In a Kenyan refugee camp, Omar sparks dreams
DADAAB, Kenya - Somalia’s three decades of nearly nonstop conflict, more than a million refugees have made their way into neighboring Kenya. For four years as a child, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., was one of them.
For a long time, Dadaab - populated mostly by Somalis - was the largest refugee camp in the world. Today it is smaller but still home to a quarter of a million people. On International Women’s Day on Friday, for some of Dadaab’s young women, Omar is on their minds.
Her journey and achievement is a powerful antidote to the despair of the camp, especially in the era of the Trump administration’s so-called “refugee ban,” which makes the resettlement Omar’s family benefited from seem so distant for people here. Distant, too, is the controversy that has swirled around Omar in recent weeks, in which she has been reprimanded by those within and outside her party for remarks perceived to be anti-Semitic.
“In this part of the world we love her,” said Nyamouch Hoth, a 21-yearold South Sudanese woman. Hoth sat in an empty classroom with a friend, seeking shade from the 100-plus degree heat. On a piece of white printer paper, she sketched a portrait of Omar.
Hoth has spent the last four years in Dadaab and is one of the small number of non-Somalis there. Her uncle once sponsored her to go to an art school in Kenya, but he was killed in South Sudan’s civil war, and her money dried up. Her mother had decided to flee South Sudan, and the two of them landed in Dadaab.
“I would like to meet Ilhan in person one day,” said Hoth’s friend, Amina Yussuf. “She is my role model.”
Yussuf dreams about following Omar’s path but knows it’s likely out of reach for now, given the tightening restrictions on resettlement in the United States these days. She doesn’t want to go back to Somalia, even though the U.N. is offering money for those who voluntarily return.
She believes her family will force her to marry someone against her will. In Dadaab at least, she can attend school and hang out with friends. Behind the walls of a nongovernmental organization’s compound, Yussuf and her friends sometimes get to play basketball.
Life in the camp is monotonous though, and making ends meet has become tougher in recent years. Drops in aid funding have led to increased food prices, and Kenyan authorities periodically threaten to shut down the entire camp, making for a precarious existence. Since militants from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab attacked a hotel in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, in January, rumors of a crackdown have put everyone on edge.
“I think Donald Trump hates us the same way he hates Ilhan,” she said.
Moving back to Somalia is out of the question for her - “it’s a suicide mission” - and if Dadaab is shut down, she said she’d seek out another refugee camp.
Amina Yussuf voiced the obvious: “This place is stifling.” Bullies at school were making it even worse. At least her friend Nyamouch was teaching her how to draw.
“I hope that Ilhan can talk to Mzee Trump on our behalf,” she said, using an honorific title used for older men.