Ilhan Omar's improbable journey from refugee camp to Minnesota Legislature

itemprop

The night sky mirrors Ilhan Omar’s mood: gray and funky. The 33-year-old Somali-born Minnesotan is known for keeping her face toward the sun. But on this August eve her Crest White smile hibernates.

Omar gazes at the floor. There will be no talk tonight about moving “forward together.”

Omar needs time to feel sad. Not because she’s ashamed of something she did, but because choices in her past are hurting people she loves, especially her three kids.

“My [13-year-old] daughter is old enough, she sees and hears things, and I can’t protect her,” Omar says. “She’s starting to ask questions. What I don’t understand is why is it every time the TV stations have a story about my shit they use a picture of our whole family?”

Two weeks before, Omar was the belle of the ball. Her DFL primary win over Mohamud Noor and 44-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn catapulted the former refugee to the doorway of the Minnesota House. Come November, Omar will become America’s highest-ranking Somali elected to office. (Her Republican opponent, Abdimalik Askar, suspended his campaign in August.)

Allegations of bigamy and immigration fraud arrived 72 hours later. What was a political career primed for flight was now battered on the tarmac.

itemprop

During the heaviest days of the marriage controversy, Omar “could’ve cared less” about her uncertain political fortunes. It was her kids she was thinking about.

“If she can come out of this, I think she’ll emerge as a more powerful figure,” says Hamline University professor David Schultz. “People love her kind of story. It represents a new kind of leader in Minnesota politics. At this point who knows how this will play out.”

Omar knows. She rights her turtled posture, sits straight, and peers out the window. She’s reminded of what her grandfather taught her when she was a little girl in Somalia.

“Everything is temporary,” Baba Abukar said.

“Everything is temporary,” Omar repeats. “But right now, I am sad. Sad and angry.”

Mogadishu to Minneapolis

Omar was born into a village of her own, the youngest of seven.

Her mother died when she was little. Men would shape her. Three older brothers, father Nur Omar Mohamed, and her grandfather, Abukar, especially.

Aunts and uncles worked as civil servants and educators. Omar’s father trained teachers. Theirs was a blessed life as Somalia began the transition from European colony to independence.

Her grandfather rode the winds of change to Italy, where he attended university. He returned to his East African homeland, becoming Somalia’s National Marine Transport director. Abukar oversaw the string of lighthouses along the Arabian Sea coastline.

Privilege accompanied this kind of pedigree. Books and culture were priorities inside the home, which was more like a compound, complete with domestic help. In a country where 80 percent of the population farmed and raised livestock, Omar started kindergarten at age four.

But Somalia was a fragile country. Civil strife soon threatened to swallow it.

About 12 million people occupy this land about the size of Texas. It’s overwhelmingly Muslim. Genealogy unites and divides.

Somalis belong to clans. These ethnic cliques can be about geography or marriage. Some possess age-old beliefs of superiority and consider members of sub-clans unsuitable for marriage, even friendship.

In 1991, the reign of Somali President Siad Barre imploded. The country had had enough of his Cold War-style military dictatorship. Barre was ousted, the national army disbanded. The ensuing vacuum devolved into a war among clans, turning neighbors into enemies. Omar witnessed this firsthand when she was eight years old.

Nighttime fell as about 20 people milled about the compound in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. Bad noises outside announced unwelcome visitors. Men with big guns demanded to be let in. The group tried to bust down the front door, but it was unbreakable. Omar and her family fell to the floor moments before the militiamen let go a staccato of gunfire. Once they were satisfied with the evening’s damage, the attackers left.

itemprop

“She was so present, so sincere in her beliefs about issues,” says Minneapolis City Council candidate Andrew Johnson about the first time he met Omar in early 2014.

Everyone survived. Omar hasn’t forgotten the sight of bullet pockmarks in the building’s cinderblock walls.

Shellshock turned to grief for Omar’s grandpa.

“That was a hard realization for my grandfather, that our family was no longer welcome,” she says. “Even after the attack, he struggled with this new reality.”

Days later, they put their familiar world in the rearview mirror. They split into groups, 20 people in total fleeing. Omar’s headed for the coast where Abukar had connections. Alongside her father, she hopped a plane for Kenya.

“You go from knowing a life of certainty and joy to one where everything is uncertain,” she says. “My family chose to go to Kenya because my grandfather had contacts there.”

She lived with strangers in and around Nairobi. Memories of waking up each day feeling fear left mental scars.

Her dad and grandpa looked for a new country to call home. But immigration to a place like Canada, England, or the U.S. wasn’t happening anytime soon. At least Kenya wouldn’t kick them out.

itemprop

According to the University of Minnesota’s Lawrence Jacobs, “the real political ingenuity” of Omar is her ability “to speak to multiple communities.”

When the goodwill of Abukar’s contacts expired, two bad choices were left: live on the streets of Nairobi, a city of 10 million, or go to one of the refugee camps within Kenya.

The Utanga camp outside the coastal hub of Mombasa splayed across four square miles. Beneath the trees of the jungle canopy were beige tents as far as the eye could see.

Somalis made up most of the camp’s 30,000 refugees. Waiting to use an outhouse could eat up half the day. The threat of malaria was 24/7. The same could be said for personal safety — for some more than others.

Kidnappings for ransom loomed as the largest rogue activity at the UN camp. Since kidnappers usually targeted heads of families, Omar was tasked with fetching firewood and water. The routine lasted four years.

Finally, a Lutheran church sponsored Omar and her family for entry into the U.S.

Her American education began with orientation videos courtesy of the federal government.

“There were ones about grocery stores. What a highway looked like. It introduced you to what a shopping mall was,” says Omar. “It was green lawns and white townhouses.... Everything is beautiful. Everything is grandiose. Everything is just. All of these polished things you sell to the outside world.”

itemprop

City Council Member Abdi Warsame says that two years ago Omar “wasn’t that important.” That’s no longer the case.

Their plane landed in New York City. Staring out a car window, Omar, age 12, felt ripped off. This wasn’t the same country as the one in the videos. Instead, it was a headache of car horns and homelessness, an eyesore of trash and graffiti.

She turned to her father in disbelief: “This doesn’t look like the America you promised.”

We’re getting to our America, Ilhan, he replied. You have to be patient.

They made the 230-mile drive south to Arlington, Virginia. It wasn’t long before Omar was sitting at a school desk. Her English at the time consisted of “hello” and “shut up.”

Classmates stuck gum to her headscarf when they weren’t trying to yank it off. None of her peers bothered to communicate, even to say hi. They stared instead. The new kid sat solo at lunch, a loner during recess as well.

Omar’s English improved. Then came her classmates’ questions: Does it feel good to wear shoes for the first time? Do you really have hair? Do you have a pet monkey?

“I’d say the kids were curiously brutal,” says Omar, “but the lunch ladies were kind to me.”

Back at the home where she lived with her father and siblings, change would again be in the works. Omar’s dad and older sister Sahra were having conversations about better schools, prospects of economic mobility, and becoming part of an already-established East African immigrant community.

Their road trip took place in the summer after Omar finished eighth grade. They were headed to a new land, where they’d heard “the people there were supposed to be nice,” Omar says.

The journey would end in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis.

The teenager grew into a young woman over the next four years. She’d graduate from Edison High.

Omar credits Abukar for first exposing her to politics. In 1997, her grandfather planned to attend the DFL precinct caucus at the Brian Coyle Center. But he needed his 14-year-old granddaughter to act as translator.

Omar’s eyes grew big walking into the bright lights, rainbows of campaign signs, and hundreds of conversations in different languages.

“The whole thing was just big. Not just physically with a lot of people, but what it was a part of,” she says. “There was this platform. People could put forth ideas that could contribute. Knowing a conversation in a small room with someone could be released into the universe and become part of something much larger, there was something intoxicating about it for me.”

Omar wanted more. She reached out to those she believed could teach her.

Jamal Abdulahi was one of them. Ten years her elder, Abdulahi would one day become a state DFL director and chair of the party’s Somali caucus.

“At our first meeting over coffee, I sensed she was the kind of a newcomer to politics with enough ideas that with minimum guidance she would go out and figure out the rest,” he says. “Even then, she was pretty explicit she wanted to get involved in organizing and electoral politics. I told her to go to her precinct caucus.”

She studied political science at North Dakota State, then returned to Minneapolis to work at the University of Minnesota. She’d show up at DFL meetings, volunteering whenever she could. Plunging into the deep end of activism meant serving on the boards of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit law firm specializing in restorative justice, and the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, a charity working to integrate new immigrants.

As Omar intertwined grassroots advocacy and party politics, her profile grew. Not everyone would embrace it. She knew this would happen.

“Political power in Somalia rests with men,” she says.

“I think there is a feeling by some people in politics and in my own community that the woman can think she’s leading all that she wants, have a semblance of influence, but the ultimate voice rests with the man.... I am not one who subscribes to that belief.”

Omar vs. Warsame

By early 2014, the former refugee had grown into her own kind of American-style multi-tasker. Her longtime yet imperfect relationship with Ahmed Hirsi had been blessed with three children. She worked as a public health educator, teaching about good eating habits while moonlighting in activism.

The latter brought her face to face with little-known Minneapolis City Council candidate Andrew Johnson.

A twentysomething IT geek and campaign greenhorn, Johnson decided he’d run for a seat representing the city’s southeastern neighborhoods of Longfellow, Nokomis East, and Standish-Ericsson.

With Johnson canvassing for early support, Omar vetted the rookie candidate on behalf of the New Americans, an East African political action committee.

Johnson was struck.

“She was so present, so sincere in her beliefs about issues,” he says. 

Johnson would eventually tap Omar to be his campaign manager. Together, they’d win the council race. She’d serve as his policy advisor, which afforded observers an infrequent portal into the jockeying within Somali politics.

The day before February 2014’s precinct caucus in Cedar-Riverside, Abdi Warsame, the first-term Minneapolis city councilman whose ward captures a large portion of the East African immigrant community, called Johnson into his office.

Warsame had become the highest elected Somali-American official in the U.S. four months earlier. He wanted Johnson to pass a message to Omar.

“Warsame told... Johnson he should warn [Omar] to stay away from the caucus or there could be trouble for her,” MinnPost reporters James Nord and Briana Bierschbach would report.

The message baffled Johnson as he made the short walk back to his office. Omar’s tears multiplied as he explained what had transpired.

“I didn’t know what exactly he meant,” Johnson tells City Pages. “I told her no one should tell you to stay home and not be involved in democracy. That’s ridiculous.”

Warsame denies the conversation ever took place.

“This was an attempt to besmirch my name,” he says. “I don’t know why people would say that. I know we live in a very biased society.... When you happen to be one of the only Muslim, black, immigrant, and Somali elected officials, of course people want to throw mud at you.”

Hundreds crowded the precinct meeting. Omar’s job as a district vice chair was to ensure there was no chicanery.

An hour before the scheduled start, a group of supporters for Mohamud Noor, a Minneapolis School Board member vying to unseat state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, had congregated inside the building. Attendees would later describe the event’s energy as charged, and not in a good way.

A contingent of Kahn’s faithful soon walked in. An argument between the camps disintegrated into swinging arms and cocked legs.

A group of what was reported to be five people converged on Omar. She’d suffer a busted lip and a concussion.

Warsame says he wasn’t at the caucus, although it was no secret he supported Kahn.

Omar would become a Noor campaign volunteer.

Warsame still dismisses the notion he and Omar are somehow adversaries.

“You also have to remember, in 2014, Ms. Omar wasn’t that important,” Warsame says. “As I said, I don’t know her very well.”

The diplomacy is lost on Omar. She characterizes Warsame as an old-school bully and modern-day sexist.

“I think the disdain between us stems from that first conversation he had with... Johnson,” she says. “I have never understood or appreciated [Warsame’s] brand of misogyny.... To say I have a voice, that the women in our community won’t be silenced, I believe is ultimately what led to me being attacked.”

Body parts ached and brain funk hadn’t fully lifted as Omar arrived for work the morning after the attack.

Her eldest daughter urged her to get back to her City Hall desk ASAP. The girl said she needed to show the people who want to intimidate her that “they don’t have control over you.”

Noor would eventually lose to Kahn. A year later, Omar decided to try for the seat herself.

The future revealed

The faithful shuffled into a Minneapolis middle school last April for the DFL nominating convention. Three candidates vied for the party’s official nod: Kahn, Noor, and Omar.

Omar appeared primed for victory. As Johnson’s campaign manager, she’d learned what it meant to hump on the election trail. Omar employed a two-pronged strategy of connecting with university students while cultivating support and chipping away at the stubborn resistance inside her own community.

Omar scored 55 percent of the delegates, 23 points ahead of Kahn. But she still needed Noor to direct his single-digit support to her camp. Eleven votes was all that stood between her and the all-too-important party endorsement.

The event ended in a stalemate. The DFL primary in August would be a three-way race.

Hudda Ibrahim, a St. Cloud Tech and Community College faculty member and editor-in-chief at Somalicurrent.com, has an explanation.

“[Noor] cannot lose to a Somali woman,” she says. “So when a woman is running for office, our male-dominated society will try to undermine the woman.”

(Noor did not respond to repeated interview requests. Rep. Kahn could not be reached for comment.)

Nasser Mussa, a former Humphrey School of Public Affairs fellow who’s known Omar for years, watched silently as the primary neared. People inside the district were telling him plenty.

“She was doing a good job of using old-fashioned political tools, mobilizing people, and organizing across economic lines,” says Mussa. “People forget that you don’t win the district with support from just one group or another. You need a coalition.”

That was proving to be no easy task. There were some votes Omar would never get.

“I had women in my community tell me, ‘Ilhan, I want to vote for you, but my husband won’t allow it,’” she says.

The skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis watched as a Seward restaurant pulsed on an August night. Hundreds packed Omar’s primary headquarters at Kalsan Restaurant. They roared minutes past 10 when media outlets reported her victory, a triumph that found its way to the pages of the New York Times.

Omar was swallowed in hugs. Young women looked on, crying.

“Her political success drew on her Somali identity, but it was much more than that,” University of Minnesota professor Lawrence Jacobs says. “I think that the real political ingenuity of Ilhan Omar was her being able to speak to multiple communities rather than being the spokesperson for one ethnic community.”

The night belonged to Omar. Controversy would steal it.

“The shit show”

Soon, a new story emerged from the conservative blogosphere: Omar had been married to two men at once, and one was her brother.

Power Line’s Scott Johnson reported that Omar married Hirsi in 2002. Seven years later, Johnson alleged, she wed “her brother Ahmed Nur Said Elmi,” which would make her guilty of “marriage and immigration fraud” and bigamy.

Johnson had a document showing Omar had pulled a marriage license application in 2002, but never officially registered it with the state. She’d wed Elmi in 2009, a Minnesota marriage certificate proved. But the blogger lacked proof that Omar and Elmi were blood relatives.

The unsubstantiated report grew into a media maelstrom. Stories appeared in the Star Tribune and City Pages, as well as on WCCO, FOX 9, and KSTP.

“I look at the soap opera, the shit show of what people might consider to be in their discovery of things, there isn’t anything to what’s being insinuated or anything there to bite me in the ass,” Omar says. “What I’m surprised about are... the particular things that are appropriate to insinuate without any legitimacy or facts. I think if certain factors weren’t in play, this wouldn’t be considered acceptable.”

Former deputy Republican Party state chairman Michael Brodkorb says that’s true — to a point. Omar’s tale was being reported through the optics of a presidential race, which has been awash with talk of border walls and mass deportations. At the same time, Omar hasn’t done herself any favors, says Brodkorb. Power Line’s story elicited two statements from her camp. The first chalked up the charges to “Donald Trump-style misogyny, racism, anti-immigration rhetoric, and Islamophobic division.”

“I think she ratcheted up some of the rhetoric with that response,” Brodkorb says. “Most Minnesotans would think, ‘Are you married?’ to be an easy question to answer. Since it hasn’t been for her, I think that’s alarming to some.”

In this political season, such seeming evasiveness makes for rich soil. As a result, Brodkorb isn’t surprised “to see a candidate with Omar’s background being targeted.”

But, he adds, “There appear to be lingering questions.”

Omar’s explanation goes like this: While they were never officially married under Minnesota law, Hirsi is her husband, her life partner, and father of her kids.

The couple fell out of love sometime before 2009. During that period, Omar legally married Elmi. She and Elmi eventually separated. Omar reconciled with Hirsi in 2011, marrying in their “faith tradition,” a commitment that’s recognized within their community, but not under Minnesota law. She has yet to legally divorce Elmi.

“There are particular challenges to getting a legal divorce,” Omar says. “One of those is getting the cooperation and presence of the other person who you are divorcing.”

Elmi resides in England. He couldn’t be reached for comment. Omar wouldn’t permit City Pages to talk to Hirsi, saying, “I have never made my personal life part of my platform, my campaign. So no, that’s not going to happen.”

Omar vs. Warsame, Part II

During the campaign homestretch, Omar exhales.

She sits pensively inside a Seward coffee shop. Her legs are crossed. She wears pink-and-orange flip-flops, her top foot twitching while she fidgets with the bracelets on her wrist.

Her Crest White smile returns. Her vibe is lighter, yet Omar admits she struggles to reconcile some of what’s transpired.

“What’s been hard to come to terms with is how these people have been really reckless,” says Omar.

She fingers some within her own community for planting the marriage story.

“You have to think, who benefits from lessening my influence and my power?” says Omar. “Those within my community who have had power and influence, who are now going to have to come to terms with a woman more powerful, more notable, more high in stature and political standing... previously elected officials within my community, that’s who comes to mind.”

She names Warsame, saying, “I think the kind of power I was growing and cultivating was going to be too much for someone like him.”

What kind of pull that will be remains debatable. Johnson says the marriage story was never intended to take Omar down. If it was, it would have been leaked before the primary.

“If you think about the timing, it’s obvious it was intended to diminish her image from day one of walking into the Legislature,” he says. “She had the real opportunity to walk in and make connections with folks who don’t usually work with Somalis and really open up some minds. Instead, there’ll be those who think, ‘Oh there’s that Muslim woman who married her brother.’”

Hamline professor Schultz concurs. As he sees it, “the crude swipe” was designed to injure right off the bat: “Maybe damaging a rising star is enough and that’s what you wanted to achieve.”

Warsame has no time to answer “tabloid” questions. He denies having any connection to the leak, saying, “I was just as shocked as everyone else when it came out.”

Instead, he prefers to talk about his accomplishments, like “giving” Cedar-Riverside newly paved roads when the old ones had resembled something in “the Third World.”

“Ms. Omar is on her way to become an elected official in the state of Minnesota,” he continues. “I’m proud of that because that’s part of my work. I’m proud Ms. Omar came after me.... Her election would pose no problem for me. What I can say is [she’s] a vindication for my work.”

When asked to respond to Warsame’s comments, Omar doesn’t. Her slight smile is a mix of indignation and resigned humor. She knows there will be “some public discomfort” with a Muslim woman as a state lawmaker.

“I consider myself to be a fighter who’s pretty optimistic about the possibilities of the world, and someone who thinks we all have shared values regardless of our background, our faith,” Omar says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Rep. Phyllis Kahn did not respond to repeated interview requests. Through a miscommunication on the part of City Pages, Rep. Kahn was not given adequate opportunity to respond. We regret the error.


Sponsor Content