Ilhan Omar’s victory Aug. 14 in the DFL primary for Congress is a cause for celebration. Her triumph is especially gratifying for those in Minnesota and beyond who value opportunity and democratic inclusion.
Omar is well-positioned to become the first Somali-American and female Muslim member of the U.S. House. Moreover, she may enter the House with another Muslim woman, Rashida Tlaib, who won a Democratic primary in Michigan.
Omar’s political rise from state representative to congressional candidate implores us to consider how she achieved so much political success — against the backdrop of rising hostile and hate-filled rhetoric aimed at both Somalis and Muslim Americans — in a few short years.
In 2016 Omar was elected to the Minnesota Legislature, becoming the first Somali-American elected to a state house. She was an against-the-odds candidate, because Somali-Americans are often viewed with suspicion even in the communities they call home. Her election provided the media with a positive story about new Americans thriving in our democracy.
Omar’s success is a sharp contrast to the negativity espoused by America’s current president. During a 2016 campaign stop, then-candidate Donald Trump failed to acknowledge the progress being made in the Twin Cities to incorporate Somali refugees into the fabric of the larger community. Rather, out of ignorance or political expediency, he reiterated many misperceptions about such refugees, stating, “Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state, without your knowledge, without your support or approval.”
Trump went on to falsely state that “everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota.”
During Omar’s 2017 appearance on “The Daily Show,” she told host Trevor Noah, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.”
The hope that Omar mentions was apparent when I was conducting fieldwork in the Twin Cities in 2014 for my book “Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus.” At the time, Omar was a City Council staffer, already a well-known presence in the community and a source of inspiration to young Somali men and women.
During one interview with a group of Somali youth leaders, one woman told me: “She fights for what she believes in and has a public presence. We admire her willingness to stand up for the things she believes are right. She’s smart and knows how the system works. … She’s our mentor.”
This aligns with the theory that when young people have role models in public life they’re more likely to feel included and consider careers in public service, I suspect many young Somalis/Muslims were inspired by her historic first.
Omar’s victory is not the only Somali-American political success story in Minnesota. There are now several Somali-Americans in elective office. Others have run unsuccessfully. With so few women or people of color running for office proportionally in the United States, this trend is promising.
The success in Minnesota is also the result of innovative initiatives by political, business and charitable leaders in the state to expand opportunities and incorporation of Somali refugees and other recent immigrants. Outreach efforts have led to employment of Somalis in state and local government agencies and police departments. A growing number of Somali-Americans hold positions of leadership in labor unions.
Indeed, the Twin Cities are often viewed as a model for innovation by policymakers from regions around the world struggling to incorporate refugees into their communities. The combination of so many Somali-Americans’ desire to serve the public and the receptiveness of various community leaders has created opportunities for a group often vilified and condemned by white nationalists and their panderers.
We should all be proud of Ilhan Omar and the other Somali-American Minnesotans who have chosen public service in order to strengthen their communities. Political and economic leaders in other states should take a close look at how Minnesota has opened doors for new Americans eager to be part of our democracy.
Stefanie Chambers is professor of political science and chair at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of “Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus: Immigrant Incorporation in New Destinations,” published by Temple University Press. She is producing the documentary “Dreaming in Somali: New Americans in the Twin Cities.”