening with them.
We know that when people are civically engaged, when they understand what their rights are, when they understand that in a democracy you can challenge governments, you can challenge policymakers and you can … actually, shape and form future policy, I think it changes the perception that a lot of young people have about where power is. And that isolation and that powerlessness that makes them vulnerable to being radicalized I think goes away. So for me, it’s making sure that people understand that they have a lot more tools in their toolbox, as citizens and as people who can be a productive member of their society.