• Politics

‘I Believe in My Work.’ How Rep. Ilhan Omar Rose From Refugee to Trump’s Top Target

12 minute read

Dahabo Mohamed, a freshman at Richfield High near Minneapolis, is patiently waiting in the school’s auditorium to meet her Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. Omar has just finished giving remarks to the student body on a Tuesday morning in late May, and the line of students ahead of Mohamed means she will lose part of her free lunch period, but she doesn’t care. It is rare for her to see someone in a position of power who looks like she does—a Muslim woman in traditional garb—so the free time can wait. “For people like me who wear a hijab, to see her doing what she’s doing is inspiring,” she says.

Omar’s decisive victory last fall was a groundbreaking moment for American Muslims. The 36-year-old former refugee is the first Somali American to serve in Congress. She and her colleague Rashida Tlaib are the first two Muslim-American women to serve in Congress. Congress had to change its rules to allow her to wear her hijab on the floor. For many American Muslims, her election was a sign they were inching toward full acceptance in American society. But since she arrived in Washington, Omar has been embroiled in controversy. Members of her own party, including top leadership, publicly rebuked her after she made comments many deemed anti-Semitic, and she introduced a resolution Wednesday that has potential to re-ignite that debate. Minnesota regulators alleged in June that, as a candidate for the state legislature, she misspent over $3,000 that she is now responsible for reimbursing. President Donald Trump distorted her comments about 9/11 in a Twitter video insinuating that she supported terrorists. Her office says she has received hundreds of death threats.

Then a dramatic series of confrontations propelled her once more, even further toward center stage in national politics. First, Omar and three other women of color from Congress’s freshman class clashed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic Party leaders over a funding bill for aid to address the crisis at the southern border, laying bare the deep division between the old and new guard in the House. Then Trump, beset by multiple failed attempts to address the border crisis himself, launched a racist Twitter attack against these four freshmen, saying that if they didn’t want to be in America, they should “go back.” This rhetoric persisted throughout the week, with Trump singling out Omar at his rally in North Carolina, and the crowd responding with chants of “send her back.”

Trump’s comments caused outrage and triggered a temporary unification of House Democrats, who passed a resolution on July 16, largely along partisan lines, condemning him for his comments. But they highlight how Omar has become an object of intense division. Her opponents see a left-wing ideologue who criticizes the country that gave her shelter: she came to the U.S. as a refugee at age 12 and is the only one of the so-called Squad of four freshmen who was actually born abroad. Her defenders say she is standing up for core American values in the face of rising racism. For her part, Omar accepts that she is a target for the President and his allies. “The right wing, Trump, the Republicans, white supremacists [launch] attacks on immigrants, refugees, black people, women, Muslims,” she tells TIME. With her, she says, “They have all of that in one box.”

Representative Ilhan Omar
Omar speaks at a press conference following Trump's racist Twitter attack on July 15, 2019.Gabriella Demczuk for TIME

But for all the attention, little is known about Omar’s background, political ascent and work on Capitol Hill. Interviews with the Congresswoman and over a dozen of her associates and constituents reveal a complex portrait. She is neither the radical bogeywoman portrayed by the President, nor is she the savior some on the left want her to be. At her core, she is an ambitious freshman member of Congress with a unique history that simultaneously propels her forward and pushes her back, a subject of interpretation and fascination by all sides. Her story may end up saying more about the state of politics in America than that of virtually any of her colleagues.

Understanding Omar’s place in American politics requires understanding the Minneapolis Somali-American community she grew up in and represents. Over 50,000 Somali Americans live in Minnesota, the largest population in the U.S., many in the densely populated neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside. Often called Little Mogadishu, after Somalia’s capital, the enclave is to Somali Americans what New York’s Lower East Side was to Jews at the turn of the 20th century, or what Lowell, Mass., was to the Irish after the potato famine. Signs for halal meat and imported African wares are everywhere, in both Somali and English, and women clad in hijabs are the norm.

It was in this neighborhood that Omar and her family settled over 20 years ago after fleeing Somalia’s long-running civil war between al-Qaeda-allied Muslim fundamentalists and a succession of weak governments and brutal warlords. As a small child at a sprawling refugee camp near Mombasa, Kenya, Omar listened as her father and grandfather talked glowingly about the land in which they hoped to live. “The America that my dad and grandfather were excited about was an America that had prosperity for all, an America that had a fair and just system,” she says.

Omar says that when she arrived in 1995 after America offered the family resettlement, she found the tales of equality and opportunity to be something of a fantasy. She had no idea her skin color and religion would make her a minority, and in Virginia, where the family stayed temporarily on their way north, she told the New York Times she was the subject of taunts from classmates. Minnesota, reputed at the time for its educational opportunities, was better, she says. Her high school administrators encouraged those from different ethnic backgrounds to find common ground, and Omar remains grateful. “The culture here is that you care for one another,” she says. “And for Somalis, who have a communal culture, it is easy to get connected to a place that strives to create community.”

Representative Ilhan Omar
Omar meets with residents of her district at a community event in Minneapolis, May 28, 2019.Annick Sjobakken for TIME

Omar’s family, she says, was among the first to arrive in Cedar-Riverside. She recalled she was one of a handful of Somali Americans when she began high school, but says that number had climbed to over a hundred by the time she graduated. But she has seen the community struggle over time. Violent crimes in Cedar-Riverside rose by more than half in between 2010 and 2017, and the area has seen significant gang conflict. More than 250 Americans had left to join ISIS or other militant groups, according to a 2015 congressional report. Of the cases reviewed, over a quarter were from Minnesota, and many of them were Somalis. Despite electing Minneapolis’ first Somali-American city council member in 2013, the community often still feels like they have yet to be fully accepted.

Trump’s election in 2016 highlighted these woes, not least because he called out Minnesota on the eve of his victory. “You have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state,” he told a cheering crowd at an airport hangar in Minneapolis. Two days later, Omar would make history by ascending to the Minnesota state legislature to represent the very community he was denigrating. And whether she knew it or not, that contrast would end up consuming her political trajectory.

Omar didn’t run for office to spotlight the plight of the Somali community. Her political base was actually young progressive activists, many of whom she had worked with as a community educator at the University of Minnesota. She decided to run against 44-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn after she met with the elderly mother of her future campaign chair, who felt she was not being heard. Omar saw the political opportunity to make inroads with this demographic, and seized it. She championed a progressive platform during both of her campaigns, advocating for the cancellation of student debt, expanded health care and stronger environmental regulation.

Whatever her political agenda, Trump’s attacks and her groundbreaking candidacy mean her background dominates her public image. She knows exactly what she represents to girls like Mohamed, the high school freshman who waited in line to meet her, and some in the community not only view her presence in Washington as an inspiration but also see her as their champion in D.C. “We felt very relieved once she was elected,” says Abdirahman Kahin, a family friend. “If anything happened to us she would be the voice and bring people together on our defense.”

Representative Ilhan Omar
Omar on Capitol Hill with a staffer (center) and her daughter, Isra Hirsi (right), on July 15, 2019.Gabriella Demczuk for TIME

Omar started out strong on Capitol Hill. She landed a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, joined the Congressional Black Caucus, became whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and has used social media and liberal policies to gain an unusually high profile. Within the progressive faction of Congress, she is known as a workhorse who deals with less sexy pieces of legislation like rules packages and budget caps. She has co-sponsored over 200 bills and took the lead on a proposal with Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal to eliminate $1.6 trillion in student debt. She’s also gained a reputation for fearlessness in meetings on issues close to her heart, like immigration from Africa and female empowerment.

But her repudiation of fellow Democrats who don’t sign up for progressive policies has irked party leaders and more moderate caucus members who argue that she doesn’t represent the majority views of the caucus and is endangering the party’s majority. Few of the bills she has sponsored or co-sponsored have passed the House of Representatives, and they have been overshadowed by her rhetoric.

In a Twitter exchange in February, Omar said of congressional support for Israel, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Omar’s tweet has since been deleted. But Pelosi and others condemned the comments, and Omar quickly apologized. But a month later, she told a group at a Washington bookstore, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Many of her Jewish colleagues and constituents thought she was insinuating they harbored dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel, another anti-Semitic trope. Republicans seized the opportunity to paint the entire party as anti-Semitic and hostage to Omar’s views.

Back in Minneapolis’ St. Louis Park, which has a large Jewish population, Omar’s comments shocked some. “They were really hurt and disappointed and scared,” recalls Rabbi Alexander Davis, a senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in the neighborhood. Others feel Omar is being singled out for who she is and what she looks like. “Some of my progressive allies who are quick to criticize the Congresswoman and other folks for invoking anti-Semitic tropes might need to examine where the strength of that response is coming from,” says Beth Gendler, a Jewish constituent from the neighborhood.

Omar harbors similar beliefs, although she is apparently learning the Washington skill of conveying them delicately. When we discuss these incidents, nearly five months removed and thousands of miles from Capitol Hill, in her district office in downtown Minneapolis, she attributes the criticism to “preconceived notions.” People who are not from her background “have said a lot worse things,” she says. But, she quickly adds, “that is a very human thing and it’s one that we always have to be conscious about.” The tension embedded in such statements may come to define Omar’s career. Critics see in them a lack of responsibility for her own words, or even a hostility to the country that gave her shelter.

For her part, Omar seems content to embrace her role as provocateur, lightning rod and activist. “I believe in my work,” she says, and “the way I show up in society should define who I am.”

Those sentiments were evident on Wednesday when, in the midst of attacks from the President, she and her colleagues, Reps. John Lewis and Tlaib, introduced a resolution that would only give him additional fodder. The resolution supports the constitutional right of Americans to participate in boycotts “in pursuit of civil and human rights.” Although no organizations were mentioned by name, some took it as a firm show of support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which urges companies to forgo business deals with Israel as a form of pressure to provide equal rights to Palestinians. “The timing of this is terrible and makes it very hard to support her,” Avi Olitzky, another Rabbi at Beth-El in St. Louis Park, told TIME.

But these acts don’t change the fact that, for many in the Somali community in Minneapolis, she represents the future. Near Mohamed in line to meet Omar at the high school auditorium, another young woman of color jumps into the conversation as she waits to meet the woman who has broken barriers to rise in America. “Seeing that she can do it, it means I also can do it,” the girl says.

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com