Ilhan Omar: A Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman

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Representative Ilhan Omar is a woman of many firsts in the U.S. Congress. She became the representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the ouse of Representatives in 2019. This achievement also made her the first Somali-American member of Congress and the first woman of color to represent Minnesota. She is also the first of only two Muslim-American women to serve in the U.S. Congress, along with Rashida Tlaib.

Always been a fighter

Born in 1982 in Mogadishu, Somalia, Omar was the youngest of seven siblings. But she never let that stop her from standing up to bullies in her youth. 

In her memoir, “This is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman,” she talks about how she constantly got into fights when she was a kid because she stood up for herself and others:

I felt like I was bigger and stronger than everyone else — even if I knew that wasn’t really the case. 

Ilhan Omar

Omar and her siblings were raised by their father and grandfather. In her memoir, she writes that her grandfather didn’t believe in the custom where only the birth of a son brought pride for a family. Instead, he believed in treating the women of a family as equals to the men. 

Her family wasn’t like a traditional, hierarchical Somali family where no one spoke when the mother or father was speaking. Instead, everyone could voice their opinions when decisions were being made. This allowed Omar to be opinionated and she learned to fight for what she wanted.

Ilhan Omar (via Instagram)

Unfortunately, the fighting didn’t stay on the playground of her school. According to omar.house.gov, Omar was eight years old when the Somali Civil War broke out.

An overview of the Somali Civil War

According to New World Encyclopedia, the civil war in Somalia began when its dictator, Siad Barre, was overthrown. Barre ruled with a divisive and oppressive regime that generated instability. He also tried to divert the country’s attention away from its economic issues by creating conflict between Somalia’s powerful clans.

With Barre out of power, the northwestern section of the country announced a unilateral declaration of independence from the rest of Somalia. From then on, it became the Republic of Somaliland. 

Somalia-civil-war-12242006.svg” by Peter Corless is licensed under CC BY 2.5 license

However, the rest of the country didn’t follow suit.

The rest of the country, especially the south, fell into anarchy. Major warlords began fighting with each other in order to secure control over larger areas of the country. Because of this, the Republic of Somaliland is the only part of Somalia that has any kind of effective government rule.

The importance of democracy

Due to the civil war, Omar and her family fled Somalia and spent four years in a Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Then, in 1995, her family secured asylum as refugees in the U.S. They arrived in New York, lived in Arlington, Virginia for a short period of time before settling in Minneapolis, Minn. 

In an article by The Guardian, titled “‘This is My Country, Muslim Candidate Aims to Break Boundaries in Minnesota,” writer Amanda Holpuch says that Omar’s father and grandfather always emphasized the importance of democracy and the power a democratic system holds.

At 14, Omar learned English in three months and therefore acted as her grandfather’s translator when they attended the caucuses. 

In 2000, at the age of 17, she became a U.S. citizen. And in 2011 she graduated from North Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies. 

Before becoming the woman of firsts in the U.S. Congress, Omar worked as a community educator at the University of Minnesota. She was also a Policy Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and she served the Minneapolis City Council as a senior policy aide. 

Then, in 2016 she became the Minnesota House Representative for District 60B. According to her congressional biography, this made her the highest-elected Somali-American public official in the U.S.A. She was also the first Somali-American state legislator.

Omar hopes that her presence in higher government positions will change the way people look at U.S. democracy.

In The Guardian article, she said, “For me, this is my country, this is for my future, for my children’s future and for my grandchildren’s future to make our democracy more vibrant, more inclusive, more accessible and transparent which is going to be useful for all of us.”

For me, this is my country, this is for my future, for my children’s future and for my grandchildren’s future to make our democracy more vibrant, more inclusive, more accessible and transparent which is going to be useful for all of us.

Ilhan Omar


  1. Wow this article/story was inspiring! The relationships Omar built while persevering through several challenges including a language barrier! Not only does she want to make her life better but she strives to bring everyone she can up with her. Thank you for writing this!

  2. Great article! I really enjoyed reading all about Omar’s journey and how they went on to change her life! This article can be very inspiring for those going through similar situations or feeling particularly lost at the moment.

  3. Wow, what a captivating read! It is so incredible what people can do when they set their mind to it, even with all the obstacles. She is an inspiration for everyone around her, she is so selfless it is refreshing!

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