Democratic politician Ilhan Omar arrived in the United States as a refugee and became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
Who Is Ilhan Omar?
Ilhan Omar fled Somalia’s civil war as a child and spent four years in a refugee camp before her family received asylum in the United States. She became a U.S. citizen in 2000 and in 2016 won a seat in the Minnesota House. In 2018, Omar was elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th district in Congress. She became the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women in the U.S. House. She is also the first to legislate from the House floor while wearing the hijab. Omar is a progressive politician who is a member of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party. Her memoir, This is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman, was published in 2020.
Omar was born on October 4, 1982, in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her mother passed away when Omar, the youngest of seven children, was 2. After this loss, her father, sisters and aunts took care of her. Omar grew up at her middle-class family’s compound in Mogadishu, where her grandfather didn’t enforce traditional gender roles.
Omar’s childhood was upended by Somalia’s civil war. When she was 8, her family fled the country. They ended up living at a refugee camp in Kenya for four years.
Omar and her family were granted asylum in the United States in 1995. The family first settled in Virginia, where Omar confronted bullies while attending middle school.
When she arrived, Omar could read some English but couldn’t speak it. One tool her family used to get up to speed conversationally was watching reruns of Baywatch.
Omar moved to Minnesota in 1997. Her family settled in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which is home to many Somali immigrants. Her father drove a taxi before getting a job with the post office. She became a U.S. citizen in 2000 at the age of 17.
Omar went to Minneapolis’s Edison High School and graduated from North Dakota State University in 2011.
Omar’s interest in politics was sparked by accompanying her grandfather to Democratic caucuses so she could be his interpreter. She later worked as a community organizer and volunteered on campaigns.
In 2016, Omar unseated a 44-year incumbent in a Democratic primary and was subsequently elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives. Her campaign for this seat was covered in the documentary Time for Ilhan. Omar’s win made her the first Somali American woman in the Minnesota House.
Omar was elected to the U.S. House in 2018 to represent Minnesota’s 5th district, which contains most of the city of Minneapolis. Her positions include support for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She is the whip for the progressive caucus. Along with three other progressive congresswomen — Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — Omar is a member of “The Squad.”
Omar’s arrival in Congress resulted in the lifting of a 181-year-old ban on head coverings on the House floor so she could wear her hijab while fulfilling her duties.
Her decision to wear the hijab was influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as she wanted to signify her cultural identity. She has stated, “I knew we had a responsibility to help shape a narrative about our faith that is positive.”
Attacks on Omar
While she was running for the Minnesota House, conservative sites and online forums spread a rumor that Omar had married her brother in order to help him immigrate to the United States. Omar denounced the claim as “absolutely false and ridiculous.” Subsequent fact-checking by news organizations revealed no evidence to support the accusation.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, he lied that Omar had said she was proud of Al Qaeda. He also called for Omar, and other “Squad” members, to “go back” to where they came from, and labeled Omar “unpatriotic.” Chants of “send her back” about Omar were heard at Trump rallies.
During the siege at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Omar was evacuated to the same place as senior leadership because law enforcement considered her a potential target (she has received numerous death threats). She’s said of the attack, “It was a very traumatizing experience, and all of us will be traumatized by it for a really long time.”
Omar has been accused of antisemitism. In one instance, she was criticized for a February 2019 tweet that declared, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!” in regards to supporters of Israel in Congress. She apologized for her use of antisemitic tropes, but soon afterward described Israel’s advocates in America as promoting “allegiance to a foreign country.”
In what was seen as a rebuke of Omar, a House resolution condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry passed in March 2019. The resolution also condemned Islamophobia, which Omar considered a positive step because “millions of people finally feel like the most powerful body in the world is able to see them and acknowledge their existence.”
In 2020, she explained how she had “moved past” her earlier statements: “I talk about Saudi blood money and them being bloodsuckers and no one says ‘This is Islamophobic,’ but I know if I use those terms for another country, that could be [a problem]. And so you learn what history is tied to words. As someone who didn’t have an understanding, I now do.”
Omar married her first husband, Ahmed Abdisalan Hirsi, in a religious ceremony in 2002. After having two children together, daughter Isra and son Adnan, the couple’s relationship deteriorated. They followed Islamic procedure to end the union in 2008 (they had not been legally married).
Omar had trouble coping after the end of her marriage in 2008 and went so far as to shave her head.
Omar eloped with British citizen Ahmed Nur Said Elmi in 2009. Elmi is the man who has been accused, without substantiating evidence, of being her brother.
The marriage between Omar and Elmi ended with a religious divorce in 2011. Omar reconciled with Hirsi, with whom she had a third child, daughter Ilwad, in 2012. Though Omar remained legally married to Elmi, she filed joint tax returns with Hirsi in 2014 and ’15. She later paid a fine and back taxes to rectify the matter.
After legally divorcing Elmi, Omar legally wed Hirsi in January 2018. She filed for divorce the next year and their marriage officially ended in November 2019.
In March 2020, Omar Islamically and legally wed Tim Mynett, who had worked for her as a political consultant. His former wife had accused Omar of having an affair with her husband in her divorce petition.