Ilhan Omar is unlike anyone who has served in Congress. This is her complicated American story
Ilhan Omar's refugee story was made for the rancor and racial division of the Trump era
MINNEAPOLIS — Rep. Ilhan Omar stepped to the edge of the stage in front of about 400 Richfield High School students and squinted into the lights.
More than two decades had passed since she and her family fled civil war in Somalia, first for a Kenyan refugee camp and then America. Now she was 36, one of the youngest members of Congress and the first lawmaker to wear a hijab in the legislative body's long history. She was also at the center of a contentious fight over American identity that pitted her against the president and, even, some in her own party.
At issue wasn't a piece of legislation or an election. It was something bigger - a battle over the American story - who was entitled to tell it and how it would be told.
In Omar's version, America wasn't the bighearted country that saved her from a brutal war and a bleak refugee camp. It wasn't a meritocracy that helped her attend college or vaulted her into Congress. Instead, it was the country that had failed to live up to its founding ideals, a place that had disappointed her and so many immigrants, refugees and minorities like her.
"I grew up in an extremely unjust society, and the only thing that made my family excited about coming to the United States was that the United States was supposed to be the country that guaranteed justice to all," she told the high school students. "So, I feel it necessary for me to speak about that promise that's not kept."
And so, on this morning she decided to share a story of American racism, cruelty and injustice.
Five years earlier, Omar told the students, she was working for a Minneapolis city councilman who asked her to report back on problems with the courts. There, she recalled encountering a "sweet, old . . . African American lady" who had been arrested for stealing a $2 loaf of bread to feed her "starving 5-year-old granddaughter."
After spending the weekend in jail, the woman was led into the courtroom and fined $80 - a penalty she couldn't pay. "I couldn't control my emotions," Omar continued, "because I couldn't understand how a roomful of educated adults could do something so unjust."
"Bulls---!" she recalled yelling in the courtroom.
Laughter rippled through the auditorium, then silence.
Omar's story echoed the plot of "Les Miserables." If true, it is also probably embellished. City officials said police aren't allowed to arrest people for shoplifting unless there's a likelihood of violence or further crime. Typically, shoplifters are sentenced to attend a three-hour class.
In an interview, Omar said she may have flubbed some facts. "She might have had a prior [arrest]," Omar said. "I'm not sure. . . . The details might not have all matched, but that's what I remember."
After the speech, the students, who were mostly minorities, swarmed the congresswoman. "It's great to have a representative who looks like the people she represents," a white student said.
An African American student asked about mentors: "I have none," Omar said. "You don't need people to guide you. You can guide yourself."
A Somali girl in a hijab asked how she weathered the attacks on her appearance, her patriotism and her religion from the president and Fox News. "I refuse to give oxygen to people who suck out oxygen," Omar replied.
"I like that," the girl said.
The lights flipped off in the auditorium. The students had missed their lunch period. Omar, who was already running 30 minutes behind schedule, made her way toward the exit, stopping every few steps for another selfie.
Some politicians are inseparable from their story. Such is the case with Omar. Her family landed at a Kenyan refugee camp when she was 8 and spent the next four years in poverty. "It was the first time I understood what hunger would feel like, what death looked like," she said in "Time for Ilhan," a documentary that chronicles her 2016 run for the Minnesota State House.
Shortly after her family was cleared in 1995 to come to America, they traveled to Nairobi to watch an orientation film for new immigrants. Years later, on the campaign trail, Omar would recall that version of America, with its pristine suburbs, perfect lawns and paeans to representative democracy.
Then she would recount arriving in a New York City that was cramped, dirty and populated by panhandlers.
"This doesn't look like the America you promised," Omar recalled telling her father, Nur Omar Mohamed.
"We're not in our America yet," he replied to his 12-year-old daughter. In Omar's immigrant story, America wasn't a "city on a hill," a haven for grateful masses fleeing war and oppression. Rather, it was a broken promise. "I arrived at the age of 12 and learned that I was the extreme other," she often said. "I was black. I was Muslim. I also learned I was extremely poor and that the classless America that my father talked about didn't exist."
The family spent one year in the Washington suburbs, where Omar told a reporter for The New York Times that she was bullied by middle school students who stuck gum in her scarf, jumped her in the locker room and knocked her down the stairs. "They are doing this to you because they feel threatened in some way by your existence," she said her father told her.
Eventually, her family settled in Minneapolis's Cedar-Riverside neighborhood - the heart of the Somali diaspora. The neighborhood, anchored by six dilapidated high-rises that overlook the interstate, had long been a haven for those escaping war. Some of the first occupants were Hmong refugees fleeing Vietnam and Laos in the 1970s. Somalis began arriving about 20 years later.
Omar's father drove a cab and then found a job with better hours and benefits at the post office. As a teenager, Omar accompanied her grandfather to Democratic Party caucuses, acting as his interpreter. "And through that process, I fell in love" with politics, she said.
She had her first child at age 20, earned her degree from North Dakota State University at 28 and by 34 had launched her campaign for the Minnesota House against an incumbent who had held the seat for more than four decades.
Her long-shot campaign took shape at a Perkins Restaurant in the shadow of the Brutalist-style cement high-rises. After she had put her children to sleep, Omar would meet up with David Gilbert-Pederson, an activist who was in his early 20s, and talk until well past midnight.
Gilbert-Pederson, who is Filipino, was adopted by two white Minneapolis librarians. He dropped out of high school and still didn't have a driver's license when he signed on as Omar's campaign chairman in late 2015. But he had been active in politics, protest movements and organizing since before he could vote. As a child, Gilbert-Pederson played Filipino People's Party, a role-playing game he made up with friends, his mother said.
Gilbert-Pederson pushed Omar to run. "It kind of became a joke between the two of us," he said. She'd vent about politics and he'd tell her to stop complaining and run for office.
The two began to map out a strategy. Gilbert-Pederson helped her forge relationships with many of the environmental, LGBTQ, civil rights and labor groups whose support Omar would need to win in a statehouse district that's about 60% white. Her current congressional district, which encompasses most of Minneapolis, is about 70% white.
Each week, Omar and Gilbert-Pederson arranged meetings with two to three activist leaders. She courted older peace-and-justice hippies and was a regular presence at the University of Minnesota, where she worked to mobilize students who didn't normally vote but might be drawn to a young candidate who could speak Somali and quote rapper Tupac Shakur. She showed up at Black Lives Matter protests that swept through the city after the shootings of Jamar Clark in November 2015 and Philando Castile the following year.
Omar won the primary in August 2016, all but guaranteeing her election. Three days before the general election, Donald Trump flew into Minneapolis and vowed to halt the influx of "terror prone" Somali refugees into the country.
"How stupid are our leaders? How stupid are they to allow this to happen?" Trump shouted to the crowd. "You've suffered enough, Minnesota!"
On the day Trump won the presidency, Omar was elected to the Minnesota State House. She was only one of more than 5,000 state legislators across the country, but as the first-ever Somali lawmaker and a refugee she drew national attention and scrutiny.
Conservative blogs dug into her complicated marital history. She and the father of her three children split temporarily in the 2000s but still filed joint tax returns in 2014 and 2015, when Omar was legally married to someone else.
Omar danced in a Maroon 5 video alongside lead singer Adam Levine and was interviewed by Trevor Noah of "The Daily Show."
"What's the plan?" Noah asked her.
"I am America's hope," she replied, "and the president's nightmare."
Today, a cross-stitch of that line is framed in her congressional office.
For Omar, figuring out what it means to be the "president's nightmare" on a national stage has been a work in progress. In theory, she said, it means amplifying marginalized voices at home and overseas.
In practice, it has been more complicated. First came the backlash this winter over her suggestion that the Israel lobby was using its resources to buy off supporters - "it's all about the Benjamins," she tweeted. Omar apologized for the remark, but she also blamed her colleagues for overreacting.
"There is an almost demonized view that people have of us that makes it really hard for others to see us as their neighbors, their friends and as their colleague as a member of Congress," she said in an interview. Such attitudes, she said, also afflicted her Democratic colleagues.
In March, at a banquet for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, Omar appeared to minimize the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "CAIR was founded after 9/11," she said, "because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties." (The council was founded in 1994). Omar's speech was a call for Muslims to take part in civic life as full citizens, not guests in the country. "Raise hell," she told the crowd. "Make people uncomfortable."
Trump tweeted a video that interspersed Omar's 9/11 remarks with footage of the burning World Trade Center towers. Democrats denounced the president for inciting violence against her. One week later a man who threatened Omar's life was arrested in New York with a cache of ammunition and guns.
In May, Omar's allies held a rally on her behalf in front of the U.S. Capitol. "Everyone knows that I refuse to cry," she told the crowd. "I always say that nobody really deserves my tears." But as she gazed out at her supporters and turned to address the civil rights activist Angela Davis, sitting behind her on the stage, her voice cracked, and she covered her face with her hands.
"This is not going to be the country of white people," she vowed. "This is not going to be the country of the few."
Like many immigrant diasporas, the 50,000 Somalis in Minnesota have complicated views of their adopted country that mix gratitude, frustration, alienation and pride. One thing they share is a worry for Omar.
"She gets a lot of death threats, but every soul has a time," Mariam Ibrahim, 60, said over dinner at home with her three daughters.
Her eldest, Filsan, 30, was the master of ceremonies at an Omar fundraiser in 2016, and like many young Somali activists felt a kinship with her. She put less stock in destiny than her mother.
"Cheeto is so careless," she said, using a derogatory nickname for the president. "Every day he's riling people up. I want her to be protected, to be with her children."
It was the holy month of Ramadan and the Ibrahims had gathered to break the day's fast. Mariam ran a small day care out of her home in the same room where her family had spread a tablecloth on the floor for dinner. She struggled to speak English but had put all three of her daughters through college and regularly nagged her eldest, Filsan, to get a master's degree.
Two decades after arriving in America, Mariam still felt like a guest in the country that had saved her life. "No husband. No father. No brother," she said. "We love America."
She disappeared upstairs and returned with the white, plastic International Office for Migration bag that she received upon landing in Minnesota and had saved as a reminder of the uncertainty, hope and joy that accompanied her family's first days in America. Inside were passport-size photos of her children - all under the age of 10 - looking exhausted and overwhelmed. One of her daughters began to read a boilerplate welcome letter, signed by President George W. Bush.
Filsan and her sisters laughed at the letter's formal language. "Americans are united across generations by grand and enduring ideals," it began.
"You know godd--- well that Bush did not write that," Filsan said.
Her sister kept reading: "Our country has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by principles that move us beyond our backgrounds . . ."
"All of America is focused on people's backgrounds," Filsan said. "It's all anyone cares about. You can't come here and just be an American unless you are white. Otherwise you are a Somali American, an African American, an Asian American."
"It's bulls---," her sister agreed.
"Hilarious," her other sister added.
A few days later Filsan, her mother and her sisters attended a fundraiser and rally for nine Somalis who had been convicted in 2016 of trying to travel to Syria to fight on behalf of the Islamic State.
Omar had written a letter on behalf of the men on the day she was elected in 2016, urging rehabilitation instead of prison time. "The desire to commit violence is not inherent in people - it is the consequence of systemic alienation," she wrote the judge. She had known other young men from school who died fighting for al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.
Since her letter she has kept her distance from the case, which she knew was politically toxic, an easy opportunity for her enemies to paint her as un-American.
For Filsan, the trial remained a source of anger and frustration. Her generation of Somali refugees saw America as home, but they lived under a shadow of suspicion. Armed American drones regularly fired missiles into their homeland. In Minneapolis, the FBI was surveilling their mosques and paying off informants.
Filsan had protested the FBI's "countering violent extremism" program in Minneapolis, which sought to dissuade Somalis from joining terrorism groups, but which she believed stigmatized the Somali community.
About 400 people - most of them young Somalis - filled a gymnasium in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The main purpose of the event was to raise money to help Guled Ali Omar appeal his 35-year sentence.
Filsan didn't know Guled or his family. But the trial and its aftermath had left her feeling "defeated," she said. At the sentencing, the judge compared the nine Somalis to the Islamic State operatives who had trained in Syria and then killed hundreds of innocents in Paris and Brussels. "Everyone talks about Brussels and Paris having cells," the judge said. "We have a cell here in Minneapolis."
To Filsan, it didn't make sense. The men on trial had never touched a weapon or left the United States. "I don't think they knew what they were getting into and I don't think they need to give up their lives for something that never happened," she said. "That's madness." The heavy sentences, she said, were the product of racism, Islamophobia and the never-ending war on terror.
After prayers and an Iftar meal, Filsan hugged one of Guled's sisters and headed home with her mother and sisters.
About a dozen of Guled's friends lingered in the parking lot, posing for pictures they planned to post on Instagram. "Fingers up," someone called out.
Most of the men raised their index fingers, a gesture that symbolizes the oneness of God and has become widely associated with the Islamic State. They flashed the same sign during the trial in 2016, drawing the ire of the prosecutor.
The young Somalis in the parking lot - a mix of men and women - said they didn't subscribe to the Islamic State's fanatical interpretation of the Koran. And they certainly didn't support any terrorist groups. But, on this night, they were trying to send a message - one of Muslim solidarity, alienation and defiance.
Spend some time with the congresswoman in Washington and her district and it can feel as if there are two Ilhan Omars. There's Omar, the anti-Trump, the symbol, whose introduction is almost always followed by a series of "firsts." She's the first Somali American lawmaker, the first woman of color to serve Minnesota in Congress, the first lawmaker to wear a hijab on the House floor.
Then there's the other version of the congresswoman - less confident, more compassionate and not nearly as angry.
The first, better-known version has become a fundraising juggernaut, raising more than $875,000 since November, the second-most among new House Democrats.
This version of the Minnesota lawmaker often seeks out fights that go viral. At the height of her Israel controversy, Omar used her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to castigate Elliot Abrams, a longtime hawk and Trump's new Venezuela envoy.
She quoted Abrams's claim that U.S. policy in El Salvador in the 1980s had been a "fabulous achievement" and asked if he thought a 1981 massacre in which U.S.-trained troops killed 800 Salvadoran civilians, met that standard.
"That is a ridiculous question!" Abrams replied.
"Yes or No," Omar calmly repeated.
"I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack," Abrams complained.
Omar understood that her personal history gave the exchange power. For decades people like her had been on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy. Such people typically get "beaten into submission," she said. Now, Omar was the one delivering the beating.
Sometimes this version of the congresswoman botched basic facts. Recently, she told a group of veterans that about 45% of military families rely on food stamps. She was trying to make the point that Republicans didn't care for the troops. The actual number is less than 5%, according to Pentagon statistics.
At times, she struggled to see the humanity in her opponents, dismissing a paralyzed Gulf War veteran's suggestion that the presence in Congress of more combat veterans, who have experienced the costs of war, might produce a more cautious foreign policy and improve veteran care.
"I've been in rooms with people who have served who say the most horrendous things, who have complete disregard for life," she said. "I would love for that statement to be true, but it isn't in most cases."
A few days later, it was the other version of the congresswoman - quieter, less confrontational - who visited a food pantry in St. Louis Park, a community that since the 1950s has been the center of Jewish life in Minneapolis. The suburb touts former senator Al Franken, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and the Oscar-award-winning Coen brothers as native sons.
The mayor and several members of the city council waited for Omar in a small conference room typically used by the city's social workers. Steve Hallfin, a councilman and insurance wholesaler, had been bothered by some of her remarks. He knew some of his constituents felt the same way.
"I thought I should hit her with both guns on the Israel stuff," he said. But he decided that pressing her on that issue wouldn't help his constituents or fix his city's problems. "She's new to Congress," he said. "I'm not willing to overlook [her statements], but she deserves a chance."
His first impression upon seeing her: "She looks much taller on TV," he said of Omar, who is just a shade over 5 feet. As the group toured the food pantry, Omar talked about the nearly identical rules governing halal and kosher food.
"It's interesting how our people have the same kinds of food but nothing else," Hallfin replied.
Mayor Jake Spano filled her in on a recent "Women for Trump" rally that drew about 200 marchers, most of whom came from out of town. Trump won less than 18 percent of the vote in St. Louis Park.
"What was the purpose of this?" Omar asked of the march.
"I think they knew it was your district," the mayor answered.
The group discussed the rising cost of housing, the steady demand for the food pantry's services and the increasing number of immigrant families drawn to the city's school system. All were familiar topics for Omar, who had worked in Minneapolis City Hall and as a nutrition outreach coordinator for the state's education department. She asked questions and scribbled notes.
Soon it was time to leave. Omar and the mayor lingered by the door, chatting about the rewards and challenges of public life. "People remember how you made them feel," the mayor said. "It's special."
"It makes the horrible days bearable," Omar agreed.
Her thoughts shifted to the strains of her new profession. The closest analogy, she decided, was parenting.
"You're not supposed to be tired or sad," she said. She thought for a moment and found one more similarity. "You don't get any training. You have to be an expert on the first day," she said. "They just give you the baby and that's it."
This article was written by Greg Jaffe and Souad Mekhennet, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Julie Tate contributed to this report.