MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA — The foundation of Democrat Ilhan Omar’s historic primary election win to represent Minnesota’s 5th District in the U.S. Congress was built on a simple campaign message.
“I am a millennial with student debt,” the 35-year-old state lawmaker told an audience in a crowded auditorium at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs during a pre-election forum with two of her competitors, both of them older.
“And a renter,” she added, someone who isn’t ready, or can’t yet afford, to purchase a home.
It was a simple yet effective message by Omar, conveying that — despite her origins in Somalia and the hijab upon her head — she was just like the many younger, progressive and liberal voters she needed to court in the Congressional district she seeks to represent.
It was ultimately a winning message, both now… and two years ago when she first made history in her election (which her campaign says saw increased voter turnout by 37 percent) to the Minnesota state House of Representatives.
Khalid Mohamed agrees with Omar’s policy positions, and hopes her personal experience coming from a Kenyan refugee camp will shape the ongoing debate in Congress over U.S. immigration policy.
“As a refugee,” says Mohamed, “she had experienced the struggles of being a refugee, and the vetting process, and something Donald Trump has not understood quite well.”
“In my last race I talked about what that win would mean for that eight year old girl in that refugee camp,” Ilhan Omar emotionally explained to the jubilant crowd gathered for her primary election night victory party, acknowledging her improbable journey from Kenyan refugee camp to the doorstep of the U.S. Capitol. “And today, I still think about her. I think about the hope and optimism, of all those 8 year olds out of the country. And around the world.”
Many in Minnesota’s Somali Muslim American community are refugees like her, and Omar’s election represents an opportunity to change public perceptions — and misperceptions — about their circumstances, and their faith.
“Often our community are deemed as not very supportive of in terms of gender, especially towards females or women,” says 25-year-old voter Khalid Mohamed. “It would show the world and everyone in the state of Minnesota, that we often uplift and encourage Somali women, Muslim women, to run for offices… to be part of the democracy that we have here in America… to participate and also to vote. It will showcase that often the media portrays us that we oppress our women as a Muslim community – we always tell them what to do and they don’t have a freedom – but that would totally tell a different narrative today.”
Mohamed also believes that Omar’s election sends a message of hope to not just a larger religious community, but an entire continent.
“For her to be the first African born congresswomen, I think it’s a big deal on the continent,” he said. “It sends a message to everyone from Africa… that you might be a refugee, you might have come here as an immigrant, but you have rights, and you can be whoever you want as long as you put the work in.”
Work that begins for Omar after a November general election that she is also likely to win, as the district she seeks to represent heavily favors Democratic candidates.