May 30, 2020


This Is What America Looks Like review: Ilhan Omar inspires - and stays fired up (Charles Kaiser, 30 May 2020, The Guardian)

They fled to Kenya, where they faced malaria, dysentery and near starvation. The family survived in a refugee camp for 334,000 people, bartering kidney beans for kerosene and batteries for a radio. When she needed entertainment, Omar snuck under the barbed wire to walk to a nearby village, where an enterprising Kenyan charged a few shillings to watch movies on his TV. When six children who were distant relatives lost both their parents, Omar's family looked after them, Ilhan paying special attention to the baby, Umi.

Her father discovered that they could apply through the United Nations to go to Norway, Canada or Sweden. But the US was his first choice.

"Only in America you ultimately become an American," he said. "Everywhere else we will always feel like a guest."

Miraculously, a year after their first interview they were allowed to apply for America. Ilhan was upset, partly because the orphans couldn't come with them, but the rest of her book is the astonishing story of a voyage from Nairobi to New York to Minnesota, then barely 20 years later to Congress.

The family's first stop was Arlington, Virginia, where the combative Ilhan spent most of her time in detention. But then she decided, she writes, "that my education was the one element of my life I had full control over, and given the long hours of studying in detention", by the time they moved on to Minnesota she "had become a very good student".

At her new school, "Africans fought African Americans over who was blacker. Muslim kids and white kids fought over US policy in the Middle East. Latinos against African Americans, Africans against Native Americans."

But Ilhan began to display her talents as a community organizer. She joined a group of students determined to "improve racial and cultural relations" by founding Unity in Diversity, "essentially a training program around diverse leadership".

Her next stop was North Dakota State University, after a friend told her it was searching for students, offering scholarships and a "very low cost of living". Back in Minneapolis after graduation, she immersed herself in the Democratic Farmer-Labor party, first working to defeat ballot initiatives to require photo IDs for voters and to outlaw gay marriage. 

She figured out a winning narrative: both were threats to freedom and civil liberties, a message that worked with communities of color and white rural Minnesotans. No anti-marriage equality initiative had ever been beaten until then - the same year Barack Obama was elected president.

Omar was elected to the state legislature in 2016, then to the US Congress in 2018, as one of the first two Muslim women in the House. She feared she would be banned from the House floor by an ancient rule barring hats, which would have prevented her wearing her hijab. Nancy Pelosi fixed the rule.

...African, Muslim, female.

Posted by at May 30, 2020 7:52 AM