Two years ago, when President Trump was still on the campaign trail, he told an audience during a rally at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that Minnesota had “suffered enough” at the hands of Somali immigrants, who began moving there as refugees in the early 1990s.
He told the crowd that “large numbers of Somali refugees [are] 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.” (ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State militant group.)
Trump’s assertion was met with confusion and anger in some parts of Minnesota, where tens of thousands of Somali refugees were relocated from their Horn of Africa homeland after its government collapsed in 1991 and civil war broke out. And on Tuesday, one of those refugees won a seat in Congress.
Ilhan Omar took home 78 percent of the vote in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, becoming the first Somali American, first Muslim refugee and first hijab-wearing Muslim woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She also became the first woman of color to represent Minnesota in Congress. “When people were selling the politics of fear and division and destruction, we were talking about hope. We were talking about the politics of joy,” Omar said in her victory speech.
Omar already knew what it meant to be a “first.” In 2016, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, which made her the first Somali American in history to be elected a legislator in the United States.
Omar’s win “reinforces the idea that all is possible in America,” said Cawo Abdi, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. It also repudiates Trump’s efforts to use the Somali community “to show the failure of the immigration system,” Abdi said.
Omar, 36, was born in Somalia but fled with her family to Kenya as a refugee when she was 8. They lived in a refugee camp for four years before being resettled in Minneapolis in 1997. Her campaign website says she became interested in politics at age 14, when she would interpret for her grandfather at local caucuses.
In recent years, a small number of Minnesotans either joined the Islamic State or were caught conspiring to do so.
But Omar’s win has the potential to change the way the community is viewed by outsiders, Abdi said. “The rhetoric of exclusion really can be undermined by having these types of stories and these types of successes,” she said.
“There has been an extreme level of scrutiny, and the community is really feeling under siege,” Abdi said. “This type of thing is something really positive.”
Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and author of “Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump,” said Omar’s win is “a tremendous success for the people of the 5th District.”
The area Omar will represent “has changed so drastically in the last 30 years that you know she clearly reflects a voice and a sentiment for the community,” Harris said.
“This is a win for all Americans because we are a country that espouses freedom of religion, and I think for people to see someone who wears a hijab on the congressional floor is an important symbol for that fact."