Yesterday I got to hear Ilhan Omar speak. She’s the first Muslim woman elected to a state legislature (Minnesota House) in America, and without seeming to brag—of course that happened in Minnesota.
Needless to say, she had to overcome some pretty big odds to get where she is today, and needless to say, she was inspiring.
She was born in Somalia, she told us, the youngest of 7—but the family fled when she was about 8 to escape that country’s civil war. Her mother died, so she was raised by her father and grandfather for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, before an American family sponsored them to allow them to come to the U.S. Her grandfather, who grew up under tyrants, passed down his belief in representative democracy to her. She brought those beliefs to America.
But the America she had dreamed of, as a child does, upon finally arriving she was ...not disappointed, but surprised.
“We dreamed of everything available in America—a land of abundance, where everyone had everything they needed. But I did not arrive to a country that had fully realized its own goals,” she said. “It was not the America of my imagination.”
“It was the first time I realized I was black,” she told the audience. “That I carried a stigma of being an immigrant and refugee, and experienced the exclusion that came from being a Muslim. This was an America unfinished.”
So now she’s working to make it the America of her imagination. To ensure our society is defined by equity, fairness, and justice.
She holds trainings for women to run for office, to make their voices heard, and it was heartening to see all the young women (and men) in the audience, and how much she clearly inspired them. She says we all have a responsibility to recognize other’s struggles. To do that, she says, is simple: “All we have to do is talk to people. Visit with them and broaden our coalitions of love and acceptance.”
And she says of our president, “The president (all presidents) will become stories of the past. The obligation of humanity is to build community...growing up in a refugee camp, you come to realize how important this is. Our decisions should be one of long-term strategy.”