From Somalia to Congress, Omar makes history
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