Somali, Muslim, refugee, woman: Ilhan Omar made history in all those categories last night as voters backed her bid to the US Congress.
The 36-year-old Democrat candidate was resoundingly elected with over 78% of the vote in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, joining the surge of fresh new candidates who helped the Democrats take back the House. Her Republican opponent Jennifer Zielinski got only 22% of the vote. Her election was among many firsts in the high-stakes midterm polls, including the victory of an openly gay governor in Colorado, and the first Native American women elected to Congress from Kansas and New Mexico.
Born in Somalia, Ilhan fled war with her family and grew up partly in a refugee camp located in Kenya. She moved to the US with her family in 1995, aged 12. In 2016, she became the first Somali-American woman elected to state legislature in the US. The mother of three then decided to run for Congress this year after Keith Ellison, an African-American Muslim and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, vacated the seat to run for attorney general in Minnesota.
Ilhan campaigned on a progressive agenda including reforming the criminal justice system, creating a $15 minimum wage, providing universal health coverage and subsidizing college education.
Ilhan’s win is a demonstrably personal achievement for her and a symbolic triumph for the Somali-American diaspora. (Along with Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, she is now poised to become one of two first Muslim women elected to Congress.) The community has in recent years faced scrutiny even as they pushed for more integration, launched successful businesses and made political strides.
This was heightened during the Trump presidency, with the administration instituting a travel ban on countries including Somalia. This only helped to galvanize the community, pushing many of them to run for office and make history alongside Ilhan last night. Her state seat in District 60B in southeast Minneapolis was clinched by Mohamud Noor, who became the first Somali-American man elected to state legislature.
As results started trickling in, Ilhan’s triumph elicited hearty responses from Somalis across the world. Dancing to the popular Somali song Dirgax, she noted the historic moment, reflected on her dire upbringing and thanked the people of the North Star state for believing in the potential and strength of immigrants.
“Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants; we send them to Washington,” she said.
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