Ilhan Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia on 4th Oct 1982. She was the youngest of 7 siblings and her father was a colonel in the Somali army. Her mother passed away when she was only 2 years old and had to be raised by her grandfather. Her family was relatively well off and were moderate Sunni Muslims who opposed the rigid Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
In 1991, Omar and her family had to flee Somalia to escape the civil unrest in their country. They fled to Garissa County in Kenya, near the Somali boarder and spent 4 years in a refugee camp. It was during this time that Omar experienced firsthand what real hunger felt like and what death really looked like.
Photo credit: omar.house.gov
The family managed to secure an asylum to the US and arrived in New York in 1995. Naturally, they were excited, especially Omar as she thought this is the promised land where there is equal justice for all. But soon realized, reality is far from the ideology.
In the US, the family spent a year in the Washington suburbs before settling in Minneapolis. While in Washington, Omar recounted how she was regularly bullied by middle school students. Her realization that she was on the extreme end of society, being dark skinned, a Muslim and extremely poor, instilled a sense of determination and gallantry in her.
As a teenager, Omar acted as an interpreter for her grandfather at Democratic Party caucuses. This is where she discovered her passion in politics. In 2011, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State University, majoring in political science and international studies.
Her political career started as campaign manager for Kari Dziedzic’s re-election campaign for the Minnesota State Senate. In February 2014, while serving as a senior political aide to Andrew Johnson in the Minneapolis City Council, she was attacked by 5 people during a contentious precinct caucus that turned violent and suffered multiple injuries. Even though she was warned the day before the meeting, Omar insisted on her right to be there.
A year later, Omar became the Director of Policy Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, advocating for women from East Africa to take on civic and political leadership roles. Overtime, she was recognized for her political activism and was identified by Jeff Cirillo of Roll Call, a newspaper in Washington, as a “progressive rising star”.
On the 5th of June 2018, Ilhan Omar filed to run for the US House of Representatives and would eventually win with 78% of the vote to become the first Somali American elected to the US Congress. With Omar’s win, the ban on head coverings in the US House was modified and she became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.
Though the balance of equal representation in the US congress is still far from ideal. The acceptance of the Hijab in the House is a positive sign that we are moving towards a more egalitarian society. One that does not look at a hijab as a covering but as an expression of one’s belief and the right to express that belief.