Meet Ilhan Omar, The First Somali-American U.S. Legislator…And She's Muslim

Meet Ilhan Omar, The First Somali-American U.S. Legislator…And She's Muslim
Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty

In a year where immigration reform was a great topic of discussion, with racist and ignorant rhetoric thrown about, stories like Ilhan Omar can give us hope.

Ilhan Omar is the first Somali-American woman to be voted into state office. A proud Muslim who wears a hijab without apology, in November she was elected to be a Minnesota State Representative. Omar's story is amazing—she is only 34-year-olds and has achieved the American dream after coming to this country as a refugee when she was just 12-years-old is amazing.

As a child in Somalia, she witnessed the civil war first hand. “The war started when I was eight,” says Omar in People Magazine. “One night militia tried to break into our home, and the exterior was riddled with bullets. My family left our neighborhood, passing through dead bodies and debris.”

After fleeing Somalia, her family stayed in a refugee camp in Kenya where they lived for four years. But the camp wasn't much of a home. Omar reflected that they were essentially homeless. “I would fetch water, and my family would reward me with a shilling at the end of the day, so I would go see a movie in the village next door in a makeshift theater: a hut.”

For four long years they stayed in the camp, waiting to hear if they would be allowed access anywhere else. Fortunately, when she was 12, the family received an American sponsorship and moved to Arlington, VA.

The first years weren't easy. Omar had missed out on years of school and spoke little English. But by studying hard and watching TV with the captions on, she learned quickly and started to thrive.

At the start of high school the family moved to Minnesota, where Omar had to find a place to fit in all over again. Though the students had little experience with multiculturalism, Omar began to make friends. She started a unity and diversity program to bring disparate students together to celebrate differences and their many similarities. "I was finally just ‘Ilhan,’ not ‘that Somali girl.”

Excelling in her political and international studies at North Dakota University, she moved back to Minnesota where she ran a city council campaign, worked for city hall, and now is a Minnesota State Representative. 

“My election win offers a counter-narrative to the bigotry in the world. This is a land of immigrants, and most come here for opportunity, a second chance. It’s our time to fight for the America we know we can have.”

Standing up for the right of women and minorities has never been more important. Yet despite the fervent anti-Muslim statement given by our President Elect, Omar has nothing but hope. If a female Muslim refugee can get so far, so quickly, there's no telling what great deeds await in her future.

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