If a writer pitched Rep. Ilhan Omar’s life story to a Hollywood producer as a movie, it would likely be rejected as simply too impossible to believe. We’re talking about a 12-year-old girl who speaks little English coming to America from war-torn Somalia and a refugee camp in Kenya, who is then elected to Congress from Minnesota at age 36 — as one of the first two Muslim women to serve on Capitol Hill. (The other is her friend and colleague Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.) As incredible as her story sounds, to Omar her journey represents the promise of America, as she explores in her new memoir, “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman.”
Omar, who was elected to Congress in 2018 from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, which includes Minneapolis and some of its suburbs, has achieved many firsts. As she told me in our “Salon Talks” conversation this week, that can carry a heavy burden. In fact, Omar says she wrote the book in part to set the record straight on her story. “I think there is often a narrative about who I am and what I care about that people have developed in their head,” she told me. “I always say every person who interviews me has already written the article.”
It’s clear that Omar has endured and won a lot of fights — some of those were actual fistfights when she was younger (as she explains in the book) and others have been Twitter battles with the president of the United States. In fact when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Omar herself made history as the first Somali Muslim elected to the Minnesota state legislature.
In our conversation, Omar opens up about her approach to governing, and how she pursues that in her role as whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think oftentimes there are battles, and you have to pick which one to fight today and which one to live on to fight another day,” she said. Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Rep. Ilhan Omar here, or read a transcript of our conversation below — lightly edited, as usual, for length and clarity — to hear more about her story and her thoughts on Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the 2020 election.
Your book should be called “Fight Club.” You’re a fighter. You fought as a kid. You fight now as an adult.
I fight differently now than I did as a kid. You learn and grow, right?
In the book, you write about your upbringing. Initially, you grew up in Somalia. The perception of Somalia that many Americans have is from movies like “Black Hawk Down” and those kinds of images related to the war. What was Somalia like before the war, in terms of daily life for you and your family?
It was normal. It wasn’t much different than the life I have today. Actually, I grew up in a big house with lots of family members. I was in school and had the comforts of a safe and protected and nurturing family. And I think the one thing that people oftentimes forget is that we can see the before pictures of Syria and today, or we might see the before pictures of Afghanistan and today, or Iraq and today. We never really get to see pictures of Somalia before and today. And my hope is that with reading the book, that there is a little bit of that that they get to see. Because my Somalia, the Somalia that I knew, that is foreign to many today. Even it was foreign to me. And that really, I think, was the shocking part of the abrupt end to my pleasant childhood.
What was that final moment like, during the war in the early 1990s in Somalia, where you said to your family, “We have to leave. It’s just not safe any longer to be here.”
For my grandfather and father, I think they expected that this transition was going to be a little rough, but ultimately will allow the country to go back to normal. And I think the realization that our lives were threatened came one night. The decision ultimately had to be made on whether we were going to fight to survive, or we were going to stay and wait for our doom. Those are decisions that you don’t really fully comprehend as a child, right? You want to stay at home, you want your bed. You think, “Why are you doing this to me?”
I went back later to Somalia in 2011, when the famine was happening. I remember meeting a young mom with children, who’d lost children on her way to the makeshift camp on the border of Somalia and Kenya. Talking to her about the decisions that she’d made put it into context for me. I think oftentimes today, when we see the stories happening at our border, we forget that some of these people really don’t have a choice. You’re fighting to survive and you are going to risk it all. Because, as I title one of the chapters, sometimes the mouth of the shark is safer than home. So you have to go into the unknown, because you know that your reality will ultimately end with your death if you stay.
Your family then moved to Kenya to the refugee camps and you paint a vivid picture of life there. It’s heartbreaking, but it becomes a sense of normal at some point. There’s an offer to leave and go to the West, to Sweden or the U.S. or other countries. There’s a line in the book about why your family chose America — because America is a unique place as opposed to other countries, where you are a foreigner forever. I found that powerful. Truthful or not, it’s the promise of America and you experienced it firsthand.
Yeah, we do export that promise of America very well. That promise of America to my family was that America would ultimately be a place where you become just an American. And I don’t think that my father and grandfather imagined that choosing America would ultimately lead their youngest child to be a member of Congress. But I think they had an inkling that this is the place where that happens, right? This is truly the country that would allow for something like that to take place.
I don’t think they could foresee some of the challenges we would ultimately have, and some of the challenges I, as the youngest growing up here for the longest period of time, would experience. But to them, the challenges that they perceived in other countries were far greater than any challenge they could imagine here. That golden ticket is still one that every single person around the world, I believe, is in search of. This is truly the land of opportunity. And we know that opportunity is not accessible for everyone, but the perception that that opportunity exists is enough. It’s enough for people to want to come and seek a better life here.
You learned English from watching TV, and one show in particular, that you mention in the book. I found this remarkable because my fiancée learned a lot about America by watching “Sex and the City” back home and that’s why she came to America. I’m not kidding. What was the show you watched?
Let me put this in the context of what is accessible and what you have. When we came to the United States, we had access to TV, and I don’t think at the time we had access to cable, and there was a show that would be on. I think it was on reruns at the time. After we would arrive from school we all gathered to watch it. And the show was “Baywatch,” the earlier years.
My father, who speaks multiple languages, believed that if you can engage in a conversation in that language, it expedites your opportunity to learn it. He would force us to mimic the conversations that the characters were having. We were raised by educators, so we were avid readers and could read English, even though we didn’t really speak English. And so he would make us watch the TV show with closed captions on. And I can’t even tell you how silly it was to try to do that. But it did ultimately help. My siblings learned English faster than they would have, at the age they came here. It certainly expedited my opportunity to learn the language as well. I think the cultural context of what was happening on the show was not something we actually understood.
Your father is a big part of your book. You write that you were more scared of letting him down than letting God down, because God is forgiving and your father isn’t. That was so important to you. Share a little bit about him.
There are a couple of things to me that make my dad — everybody thinks their dad is great! — but make my dad great. Not only did he fulfill a mother’s role and a father’s role, and execute it exceptionally, he made great sacrifices in order for me to be who I am today. He was a man of conviction and courage. He really has a set of values that he goes by in life. And to him, you are expected to live a full life, but you have to live that life with dignity and honor. He didn’t like people making excuses and his lines, in some ways, were very straight.
For me as a teenager, I wanted to give my father that respect and that honor, but I really didn’t appreciate the straight lines because I didn’t think that they fit into the life that he expected me to have, which was one that was freeing, that would allow me to grow into a more competent adult. My oldest sister once said to me, “It’s good when Dad is screaming and is upset, but when Dad looks at you and just walks away, then you know you did something really bad.” For me, I knew that that was a line. I could engage with him in debate. I could argue with him, but when he just looked at me and walked away, that wasn’t something to come back from. And with God, you can always pray. You can ask for forgiveness. But when Dad walked away, there was no begging for forgiveness. I never wanted to get myself in that position.
In my house, my Sicilian mother was yelling a lot and my Palestinian dad was very calm and quiet. If he ever got mad, it was a big deal. And I know exactly what you mean, because he would sit there and he’d be like, “Don’t argue with your mom. You can move out. I’m stuck here.” That was his sense of humor.
Same. My dad is like, he’s not quiet, but he’s easygoing. You know he’s got like my personality. He’s a really fun human being. And he doesn’t really get upset about a lot of things. But when he’s upset, he’s upset, and you never want to get him upset.
That touches on another thing in your book where you write about people having a lot of assumptions about who you are. They assume who you are, and generally they do not fit the description of who you believe you are, who you really are. Has that still been true through life? Like now, even in Congress and what you do in your daily work?
It is really the reason I wrote the book. I think there is often a narrative about who I am and what I care about that people have developed in their heads. I always say, every person who interviews me has already written the article. They’re just looking for quotes to make it fit into what they’d already put together. For me, I wanted to write the book because there is no putting quotes in. My grandfather was also someone who was living in a country and a culture that was very different than the country and culture he came from. And he believed if he was accepting of himself and his way of life, it didn’t really matter because as long as you know who you are and what you are about, ultimately other people’s definitions of you don’t matter, and you should never really allow people to define you.
Even in Congress, you’re in the very progressive wing of the party and there are more centrist Democrats. Speaker Pelosi tries to put everything together, obviously, to keep everyone content. How challenging it has it been for you and the more progressive members who have come in new? You want to enact what you can, right? We know you tried to make the Heroes Act even more progressive than it is. Has that idea of compromise been difficult, or this is the way it has to be?
No, I never really found the idea of compromise to be a difficult one. I think oftentimes there are battles, and you have to pick which one to fight today and which one to live on to fight another day. There are seeds we have to plant in order for there to be an opportunity for someone to enjoy that shade tomorrow.
For me, I know that as the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, my work is trying to understand where people are at and what policies they can live with, and how we continue to move the needle. Ultimately, the chairs of our caucus make the decision on whether we should push our caucus or not, in the same way Pelosi makes the decisions for the overall Democratic caucus. I know that for me, there is an opportunity to influence policy in committee.
I do most of my work with my colleagues on the different committees that I sit on. That’s where I’ve had extreme success as a freshman, and have had the opportunity to pass amendments that have had the support of not only the committee chairs, but my colleagues. It’s because of the relationships we’ve built and our ability to say, “We’re not going to be able to do that, but I think this is an important piece, let’s have this in there.” I ultimately end up voting against the larger bills because there are things that I can’t compromise on, that go to the values and the principles on which I took an oath to represent my constituents, but there is a piece of something you can live with at times.
Sometimes there isn’t, and you have to know when that is and when it isn’t. I remember the first CARES Act, there were folks who were hesitant. For me, I really didn’t have much hesitation because I knew that my district was being economically devastated and needed the support during this hard time. Finding a perfect bill really wasn’t what I was after. In the same way, when it came to providing support for small businesses, I didn’t really believe that we could hold that off any longer. When people are bleeding, you do everything that you can stop the bleeding. And so you can’t say, “Unless I can sew it up. Unless I could take away that blood, I’m not going to stop the bleeding.” Knowing the difference between those two is something that I do, and take very seriously.
Last question or two about 2020, which is still tied to you and your story. In 2016, Donald Trump made bashing Muslims one of the centerpieces of his campaign, and your community, the Somali Muslim community in Minneapolis, even going there. It seems now his big focus is trying to delegitimize this election by saying, “We can’t have mail-in ballots. It’s going to be fraud,” tweeting day after day, “It’s rigged.” Are you concerned that he’s just preparing America for what he may do if he loses?
Precisely. We know that mail-in voting and absentee voting is one of the securest ways in which you vote because the president himself voted that way. We know that this rhetoric is not only to divert attention from the kind of incompetency he’s had in dealing with this pandemic and the climate crisis that we have, but also yes, prepare the ground for when he contests this election. He knows that in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin, people are ready to elect a new president. People are ready for a real leader. People are ready for someone who isn’t triggered and isn’t just interested in checking their poll numbers, but is really interested in governing and interested in protecting the American people.
We have over 100,000 people dead because of this pandemic. And the president rarely mentions the people who’ve lost their lives to COVID-19. It’s really disheartening. I think in a normal time, we would all be completely appalled and so laser-focused on the fact that he doesn’t take the time to acknowledge this high number of Americans who have died. But we can, because it’s about why he’s not wearing a mask. It’s about why he is suggesting crazy remedies that could cause heart attacks. It’s all of these things that he just throws into the bucket. It’s like garbage, and it’s sad because we need to be focused on delivering relief economically and within the public health crisis that we are facing right now.
I’m thinking about states like mine, which have just recently started reopening. We know that a single ventilator is unavailable for two weeks. And so how do we create enough to have a backup when those numbers start going up, because people are being admitted into the hospital more frequently because they’re interacting publicly. How do we create a cohesive, comprehensive plan for the whole country? I was just reading about how, globally, every country is going in on their own. And we know that because the United States hasn’t proposed a sort of collective global response to this pandemic, which we would have done if we had another president. It’s really a game that he plays, in which he comes up with a new thing that people go crazy about while he is really hiding the true incompetency with which he governs this country.
At what point did being a member of Congress actually become something that you thought of, and said, “You know what? This is attainable. This is something I can achieve.”
The day Keith called.
You mean Keith Ellison, the former congressman, who used to hold your seat. Now he’s the attorney general of Minnesota.
My predecessor, the first Muslim to ever serve in Congress, who is now our state’s attorney general, about eight of us into a conference call who he thought might be interested in running for his seat. I remember getting off the phone and having all these text messages from people and thinking, “Why was I included in this call? Why does anybody think I should be doing this right now?” I mean, I was exhausted, as I explain in the book, from my last election and serving and dealing just with the national attention that the Muslim ban had brought into my state and into my community. I wasn’t really thinking about running for another office. And I would say it was the fastest and the hardest election I’d ever run, I mean, probably the hardest anything I’ve ever done.
Both of my elections, my primaries, were really tough and challenging. Besides giving birth, I don’t think I’ve experienced anything more painful than doing that. But it’s been, again, an honor to have the opportunity to do this. I think oftentimes people forget the number of firsts that I carry, and the weight in that. It’s a blessing and a curse, because you’re not only lending your voice to fighting for the issues that your district cares about, you are lending your voice to all the marginalized identities that are constantly under attack in this country by our president and many national pundits, but also trying to run two offices, and dealing with what it means to be home as soon as you can from voting and providing constituent service, and right now that means triage for many of the problems we have with public health and the economic crisis.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.