Ilhan Omar's Path
On November 8th, 2018, the state of Minnesota welcomed Ilhan Omar as one of the first Muslim women to become congresswoman. This was not commonplace nor was it anticipated. If you are familiar with the current state of affairs in United States government, then you, too, would want to know about this Somali woman who is representing the people of Minnesota. In order to understand what seems as an emergence into government, it is only right to take a step back and become acquainted with her history. It is through revisiting history that we are reminded of the resilience of individuals and ultimately the power of their story.
Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia. At that time, her nation had already been plagued with coups to overthrow the government, distribution conflicts of resources among clans, and lack of representative leadership for its people. Similar to the infamous period of apartheid in South Africa, clans would fight over resources that were distributed to African groups and this ultimately led to violence throughout the nation. Consequently, the violence and unstable government forced Ilhan and her family to flee when she was a child and sought asylum in the United States.
As refugees, she and her family had to undergo a rigorous and often times discriminatory process of becoming citizens of the United States to ultimately build a home in a foreign land. I say discriminatory because there have been reservations and apprehension towards engaging with and welcoming those who are not only darker than you, but also speak a different native tongue for the past decade in the States. The hatred of the other is only irritated even more when that native tongue is considered to be the language of a stereotypical “terrorist”. Although these labels of a Muslim woman such as Ilhan Omar are flat out wrong and misleading, we must remind ourselves that hatred does not thrive off of logic and understanding. She did not create this false narrative of her people, but she did have to acknowledge how this would affect her well-being stateside. Her livelihood depended on it.
Thankfully, she recognized that she was not alone in realizing this truth. It is believed that what drew her to Minnesota was because of the significant Somali community. As a reader, we are all familiar with the xenophobic questions and comments that foreigners may receive. “You don’t belong here!” “Go back to your country.” “This is America. We speak English here!” “What is that you’re wearing?” These are some of the countless scathing remarks that she and her people may hear. It is the idea that America is reserved for only a specific group of people when in fact this land was occupied before. What amazes me about her life stateside is the intentionality in which she came to Minnesota. Initially, a newcomer is full of hope especially when entering a new situation, but what happens when others in your community begin to lose that sentiment?
There’s also something to be said about someone who becomes the first of their kind to be a part of a predominantly white, male-dominated institution. One would have to ask about what the changes that would take place as a result of working with someone who does not share your gender, race, or faith. In Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop, he recounts the early days of attending Emory University as a black student. At that time, it had been predominantly white. It was his presence and academic intelligence that caused his white counterparts to realize, for the first time in some cases, that there was no need to label or give credence to others based on ethnicity because everyone’s ethnicity was the same until Dyson entered the building.
This noticing is also prevalent when it comes to welcoming Congresswoman Ilhan Omar into office. Some may notice the difference in the fact that they may mispronounce her name. Some may notice the difference by her history or ethnicity. Some may even notice the difference by their interaction with her. What remains the same is the nation in which she represents. She, among, many other exceptional women, have become the result of what happens when the American people join together, exercise their right to vote, and allow all voices to be heard. Her campaign and victory reignited the said hope in her community.
And here we are. All eyes on her. While learning about her background, it would not be farfetched to declare that she was built for such a time as this. Civil war completely shook her foundation. Immigration in the United States also came with its own hardships. And now she is operating as one of the first Islamic women in Congress to bring hope and opportunity to not only the Somali community, but every resident of Minnesota. I believe that the people have found her to be a relevant leader. Relevant in a sense that she understands the plight of the American people because she is a living witness to holding on to hope while facing adversity.
Her new role as Congresswoman reminds me of the works of Naomi Alderman’s The Power simply because there has been an undeniable shift in the power structure of congress. Ilhan Omar and other successful women have fearlessly stepped up and boldly declared that they would serve as the people’s leader without boasting or bragging. Becoming a congresswoman might be a daunting idea to others. Fortunately, Ilhan Omar has a track record of dealing with new situations, learning a new language, living in a new country, and ultimately gaining the trust of the Minnesotan people to fight for a new hope.