Muslim and former refugee wins Minnesota house race

Many Americans were disappointed Tuesday night when Donald Trump, whose campaign has been accused of Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-feminism, was elected president of the United States. Yet with 34-year-old Ilhan Omar becoming the first Somali-American legislator in the United States and the first Muslim woman to hold office in Minnesota, there is hope for a more tolerant future.

Ilhan Omar is a Somali-American activist, former refugee and Democrat who defeated a 44-year-old incumbent during the Minnesota state primary and claimed a strong victory in Tuesday night’s election. Her experience as a refugee and as a Muslim has affected her experience in America.

When war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, Omar was forced to leave her home and move to a refugee camp in Kenya. She was eight years old at the time. Four years later, she came to the United States, joining a wave of Somalis who settled in Minnesota. At age 14, she started becoming involved in local politics by attending Democratic caucus meetings.

Once in the United States, Omar experienced some rejection as a non-English speaker. But slowly, things began to improve. According to the Huffington Post, Omar said, “As soon as you can communicate with people, then you’re able to build friendships, then the otherness of being an immigrant, being Muslim, East African, black, would disappear because you can talk to them and they’ll see you for who you are.”

As Omar began to develop her political identity, she started to recognize how her religious background influenced her political approach to collaboration. The Huffington Post reported Omar speaking about the importance of her faith:

“One of the core values is that you are always trying to build consensus. So when it comes to figuring out if something is permissible or not in Islam, it’s usually a discussion and people have to come to a consensus in order for something to be approved.” This yearning to build consensus led Omar to emphasize bridge-building in her political goals.

Omar’s faith has also helped her develop an appreciation of justice and equality. “I think a big part of my faith teachings is to work together towards equality, that we’re all created equal and under the eyes of God, we all have a right to freedom and to access our rights equally. From that premise, I work for equality, and I work to make sure our systems are just for all of us.”

While Omar is proud to represent other Somalis, she did not run for state legislature solely for their benefit. She recognizes that she represents a very diverse community, and said that while she wants to be an uplifting voice for other Muslims and refugees, she is working “on behalf of everyone.”

Omar is also conscious of the significance of winning in this election cycle specifically: “I think that this is the first time in my lifetime and probably in our nation’s history where we have a candidate who [used] Islamophobia to incite people to vote.” Considering this pervasive Islamophobia, Omar said is it particularly important that our generation sets a “different trajectory” for what the nation is going to look like.

Finally, Omar hopes that her actions as a legislator will inspire others who have been often overlooked by American society to recognize their own strength and ability to be empowered: “Oftentimes, when it comes to minorities and women, we are only encouraged to run when the demographics are in our favor and discouraged when the demographics are not. I hope my candidacy would allow people to have the boldness to encourage people who don’t fit into that particular demographic to seek office.”