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Refugee Women in Politics That You Should Know About: Ilhan Omar

They smash gender norms, they challenge entrenched beliefs: Welcome to Day 2 in our 'Refugee Women in Politics' series. Today we are profiling Ilhan Omar, the first EVER Somali-American Muslim women, and refugee, to be elected to the House of Representatives.


Ilhan Omar arrived in the United States aged 12, after having spent the last four years in a Kenyan refugee camp. When she arrived she spoke no English, but she learnt to speak it... in only 3 months!

Yeah I know, pretty amazing right? From the age of 14, Omar would accompany her grandfather to caucus meetings where she acted as his interpreter.

Although learning the language proved easy for Omar, the sociocultural transition was more of a challenge. In her interview with Time magazine, Omar speaks about the difficulties she and her family faced when moving to America: the myriad cultural adjustments they had to make, and the pervasive sense of judgement she left with regards to her religion.

In Kenya, most of the population are Muslim and their faith is just a facet of ordinary life- but in America there are many connotations associated with Islam, and Omar had to get used to being questioned, and stigmatized because of it.

However, Omar's experiences engaging in complex and difficult discussions taught her how to become a 'bridge builder', and these early lessons helped prepare her for a life in politics.

"Being black in the U.S. means something. There’s a history. Being an immigrant, a refugee, Muslim—all of those things represent an otherness that is not typical or easily confined into the social fabric of this country. As someone who grew up never really having to feel less than, it’s a hard reality to wake up to when you’re 12. I had to figure out what it meant to be a bridge builder-—what it meant to forge relationships that really never existed becomes the backstory to how I ended up where I am."


Ilhan Omar studied Political Science & International Studies at North Dakota State University where she was an active member of the Muslim Student Association.

In her early career Omar had various roles within the Minnesota Department for Education, and managed the campaign of two state elections, the second of which was successful, and through that she became Senior Policy Aide.

In 2015, Omar was also made the Director of Policy & Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, an association which advocates for women from East Africa to take on civic and political leadership roles.

Omar's policies are progressive and built upon the needs and wishes of her whole community: 15$ minimum wage, criminal justice reform, empowering women in politics and entrepreneurship, state divestment from fossil fuels, and free college tuition for low income families.

During her election campaign, Omar saw an unprecedented amount of support from the student community and East African migrant community, as well as longterm residents. Previously disenfranchised groups united in support of Omar, and she managed to increase voter turnout by over 30 percent, to unseat the former incumbent, who had held his seat for 44 years!


Omar's election to the House of Representatives was hugely symbolic: a sign of peace and unity at a time of deep racial and economic segregation in America.

Omar's election also coincided with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, and Trump was quick to use Omar's recent election as a talking point in his campaign speeches: "Everybody's reading about the disaster in Minnesota. Everybody."

Check out what Trump says, and Omar's response here:

Trumps mud-slinging has been met with dignity from Omar, who has even invited him to come and spend a day with her, to see what the Somali-American community is really like. Trump's offensive comments are a prime example of the sort of bigotry and misplaced anger that Omar has had to constantly deal with, indeed, in 2014, she was physically attacked by five people at a caucus, which she had chosen to attend despite warnings that it could be dangerous.

But despite all the abuse, Omar's calm composure and optimism in America remains unchanged, and she continues to campaign for her policies of inclusion, equality and multi-cultural respect:

“For me, this is my country, this is for my future, for my children’s future and for my grandchildren’s future to make our democracy more vibrant, more inclusive, more accessible and transparent which is going to be useful for all of us."

MOVING FORWARD Since her election, Ilhan Omar has been tirelessly pursuing her policy goals, and is not shy when it comes to speaking her mind.

In an interview with Fader magazine, Omar describes the surprise and disapproval from fellow legislators at how vocal she is:

"Another way of looking at why complacency happens is that we get so comfortable with what is the norm. Right now as a legislator, everyone thinks I’m supposed to say a certain thing or do a certain thing, and when I don’t they’re surprised like, “You’re a freshman aren’t you afraid about this?” It’s like, “No, this is not supposed to be about what my place is as a freshman or what my place is as a politician; I’m supposed to change the conversation and speak authentically and I’m supposed to put forth the things that are actually important.” I think all of us are looking for that authentic kind of leader; we’re pretty tired of political speeches and politicians with their well-formulated messaging and the ideas of what gets you elected and what doesn’t."

We hope you enjoyed this article and we hope you'll join us tomorrow for the next in our Refugee Women in Politics series. Have you read our Day 1 article on Golriz Ghahraman? If not, check it out now! See you all tomorrow!

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