Meet Ilhan Omar: The United States’ First Somali-American Muslim Legislator

With the divisiveness, fear, and hopelessness that was brought with the election results came news to lift spirits. The news was the recent wave of women of color being elected to highly ranked political roles. One of these women was Ilhan Omar, the country’s first Somali-American Muslim House Representative.

Omar, 34, defeated a 44 year old incumbent to become the Democratic nominee in her state of Minnesota. She was then able to defeat the republican candidate to become the House Representative of District 60B.

Omar is not only Somali-American, but she is also a former refugee, a Muslim, and a mother of three children. Omar is the youngest of seven children. In 1991, she fled the Somali civil war along with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya. She stayed in the camp in Kenya for four years before coming to the United States in 1995. Settling originally in Arlington, Virginia, her family later moved to Minneapolis. Omar came to the U.S only knowing how to speak Somali. She quickly learned English and obtained her education at Edison High School and North Dakota State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies.  Not long after, she developed expertise in politics and business administration. After college, Omar worked various jobs in the fields of education, civil rights, human rights, economic empowerment, social justice, and politics. In September 2015, she became the Director of Policy & Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network.

Omar symbolized hope for many people. As a woman who has faced adversaries and belongs to multiple marginalized groups, she awakens the dying spirit that many people have post-election. Omar said herself, "I think I bring the voice of young people," "I think I bring the voice of women in the East African community. I bring the voice of Muslims. I bring the voice of young mothers looking for opportunities."

Omar’s statement certainly rings true. She is a big inspiration to refugee women, to young mothers, to women interested in politics, to Muslim women, to East African women. I can say personally as someone who felt completely heart-broken and hopeless about this election that Ilhan Omar revived my spirit. Seeing someone who I shared multiple identities with and who came from multiple marginalized groups that I was a part of gave me hope, and even though I do not know her, I connected to her story. Omar shows us why media representation and representation in politics is so essential, especially for young women of color. Having outstanding women of color represented in politics and media not only gives hope to young women like me, but it also awakens our strength, courage, and resilience to keep moving beyond the adversaries yet to come and to not allow fear to silence us.

Maram Elnagheeb