After Ilhan Omar moved to the United States in the mid-1990s — fleeing war in her native Somalia and a childhood spent in a refugee camp — she went to high school in Minneapolis, and was occasionally bullied for wearing a hijab, her father wrote.
Through decades of community activism and civic leadership, Omar fought back against such forms of intolerance. And on Election Day, proudly wearing her headscarf, she made history— winning a Minnesota statehouse race to become the nation’s first Somali American lawmaker.
But less than one month later, as she visited the nation’s capital for policy training at the White House, her historic role didn’t stop a cab driver from targeting her for her religion. Riding in a taxi en route to her hotel Tuesday, after having spent the afternoon at the White House, she “became subjected to the most hateful, derogatory, islamophobic, sexist taunts and threats” she had ever experienced, she wrote in a post on social media.
“The cab driver called me ISIS and threatened to remove my hijab,” she wrote. “I wasn’t really sure how this encounter would end as I attempted to rush out of his cab and retrieve my belongs.”
In a response to a question on her Facebook post, she said she had not yet reported the encounter, since the cab driver knew the hotel where she was staying and she didn’t “feel safe enough to say anything at the moment.” She said she planned to report it to the authorities once she returned home safely to Minneapolis.
She wrote that she is still shaken by the incident and couldn’t wrap her head around how “bold” people were becoming in targeting Muslims.
“I pray for his humanity and for all those who harbor hate in their hearts,” Omar wrote.
The incident was the latest in a series of altercations and suspected hate crimes targeting Muslims, Jews, immigrants and other minority groups across the country since the election. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has tracked more than 100 suspected anti-Muslim incidents nationwide, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented almost 1,000 incidents targeting different minority groups, according to CAIR.
In particular, women who wear hijabs have been reporting assaults nationwide in the month since the election. A Muslim student at San Jose State University reportedly struggled to breathe as a man yanked her headscarf from behind. Earlier this week, a New York City Transit worker reported being shoved on the stairs and called a terrorist in a train station. Some women have even turned to self-defense classes in light of the spike in such incidents.
The Twin Cities, home to the nation’s largest community of Somali immigrants, gained national attention through the FBI’s pursuit there of 10 young men from the Somali American community, whom they accused of conspiring to join the Islamic State. Nine were recently sentenced on terror charges.
Just before the election, Donald J. Trump made reference to the issue, facing criticism from some for singling out Somalis while speaking to crowds in Minnesota about halting the flow of immigration.
“Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval, and with some of them then joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world,” Trump said.
But within the same Somali community, women in hijabs have been making national headlines for other reasons. Last month, Halima Aden became the first to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant while fully clothed. She made the semifinals while wearing a hijab, as well as a full-body suit called a burkini during the swimsuit competition.
As she celebrated her win on the night of the election, Omar was on the verge of tears, hugging and kissing other women in hijabs, a video by the Star Tribune shows.
“Injustices that are rooted in our society are the root of all of our problems,” she said during her acceptance speech. “I will never give up fighting for you and I hope you never give up fighting for me.”
As her father wrote in a letter on her campaign website, Omar has been fighting since a young age, when she would walk miles to get water or wood for her family in the Kenyan refugee camp where they lived. She was 8 years old when the family fled Somalia’s civil war. After moving to Minnesota, she developed an interest in politics at the age of 14, when she served as her grandfather’s interpreter so he could participate in the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus.
Most recently, Omar served as the director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women, where she worked with East African women and encouraged them to take on civic leadership roles, according to her website.
At Omar’s victory rally on election night, one supporter, Hodan Hassan, a member of a Somali American task force, said Omar’s story has shaped the Somali community.
“It just shows you that people like Donald Trump cannot bully us. We’re here to stay,” she said. “I hope we can have a hundred Ilhans in the coming years.”
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