From So­ma­lia to Con­gress, Omar makes his­tory

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Ja­son Burke Jo­han­nes­burg Ab­dalle Ahmed Mu­min Nairobi ▲

Fad­umo Ku­u­sow re­mem­bers a shy girl who lived next door. But her mem­ory is hazy as the girl left more than 20 years ago.

Last week Ku­u­sow or­gan­ised a cel­e­bra­tion in Ifo camp, one of a vast com­plex of refugee set­tle­ments on dry, scrubby plains around the re­mote Kenyan town of Dadaab, while some 8,000 miles away, that shy girl had just be­come the mem­ber-elect of the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for Min­nesota’s fifth district.

Il­han Omar, a Demo­crat, will as­sume of­fice in Jan­uary, shar­ing the his­toric dis­tinc­tion with Rashida Tlaib of be­ing one of the first two Mus­lim women elected to the US Con­gress.

“The women here talked about her. I re­mem­ber in the hot weather af­ter­noon, Il­han and I used to play jump­ing rope near our homes. My fam­ily lived in a tent and Il­han’s fam­ily lived in a makeshift struc­ture made of sticks and cloth,” she said, talk­ing to the Guardian over the phone.

Omar was born in the So­mali cap­i­tal, Mogadishu, and raised in the in­land town of Baidoa. She fled So­ma­lia’s civil war with her par­ents when she was eight and spent four years at the Dadaab camp.

Now a vast, im­pov­er­ished city with an es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 250,000 peo­ple, con­di­tions were harsh when Omar lived there.

“We were neigh­bours in Ifo camp within Dadaab com­plex,” Ku­u­sow, 40, said. “Life was very tough those days. That was soon af­ter the civil war in So­ma­lia and many peo­ple were com­ing to the camp. I re­mem­ber in the be­gin­ning we did not get school here.

“Camp se­cu­rity was a dis­as­ter. Girls and women were raped and we al­ways feared about men. I can re­mem­ber when it is evening; my mother could not al­low me to go out­side be­cause of the risk.”

In 1995, Omar ar­rived in the US as a refugee, set­tling first in Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia, be­fore mov­ing to Min­neapo­lis in 1997. She won a seat in the state’s leg­is­la­ture in 2016, be­com­ing the first So­mali-Amer­i­can law­maker in the coun­try. She had pre­vi­ously worked as a com­mu­nity organiser, a pol­icy an­a­lyst for city lead­ers in Min­neapo­lis, and as a leader in her lo­cal chap­ter of the African-Amer­i­can civil rights group NAACP.

“I saw her on the tele­vi­sion last night when her elec­tion vic­tory was pro­jected. Well done, I can say. She tried her best. Thank God she has won now,” said Ku­u­sow.

Ab­dul­lahi Os­man Haji Adam came to Dadaab with his fam­ily in 1991 and he too re­mem­bers Omar in the refugee camp. “I was young man when I ar­rived. Soon af­ter that Il­han’s fam­ily came, as there was in­tense fight­ing in So­ma­lia. I re­mem­ber she was al­ways alone and sat near their makeshift home. I thought that life was hope­less but to­day I am sure that it was not.

“The camp had no hos­pi­tal and no emer­gency ser­vice avail­able. The only am­bu­lance ser­vice we could find was one wheel­bar­row, which we used to carry sick peo­ple to a faraway hos­pi­tal. We had no school for two years.”

Yes­ter­day Adam, 46, at­tended morn­ing prayers at the camp’s mosque where elders prayed for the new con­gress­woman. He said: “She made us proud. This shows that even if you are a refugee, you can still suc­ceed. We pray for her and hope she will sup­port the refugees.”

Two years ago Kenya’s gov­ern­ment said it would close Dadaab. It has been un­able to do so, but the threat of a new ef­fort hangs over res­i­dents. Food ra­tions are in­ad­e­quate af­ter cuts in fund­ing to in­ter­na­tional agen­cies.

Omar Sheikh Ahmed, 48, a cousin of Omar’s fa­ther, said the politi­cian was “our star”. “Her voice in Con­gress rep­re­sents the mi­nori­ties, and refugees are mi­nori­ties. She knows that we in Dadaab have no good schools. We are fac­ing a food ra­tion short­age. We do not have free­dom of move­ment. Our fu­ture is shat­tered.”

For many in Dadaab, the US refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gramme was the prin­ci­pal hope of a bet­ter fu­ture. Since its cre­ation in 1980, the pro­gramme has led to hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world be­ing ad­mit­ted to the United States. But last year, hun­dreds of So­mali refugees in Kenya who were days from trav­el­ling to the US to start new lives were told they could not travel, af­ter Don­ald Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der banned mi­grants from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries for three months.

Since then, more strin­gent vet­ting has led to a dra­matic drop in refugees reach­ing the US.

As of 10 Septem­ber, 251 So­mali refugees have been re­set­tled this year, a 97% drop from the 8,300 ad­mit­ted by the same point in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Reuters.

Il­han Omar is one of the first two Mus­lim women elected to Con­gress

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