From Somalia to the Minnesota statehouse, a fresh new face in politics.
Inside a coffee shop in Minneapolis, Ilhan Omar grabs the cup her aide has prepared for her, takes a sip, and winces. Omar, America’s first and only Somali-American lawmaker, heads to the condiment stand and adds sugar—lots of it. The aide, a recent college grad, makes a mental note: More sugar next time. That’s how Somalis take it.
Last November, Omar won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives after knocking out the 44-year Democratic incumbent in the primary. But the sweetness of the 34-year-old’s historic victory was short-lived: Her election night festivities grew increasingly grim as the national electoral map turned red and she realized her first two-year term would be spent struggling to counterbalance a president who seemed to stand against everything she is: a black woman, a Muslim, a refugee. The next day, Omar sent her supporters an email with the subject line “Promise in the darkness.”
Less than a month later, she had a disturbing run-in with a Washington, DC, cabbie (of Nigerian origin) who called her “filthy” and “ISIS” and threatened to rip off her headscarf. (Last month, a DC judge fined the cabbie and suspended his license for 45 days for his behavior.) Then, just 24 days after her swearing-in, President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which blocked travel and immigration from Somalia and six other countries, became a new source of anxiety for her constituents—and her family. Trump was on the TV as she rushed out the door this morning, Omar tells me. Her four-year-old daughter turned off the set. “He doesn’t want us in his home, so we don’t want him in our home,” the girl said.
Back on the sidewalk, coffee in hand, Omar straightens her tan cashmere coat and walks through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood toward a large housing development. Its imposing high-rises, once featured in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, are a landing pad for the newest members of America’s largest Somali community, and Omar’s family has lived in all six of them. When she was 14, her family arrived in Minneapolis after four years in a refugee camp in Kenya and a brief stop in Virginia. It “was like home right from the start,” Omar says.
She learned English by watching TV shows—Saved by the Bell, Family Matters, Baywatch—and before long she was accompanying her father to Election Day caucuses to help translate. Like many Somali-born Americans, he was so thrilled to participate in the democracy that he would don his best outfit for the occasion. His idealism compelled Omar to study political science at North Dakota State University, where she organized the school’s first Islamic awareness week. She later became an aide to a Minneapolis City Council member and worked for a group that encourages East African women to seek civic leadership roles. “She immediately became our star in this election, and not only for the Somali community,” says Jaylani Hussein, a Somali immigrant who runs the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “It shows America can elect a Muslim woman who is everything that this country seems to be pushing away. She’s a symbol of the resistance to this idea that Muslims are a threat.”
In the smallest of the towers, we head up to a sparse one-bedroom apartment on the eighth floor. Two middle-aged women, Ruqia Adan and a friend, are sitting on an ornate couch with the shades drawn. Omar removes her shoes, revealing American-flag socks. Adan sets to work in the kitchen, mashing tea, boiling water, and digging into a giant tub of sugar.
Adan, who is a citizen and a registered voter, had visited Omar’s office the previous week with a problem. Omar translates: Adan needed to get power of attorney to bring her sister, who was hospitalized in California, to Minnesota. Omar informs her that she has found a lawyer who specializes in family law and is willing to help her pro bono.
Such requests are any state legislator’s bread and butter, but the high concentration of immigrants and refugees in Omar’s district has made her a sounding board for people’s concerns about the new administration. Two nights earlier, she’d hosted a community meeting. CAIR was there offering free legal advice, yet few Somalis showed up. As Omar explained, immigrants of all stripes were avoiding public events for fear of being harassed or detained by federal agents—even in this sanctuary city.
More women come around to Adan’s apartment—popping in without knocking—and things are getting a bit cramped. They’re here for a glimpse of this celebrity refugee who’s been featured in Time and People. The community is also abuzz with news that the feds arrested several immigrants outside Minneapolis a week earlier, and rumors that even longtime legal residents will need to start carrying papers to safeguard against deportation without due process.
Omar sips her tea with its hints of cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon. She turns to her assistant: “Camille, please have the tea. Because if you don’t, they’re going to keep asking me why you don’t like their tea.” After half an hour or so, she motions that it’s time to go—these women could chat all day. Back outside, her white headscarf bright in the sun, Omar heads toward the Islamic Civic Society of America building, where she has her district office.
Under Trump, law-abiding immigrants who might stand up to extremists “are going to be much less willing to do so.”
Omar’s biggest fear is that Trump’s actions and rhetoric will give rise to a new crop of Islamic extremists. “Our president is their best PR person,” she says. “It’s a perfect selling and promotional tool. The president says, ‘We are at war with Islam. We are at war with people who come from countries that are majority-Muslim countries. And we favor the people in those countries who are not Muslim.’ What more do you need?” Now, law-abiding immigrants who might stand up to extremists “are going to be much less willing to do so,” she adds. “You are no longer justifiable in saying, ‘America doesn’t hate us, the West doesn’t hate us, our faith is not on trial.’ Because it is, apparently.” The fight against radicalization hits close to home: Last year, nine young Somali-Americans from Minnesota were sentenced for planning to join the Islamic State.
When I meet her, less than two months into her term, Omar is already weary of being the center of attention. She’s survived a mini-scandal after a conservative blog reported on her two messy marriages. (The part about her marrying her own brother was not true.) Ask about her journey as a refugee and she now replies, “Just Google it!” But recognizing her symbolic value in the age of Trump, she retells her story anyway. “I feel like I am living in a weird Twilight Zone,” Omar admits. “Like I’m waking up into the 1940s, or into the 1800s: This is not real—it’s not happening. It’s hard to make sense of how we got here and how we get ourselves out of it.”