Ilhan Omar gets our #Firestarter superlative in our first-ever #MGTop8. The #MGTop8 highlights fearless changemakers that are making an impact on elevating Muslim women’s voices. To view the rest of our #MGTop8, click here.
Gunshots rung out one night as attackers broke into the Omar family home, destroying walls with bullets and leaving lasting imprints of the terror that Somalia had broken into in the year of 1991.
This is one of Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s earliest memories. Thankfully, Ilhan and her entire family made it out safely by hiding fearfully inside their house. The attackers left the Omar family distraught in the dark of night, hoping the violent perpetrators wouldn’t be back for another round. Omar recounts the attack with perfect recollection, even though she was so young, and says that she will never forget the sight of bullets embedded in the walls of the place she once thought of as her peaceful abode.
Ever since Ilhan Omar was a young girl living in Somalia, she has been an incredibly resilient, immensely driven person. When Ilhan was only eight years-old, Somalia was weathering a period of significant change. While the change appeared to be mostly beneficial at first – Somalia was finally transitioning from a European colony to an independent nation and its people were working on overturning the rule of a military dictator, President Siad Barre – the changes ultimately turned against the people of Somalia. Since the country is separated into clans based on geography, marriage, and status, this wave of change brought with it a horrific civil war between clans. Ilhan’s family was only one of the many, many families that were attacked, shaken to their core, and left with little hope that things would get better for their country any time soon.
Ilhan Omar was born in Mogadishu and was raised by her father in Baydhabo, Somalia with six older siblings. Sadly, her mother passed away when she was still very young. She always says that the men in her life helped shaped her. Ilhan credits her three brothers, her father Nur Mohamed, and her grandfather Abukar, all of whom helped her become the amazing woman she is today. Her father worked to train others to become teachers and, before the war, they lived a fairly prosperous life for a large family in Somalia. Ilhan always knew they were blessed compared to some of the people living in neighboring areas. However, when the war broke out, she remembers how hard it was for her grandfather to come to grips with the fact that their family was no longer welcome in the country they had been calling home for so long.
This was painful for Ilhan because she cared greatly for her grandfather and wanted him to be happy, but alas, Ilhan and her family decided to seek refuge in Kenya. With contacts in the new country, her grandfather thought it would be the safest place for them for the time being. But after his contacts told them they couldn’t stay with them anymore, Ilhan and her family ended up spending four years at the Utanga refugee camp right outside of the coastal hub of Mombasa, Kenya. Though it, too, was supposed to be a safe haven, Ilhan recollects feeling fear in her heart every day, never knowing when something bad could happen that she would have no control over. The fear of getting malaria was constant as well, in addition to kidnappings, where the kidnappers usually targeted the heads of families.
Four long years of intense trepidation and extremely poor living conditions later, Ilhan’s family was granted entrance into the United States by a Lutheran church. When first arriving in America, Ilhan knew no English whatsoever, but she was a bright girl and taught it to herself very quickly. She even received “orientation to America videos” from the federal government to help her with her English, as well as help her get acclimated to the American way of life.
At first, Ilhan admits, she didn’t like the United States at all. She says it wasn’t at all what she expected. But her father promised her it would get better. Getting used to life in the United States, especially during school hours, was tough for her, but she got the hang of it after some time and patience. They resided in Virginia for a while, but eventually her entire family made one last move to Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis. There she graduated from Edison High School, and then went on to get degrees in political science and international studies from North Dakota State University.
Ilhan credits her grandfather for her initial exposure and interest in politics. She had an incredible desire to change how the world operated around her. Quickly, she made connections with people, growing her network before she even knew it. Her technique was to intertwine party politics with grassroots advocacy, because a huge part of her will always have a place back in Somalia and among immigrants in general.
A recent quote by Ilhan Omar that stood out to me is, “I think there is a feeling by some people in politics and in my own community that the woman can think she’s leading all that she wants, have a semblance of influence, but the ultimate voice rests with the man… I am not one who subscribes to that belief.”
So even though her mother was not there to raise her, and she was raised mostly by strong men, Ilhan let that shape her into an even stronger woman. She is not someone who continues to pass on the legacy that only men are able to make the final decision in most situations, but she is a legacy in herself, a strong semblance of female strength and perseverance.
Since her start in politics, Ilahn has accomplished a great deal. One of her most admirable accomplishments is her involvement with the Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, an organization that strives to empower Minnesota’s women (mainly immigrant women), to become engaged leaders in their communities and to show that they have a voice.
Ilhan is a Policy Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She was officially elected into state legislature on November 8th, 2016, and began her term in January of 2017. This made her the first Somali-American Muslim woman to become a state representative, a much needed light in the darkness that currently is the government.
Some of the things she adamantly advocates for are more affordable college tuitions, a criminal justice reform, economic equality, and a clean energy bill. She’s also issued a bill to allow Muslims in Minneapolis to be able to celebrate Ramadan more easily, by asking businesses to extend their hours for the month of Ramadan, coordinating with the fasting schedule. In total, she has already issued a total of 190 bills during the short time that she has held her position, showing just how passionate and driven she truly is.
A couple of awards that Ilhan has received are the Rising Star award in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014, the Community Leadership Award at the African Awards in 2015, and the honor of being on the cover of TIME magazine’s “Firsts: women who are Changing the World” issue in 2017.
On top of all of this, she is also the mother to three beautiful children. At only 34 years old, she has been through and has accomplished so much, and that’s why she lands in our #MGTop8 with the #Firestarter superlative. She has been blazing a trail for advocacy and change all the way from Somalia, I can’t wait to see what other changes she brings about in the years to come.
Power to you, Ilhan!