‘I had to figure out what it meant to be a bridge builder.’’
Life in Somalia before the civil war was beautiful. When the war happened, I was 8 years old and at that stage of understanding the world in a different way. We fled to Kenya and ended up living in a refugee camp for four years. We arrived in the U.S. when I was 12.
My family called me the “why kid” growing up. I always needed to know why something is happening, why I had to do something, why whatever. I still am that way. I constantly question myself, I question those around me, I question policy and reasoning behind everything.
I talk a lot about the men in my family because my mother died when I was little and my grandmother died when my aunts were little, so we didn’t have those kinds of heads of household. But all the members of our household who were female were sort of living as equal, and as wise as the male figures in our family. We didn’t really grow up in a gendered environment. We didn’t have a hierarchy. My family is fearless. They truly believe that they have something to contribute to society and that it is an obligation as humans. I try to embed in my children that they have something to contribute. And that you give because you have to, not to be appreciated.
When we were going through the relocation process they do an orientation of what your new home country is going to look like. The America we were going to was very glossy and picturesque—the only things that existed were white picket fences and beautifully mowed lawns and everybody seemed to have everything that they need. When we arrived, our first experience was driving through Manhattan. There was graffiti everywhere. Trash everywhere. Panhandlers and people who were homeless sleeping on the streets. I remember looking to my dad for answers. I said, “This doesn’t look like the America you promised.” He said, “Well we haven’t gotten to our America yet, you just need to be patient.”
Somalia is a majority black Muslim country and so is the camp in Kenya. When you’re growing up in an environment where your faith and your race are not topics of conversation, it’s really hard to come to an environment where all of that means something. Being black in the U.S. means something. There’s a history. Being an immigrant, a refugee, Muslim—all of those things represent an otherness that is not typical or easily confined into the social fabric of this country. As someone who grew up never really having to feel less than, it’s a hard reality to wake up to when you’re 12. I had to figure out what it meant to be a bridge builder-—what it meant to forge relationships that really never existed becomes the backstory to how I ended up where I am.
People think of Minneapolis as a very liberal, progressive city. We have a lot of immigrants here. The incumbent I was running against was a trailblazer when it comes to women in politics, so you would think that my gender wouldn’t be a big issue. But everybody wanted to make that an issue. To her, people were excited to vote for me because I was pretty. To the Muslim and Somali communities, my gender was a problem because politics is supposed to be a man’s role. Then there was the typical stuff that women candidates deal with—as a mother, how irresponsible I must be to want to run and devote as much time out of the home. No one ever asks the male candidates who are also fathers how they expect to balance family life. Gender was a big thing.
People said I should be proud of myself if I got even 10% of the votes, but I’m pretty competitive. I wanted to keep going so I could prove them wrong. I ended up pushing all of the negative things aside because I kept thinking, regardless of whether we win or lose, this will shift the narrative about what is possible.
Omar was elected on Nov. 8, 2016, to represent Minneapolis’ District 60B in the Minnesota house of representatives. As of November 2018, Ilhan Omar is also the FIRST Somali American elected to the U.S. Congress.