In a Turkish grill house in the Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood of Minneapolis, the tables have turned. Habon Abdulle, the woman I have spent days pursuing for an interview, wants to know what I think about US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
The question catches me off guard. But I should have anticipated it.
Abdulle knows that a few days earlier I’d had a chance encounter with Omar at a Somali shopping mall in southern Minneapolis. I had barely walked into the mall when I had seen a small crowd taking selfies with Omar. I waited for one, too.
Omar, as the first Somali-American to make it to the Minnesota state legislature and then to Congress, is part of a new cohort of path-breaking politicians daring to challenge not only US President Donald Trump but the broader American political establishment.
But Omar is more than just a congresswoman with fight. She is a refugee from a country that is now part of the president’s Muslim ban; she is black, visibly Muslim; a walking antithesis to Trump’s purview of America.
Within months, she has shaken the halls of Congress. As an “other” she is now the embodiment of what is fast becoming a fight for America’s soul.
I had gone to Minneapolis to find out who Omar is and what she means to the people who know her. What was it in her journey from war-torn Somalia and a sweltering refugee camp on the Kenyan coast to a second childhood and adolescence in Minnesota that was key to unlocking who she is and where she may be headed? These were some of the questions still swirling inside my head.
“So, what are your first impressions?” Abdulle persists, to my dismay. I am here to ask the questions, after all.
But when it comes to understanding Omar’s political journey, all roads lead to Abdulle. As a mentor and a confidante, she is one of the main reasons Omar ran for political office. I feel compelled to sound out my thoughts. And wait.
Abdulle gently nods and smiles. “Yes, that’s Ilhan.”
Coming to America
Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia in 1981. She lost her mother when she was two-years-old, leaving her father and grandfather to raise her along with six other siblings.
By the end of the 1980s, Somalia was in the grip of a rapacious civil war, and Omar’s family fled the country, ending up in the Utange refugee camp, close to the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa in 1991. For four years, the family toiled in Utange, where conditions were rough and facilities rudimentary.
In 1995, the Omar family were among the fortunate few to secure sponsorship for resettlement in the United States, which was deeply tied up in the civil war in Somalia.
The family touched down in Virginia and finally made their way to Minneapolis, in the midwestern state of Minnesota, where around 50,000 Somalis now live. Omar swallowed the brochures about the land of the free and remembers arriving with the perception she would be living in a just and equal society. She discovered America was a little more complex than anticipated.
“When I arrived, I saw these American ideals, but there was still work needed to be done in full realisation of it,” she tells me over the phone.
Under the tutelage of her father and grandfather, Omar was raised to believe that if something was not working as it was meant to, one had to take corrective action, and that she had a responsibility to do so. Omar’s father, Nur Omar Mohamed, worked initially as a taxi driver before joining the US Postal Service.
“My grandfather used to say that everything we get to enjoy as people of colour came about because people were willing to fight for progress,” Omar says. “If we want to see further progress for us, then we have to get involved in creating that.”
When she was 14 she took her grandfather to vote, in what she describes as her entry into civic life. In high school, she helped form the “unity in diversity programme” to try and address the racial, cultural and ethnic challenges the school faced.
“What has always driven my activism has always been in seeing myself as part of the solution in creating that change,” Omar says.
“I was never the type of person who threw your hands up and believed that nothing could be changed.”