Top Quotes: “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman” — Ilhan Omar

Somalia

“With a crowd of kids screaming around us, the bully and I began fighting. I was small but a good fighter. I pulled the boy down and rubbed his face in the sand. When my brother who was in the 8th grade arrived to watch the fight and saw me grinding the boy into the ground, he shouted, ‘Ilhan! What the hell?’

My brother wasn’t actually surprised to see me at the center of the fight, just annoyed. There was always a slew of parents coming to our house to complain that I’d hurt their children. My dad would just laugh. ‘The only child nobody should be coming here to complain about is my smallest baby.’

“In our Mogadishu compound — filled with African art, books of history and Somali poetry, and music — the disagreements were constant. We were a multigenerational family — aunties, uncles, cousins, and siblings from my maternal side, all living together.

We were unlike a traditional hierarchical Somali family, where when the father or mother spoke no one else dared utter a word. Instead, everyone, even the youngest child, me, was brought into every decision. Sometimes I wished Baba, my grandfather, and my aabe, my father, would take on more authoritarian roles. They were annoyingly accommodating to each person’s opinion and patient during the ensuing arguments. Everybody was always screaming about what we should do, even when it came to what we were going to eat for dinner. The constant conflict made us at once close and distant from one another. Despite our differing POVs, we all were accustomed to disputes — we had that in common.

There was nothing typical about my family. To this day, I don’t know a family quite like ours. But in Somalia, where members of an extended family living together are almost always patrilineal, we especially stood out, since my aabe had moved in with my mother and her family after they were married.”

“Just as he wouldn’t compromise on the quality of the tomatoes in his soup, Baba didn’t waver in his convictions. He stayed true to his vow to raise his daughter as an equal to his sons. When Hooyo met Aabe, she was in her 20s, which was very rare at the time, since women predominantly married in their late teens. Not only that, but she was also gainfully employed as a secretary for a government minister. I don’t know that my grandfather needed her financial support, but my mother had a sense of duty about living up to the responsibility and unusual privileges she’d been afforded by her father.

Everyone know that if you ever needed Baba to sign on to something or calm him down about a dispute, you needed to talk to his daughter. She was my grandfather’s true confidante. I wasn’t surprised by the stories I heard time and again about how while she was alive, whatever Hooyo said, went. That’s because Baba continued to invest a lot of time and energy in the girls of the family (more than he did with the boys, according to my uncles). He was extremely close to us and didn’t adopt the traditional patriarchal role of the protector that Somali men usually fall into with the opposite sex. He treated us as equals.

It’s always hard to say why a person goes against cultural norms. My grandfather’s freethinking partly stemmed, perhaps, from the fact that he didn’t come from one of the country’s formalized clans. The maternal side of my family was Benadiri, a Somali ethnic minority who trace their lineage to Persians, Indians, and Bantu peoples from W. Africa and Arab Yemenis. Successful traders credited with helping spread Islam to Somalia, they settled in port cities like Mogadishu, where my grandfather was born and raised. I think Baba embraced the idea that if you don’t fit in anyway, you might as well do what you want.

“I wasn’t enough of a girl, at least in the traditional sense. None of the women in my family were expected to cook and clean — like most Somali women. We certainly had just as many, if not more, opinions than the men in the house. But I also did what boys did outside the house. I played soccer. I climbed trees. I snuck into the movie theater. No girls I knew did any of that.

My tomboy ways only fueled the talk among the neighborhood women about ‘poor Ilhan,’ a girl growing up without a mother. Never mind that I had all the love and attention of a crowd of caring adults, they reasoned, I must have been deprived of a mother’s affection and guidance.

There were so many assumptions about who and what I was supposed to be, and none of them fit the description I had of myself. But I wasn’t burdened by the discrepancy. Indeed, I never bothered to answer for it. Instead, I followed Baba’s example. If there wasn’t a world out there to fully embrace me for who I was, I didn’t have to worry about appeasing anyone.”

I was 8 years old when civil war broke out in Somalia. One day everything was okay, and the next, there were bullets piercing not only buildings but also people.

Bullets raining from the sky was a constant. Sometimes, though, the fighting got too loud even for us who’d grown accustomed to it. During those times when the adults worried that the militia might be closing in our neighborhood, we fled to our great-grandmother’s neighborhood. As the gunfire and rumors intensified, at least we weren’t sitting ducks. In the reality of war, sometimes running for shelter somewhere else makes you feel safer — even if it isn’t so. On the way to my great-grandmother’s house, I saw bodies piled up on the street. We stepped over them.

The adults didn’t know what was happening, even though I felt they should. Instead, I kept hearing them say the same thing over and over: ‘I don’t understand how everything just turned.’

I remember everything shutting down. School was the first institution to go, but eventually the mosques, the postal service, the TV stations, even the market closed down.

The city’s major outdoor market was just to the right of our home. On the other side was a main thoroughfare. On a normal day before the war, it was a bustling spot with people and cars coming and going all the time. During the war, the activity was very different.

The Makka Al Mukarama, a nearby hotel owned by Ali Mahdi Muhammed, the man who would name himself Somalia’s new president, became his HQ. As mortars and bullets flew from one side of the conflict to the other, they went directly over our house. The noise was almost constant, and they lit up they sky overheard at night. They kicked up dust all day when they hit the ground or concrete buildings. Our house was hit multiple times, although, thankfully, no one was ever hurt.”

“The chaos in the streets meant access to food was limited. We didn’t have vegetables or meat, but as my family members reminded me when I complained about the constant meals of beans, we were the lucky ones. At least we had something to eat. Somalis were literally starving. The market was closed, and food supplies were being hijacked by the local militia. In 1992, the year after the war began, an estimated 350k Somalis died, many from disease and starvation.

My family got very creative in figuring out new dishes to make out of the same staples of stored beans, rice, flour, sugar, and oil. We ate rice ground into porridge for breakfast and plain rice for lunch, and skipped dinner.”

“As I understood it, a dictator — Mohammed Siad Barre, who’d controlled the central government for more than 2 decades — had been ousted in Jan. 1991 y the United Somali Congress (USC), the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, and various other clan-based armed opposition groups. That was exciting for everyone, because nobody wants to live under a dictatorship. But by Nov of that year, the clan factions within the coalition took up arms against one another and soon plunged the country into anarchy.

The battle was between 2 commanders: Ali Mahdi Muhammed and Mohammed Farah Aidid, who both claimed to be Somalia’s rightful leader. The generals were from the USC and the same clan, the Hawiye, but they claimed differences stemming from their sub-clans. To most Somalis they looked, sounded, and acted in very much the same way. Each got poor young men from his sub-clan to join his militia with offers of food, machine guns, and khat, a plant that acts like an amphetamine when chewed.

Although the Benadiris (my mother’s side of the family) weren’t caught up in this clan-based conflict, the Hawiye systematically targeted my father’s northern-based clan, the Majerteen, who’d been originally subjected to Barre’s brutal crackdown and were the main members of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front opposition group.”

“It took a direct attack on our home to make Baba understand we were no longer safe anywhere in Mogadishu. In all the conversations among my family members, there had been a feeling that — as long as we kept our heads down and didn’t cause any trouble — we would be okay. My grandfather in particular was oblivious to the shift taking place within the community he’d lived in for decades. He found it hard to imagine that his neighbors — the mothers he’d gone to fetch the midwife for when they were into labor and the babies born whom he watched grow into parents themselves — would turn on us.

It was evening; we’d just eaten dinner and were sitting around in the courtyard when we heard the sound of clanging metal. My uncle ran to the gate at the front of the house and shouted, ‘Someone’s climbing and trying to get in!’”

“After about an hour of quiet, we heard a massive volley of gunfire at the gate. Bullets — loud, loud bullets — banged over and over at our gate. I imagined metal spraying our beautiful blue steel gate but that it wouldn’t budge. The tops of the courtyard were lined with broken glass that would cut anyone who dared try to climb over.

Eventually, though, a structure broke loose, and we could hear that they were now inside the outer courtyard. It sounded like an army of men, shouting, shooting, but who knew how many of them there actually were.

It was bizarrely calm inside the house. We all moved really slowly as we found hiding places under beds and inside cupboards. My grandfather made sure nobody’s head was in a place where it could get shot.

The men outside set upon the car in the courtyard, stripping the Corolla of anything of value, including its wheels. Then they tried to get in the house. They banged on the doors, broke the glass in the barred windows, and shot at the cinderblock walls. But the house proved impenetrable.

Through a broken window, still protected by bars, we could hear two of them talking to each other, brainstorming ways they might get inside. My youngest aunt and my older sister, who aren’t far apart in age, happened to be hiding in that room and recognized the voices — they belonged to boys with whom they went to school.

‘Jimcale, is that you?’ my sister asked.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Who’s that?’

‘It’s me, Iskufilan, your classmate.’

‘You’re going to die today.’

His chilling words didn’t stop my sister. ‘Does your mother know you’re here, trying to kill us?’

He didn’t answer.

‘You remember the day I gave you money to buy ice cream?

My aunt was having a similar conversation with another one of the boys, reminding him of how she’d stop by his house from time to time for a visit. My aunt and sister continued to chat amiably with the boys, who were still pretending they didn’t know them.”

“Eventually the noises in the courtyard and the talking by the windows stopped. We ventured out of the main house. The men had looted our front courtyard, taking everything except the shell of the car, presumably because they couldn’t move it.

The men were gone. But Baba knew they’d be back. We had to leave. So the following morning, we fled our home — its books of Somalia poetry, its collections of African art and music, as well as the safety of its walls.”

The Refugee Camp

“Early that morning, we boarded a cattle truck bound for a nearby town that wasn’t under the United Somali Congress’ control. There was a full load of human beings, maybe 30 or more of my neighbors, squashed into the open bed used to haul animals.

It was the most uncomfortable ride of my life. The truck seemed to lurch along, making what was undoubtedly a string of roadside extortion stops.”

My family had split up and loaded ourselves as human cargo into several cattle trucks that left at different times. Aabe had left first, accompanying my 2 eldest siblings, who were most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of war. At that moment, able-bodied young men posed the greatest threat and therefore were the first target.

The truck that Fos and I were traveling on seemed to make a million stops. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard massive gunfire and men screaming. Our trip abruptly ended. Chaos immediately broke out inside the back of the truck. People crawled over one another without regard, scrambling to get out without getting shot. We jumped out of the truck, forgetting to take the few things we’d brought with us from home. I was barefoot as we ran as fast as we could toward the makeshift border with the sounds of weapons firing at our backs. The sun was beating down and we didn’t have water, but we kept going.

By the time we made it to our first destination, a coastal town named Baraawe, night was falling. With nothing to eat and nowhere to go, we were so tired we couldn’t think or see straight. We simply fell asleep on the beach. I didn’t mind. It was quite peaceful on the soft sand, under a canopy of stars.

With the morning came the worries. Unsure who among our family members had made it to our final destination, Kismayo, Fos began making inquiries among the other people huddled on the beach.

‘They are no more,’ one woman said after hearing a description of my father and siblings. According to her, they’d all been murdered.

Oh the stories we heard! My father and brothers — slaughtered. My sister raped. Shocked, we didn’t want to believe any of the conflicting reports. But on our second night on the beach, as I went to sleep, I tried to prep myself for life as an orphan. Will I be mistreated? How will I survive without Aabe?

At dawn on our second day in Baraawe, the ocean air was heavy and sweet. I could hear the rooster’s crow. It was that moment in the day when the sun is forcing its way in — a red-yellow orb rising from the sea. I felt like I heard my dad’s voice. I wanted to go follow it. I got up and started walking to where his voice was coming from, and toward the end of the stretch where everyone was sleeping, there he was. Just standing there. I went and put my hand on his face, just to make sure he was real. And he was.

He wasn’t dead or mutilated or hung from a tree or anything else I’d heard about him. He lifted me up into his arms and we walked back to my aunt.

That moment, it was everything. My father had made it to Kismayo with relative ease. Arriving there, though, he realized that my aunt and I would be defenseless in our journey and so selflessly backtracked to find us and make sure we all survived the journey. 30 years later, it still makes me tear up to remember this moment.”

“Having left a lot of our family behind in Mogadishu, we didn’t know who was alive and who was dead. Every week, different cousins or aunties arrived in Kismayo, but my grandfather hadn’t made it out yet and I worried about him a lot. The family, which had already sold jewelry and other possessions, didn’t have enough money to get everyone out at once. The priority had been to save those of us in the most danger. That was my father and his children, because his clan was a target. So we went first with a few of my aunts, who came along to provide support. Baba believed he could withstand the horror to come. ‘They aren’t going to kill an old man,’ he’d reassured me before I left.

But one day he, too, made it to Kismayo. Eventually everyone made it. But the militia persecuting my father’s clan took over the city at least once while we were there — we simply had to keep moving, across the border and into Kenya. But for that, there had to be another marshaling of resources and dividing up of our family — this time by physical ability.

One way to cross into Kenya was by foot. Although Aabe and most of my other relatives took a boat, a few of my siblings walked the 500 km to the border. Baba and I didn’t have the strength for the journey by foot or by sea. Neither did Fos, who by this point was pregnant. So we were smuggled out of the country at great cost on a small plane used to bring in contraband shrimp. My aunt and I traveled in one aircraft, and my grandfather in another. The smell of putrid seafood was horrific, and the trip was extremely shaky. As I watched other passengers throw up, I wondered if it was motion sickness or the smell.”

“When we arrived in Kenyan territory, we didn’t land at an airport but in the middle of the desert, where we got off the plane and started walking. Whether it was exhaustion or relief at arriving in Kenya, all I remember of that day is sitting in a field surrounded by other Somalis as tired as we were and being handed numbers on pieces of paper by staffers of relief agencies.

At first it was just Fos and me. The Utange refugee camp, 5 km west of the port of Mombasa, was hot and bare. In the camp, there were no structures, just red dust with the sun beating down from a too-bright blue sky overheard. Looking around at the empty land, I was confused. This was where we were going to live? But how? I didn’t ask any questions, though. I could tell my pregnant aunt was tired and unwell from the journey.

She’d also had business to take care of. We had to pick out a tent and make sure that we reserved space for the rest of our family, who were still on their way. As my habaryar gave the names of my father, siblings, aunties, uncles, and cousins, I was reassured that their arrival was official.”

“We’d escaped flying bullets overhead and starvation-level food shortages, but I soon discovered that the Utange camp had unseen dangers of its own. Malaria, dysentery, and respiratory diseases were rampant. The camp lacked sanitation and healthcare, and the refugees living there were malnourished and under great psychological stress.

A couple of weeks after we arrived, Fos contracted malaria and grew extremely ill. There was no medicine except for ancient remedies practiced by the other refugees living in the camp. I went all over to find help for my aunt.”

Every week, somebody else died. I felt like I witnessed more death in the refugee camp than I did during the war. I had a hard time making sense of it. Alll these Somalis invested so much of their energy and so many resources in getting themselves and their children to safety, only to find themselves newly in danger. Flying bullets were no longer a threat, but there was illness and starvation.

You could see the calculus visibly malnourished parents made to feed their children first. Kids were constantly being orphaned. I would play soccer with a boy one morning, and the next he would be an orphan. It was an everyday occurrence. Extended family or clan members took care of these children, but it wasn’t the same as having your parents.

A family with 6 children, distant relatives of ours, lost both their mother and their father in a span of 2 weeks. The youngest, Umi, was no more than 6 months old, and the oldest, Nj, was maybe 11. It immediately became a communal responsibility to figure out how in the world these kids were going to make it. Everyone took turns helping out. Even I would get sent to help with baby Umi. Holding her, I watched her big sister Naj struggle to keep it together.

None of us held out much hope for the 6 siblings, which is why I was stunned when one of them reached out to me, decades later. After I won my congressional race in 2018, the middle sister, Amina, called my district office. She told me that Naj had stayed in Africa, but that the rest of the siblings had resettled in MN, IA, and WA.”

“The camp was made up of row after row of beige tents that faced each other with little space between. The physical closeness meant that we were all in one another’s business. Games were the least of it. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see and hear people having sex. Everything in Utange was out in the open.

So much so that you could find a bunch of things to entertain yourself with in the camp. My favorite activity was going to the ‘movies,’ which was just a TV with bunny ears set up in a shed by an enterprising Kenyan in the neighboring town. For a few shillings, you could watch a show or movie airing on TV. That is, if you were able to sneak into town by crossing the barbed-wire fence. My friends and I used to squeeze through small tears in the chain-link fence. Sometimes, on our way back into the camp, we would get chased by locals, who didn’t like it when refugees crossed into town. Unable to make it back to the gaps in the fence without getting caught, we had to climb over the barbed wire (I still have the scars).”

“There were watering stations throughout the camp where people lined up with plastic jugs to fill when they finally arrived at large cement blocks with faucets. The water line was always a fight, which was why my family sent me. Not only because I was little, but because I was never going to let anyone cut me in line. Altercations broke out, because the water ran out at the stations. Then you had to go to another section of the camp for water. Sometimes I spent half the day going from station to station in search of water.

The other line known for battles was the one for the bathroom. Standing in line for hours when you need a toilet is an obvious stressor. The water I collected from the water lines in the morning was used for everything — including washing out clothes, which was done by hand outside our tent, and washing ourselves, by taking water in a bucket to the bathroom and pouring it over yourself once you got a stall.

I also did in line for our food, such as rice, beans, flour, or oil. Various food items were scheduled for distribution throughout the week and month. Whenever families had an excess of anything, they traded or sold it to the locals.”

“As the refugee settlement grew in size since its inception, the nearby Kenyans began to resent our presence. 2 years after the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Kenyan government set up the camps, the population had grown to 334k refugees. What did these sprawling squalid camps bring the local Kenyans? Other than black-market trading with the refugees, the only real economic benefits to the locals were the UN Refugee Agency contracts for building the camps. Because of the financial incentive in rebuilding, the camps were burned down several times.

We lived through 2 or 3 fires at the camp during our stay.”

As far as I was concerned, I didn’t care if we never left. I had finally acclimated to my life in Utange. Sure, I had to wait in a long line for water every day and had few opportunities for my schooling other than my religious ed, but I had friends and a routine. I’d found normalcy and so had the adults, who weren’t in shock anymore.”

The US

“All I knew how to say in English when I arrived was hello and shut up.”

“Because of my lack of English, I was put in the English Language Learner (ELL) program, for kids who needed extra help or attention, either because English wasn’t their first language or they had learning difficulties. In that class, I was surrounded by Latinx students, who I thought were speaking English, but in retrospect were probably speaking Spanish. Whatever the language, they could at least talk to one another. I was the only one who was deafly moving around in space.”

“I had language to communicate with others and navigate life. Still, school remained hard. The problem was no longer one of miscommunication but reputation. I’d became known as the kid who fights.

I certainly didn’t do anything to change that perception. The littlest thing could set me off, as when a kid in my class started to tease me about a boy’s having a crush on me. I was writing when he turned to another kid and said, ‘Johan likes Ilhan.’

‘Stop talking about that,’ I said.

‘What are you going to do about it?’

I hit him, and then he hit me. While we were tumbling over chairs, he kept saying things that made me more and more angry until I got my hands around his neck. I pushed him up against the wall and wouldn’t let go even after he began foaming from the mouth. I didn’t release him until some teachers the kids had flagged down pulled me off of the boy. That was bad. I got sent home; I got in-school detention; I got after-school detention.”

“Every quarter he reviewed my report cards. If I got all As, I received $300. For As and Bs, I’d get $200. If there was a single C, the amount went down to $100, and if I got a D in any subject, I got nothing.

The money I earned for my grades determined my budget for buying clothes, so I was very motivated.”

“Earlier that day, I was getting my hair braided, because I was going to be a bridesmaid in a wedding the following day. Traditionally, braids on a woman signify that she’s unmarried. Once they’re married, women cover their hair with a wrap. This was a nod to Somali nomadic culture that predated the country’s Islamization, so the wrap wasn’t a hijab but a smaller turban. There’s a ceremony dedicated to this transformation, 7 days after the wedding, called Shaash Saar, which means the putting on of a scarf.

The tradition came back into vogue after the civil war. When I was little, nobody did hair braiding for their wedding, but in the diaspora, people were looking for traditions that connected them to their African roots.

“Because dating wasn’t accepted in our culture, to our families we were never BF and GF but rather people who were interested in someday getting married.

And someday, according to everyone around us, had finally come. We’d been around each other enough, the families reasoned. It was time to take it to the next stage. So in 2001, before I was 19, the decision was made by our families that Ahmed and I would get married.

My dad was perhaps the only one who wasn’t so eager for me to get married. He’d expected me to go to college, earn a degree, find a profession, and become fully independent — and then maybe I could think about marriage. On the other hand, having his daughter in a relationship was an inconvenience to his conscience. He would’ve preferred his daughter have a legitimate reason in the eyes of god to hang out with a member of the opposite sex. This conflict tortured my father, who on some days thought our getting married was a great idea and on others, a horrible one. He finally resigned himself to the belief that Ahmed and I could build the kind of educated and employed life he’d always envisioned for me, but together.”

“In August, the summer after I graduated from high school, Ahmed’s family decided to ask for my hand in marriage. This is a formal tradition in which the males of a groom’s family arrive to make the ask to the males related to the bride. I wasn’t there, just as I wasn’t there for the religious ceremony to marry Ahmed and me, a ceremony traditionally attended only by the male members of the family. My dad appeared on my behalf, accepting my willingness to enter into marriage. While cultural traditions in Islam are as varied as the places it spans, religiously a first-time bride is obligated to have a surrogate stand in for her. The male can be present himself.”

“With my good grades, extra credits, and the leadership role I’d assumed in school in the diversity group and as a tutor, I had many options when it came to college. But I didn’t know that. As was typical of many refugees, immigrants, or children who are the first to attend college in their family, I was totally ignorant of the vast higher ed landscape and its wide variety not just in style but also in quality.

I found my school on TV. I’d been watching when a commercial came on for a 2-year associate’s program that students could attend one day a week, one night, whatever worked for them. And it was right in the center of the Mall of America! Not only could I take classes on a flex schedule, but the school was located in a major transportation hub, so I could drive there or take the bus. It seemed perfect.”

“I was instantly gripped by the horrifying thought of the hyenas along the road. How does a mother walk away from her child, unsure if they’re dead but knowing that even if they aren’t, wild animals will eat them alive?

Almost as quickly my shock was replaced by deep gratitude for what my father, grandfather, aunt, and other relatives had to endure during our long journey to the refugee camp. For a long time I’d been angry that we hadn’t all traveled together. The adults in the family made lots of choices during that time, many of which never made sense to me.”

“An attendee said to me excitedly, ‘You’ll be the first first person in Congress to wear a hijab!’

The comment was meant as a vote of support, another happy first. But I heard an ominous warning. Later, I repeated the hijab remark to a member of my staff, who confirmed my suspicions about covering my head in the Capitol when he said, ‘I wonder if that’s allowed.’ I looked it up, and sure enough, headwear of any kind had been banned from the House floor since 1837.

As soon as I saw the ban, I felt dizzy, like I’d just been punched in the stomach. ‘How in the world am I going to make this work?’ I wondered, quickly spiraling into thoughts of the worst-case scenario: I win, but I can’t serve.”

“In my community, right after that horrific day when almost 3k people were killed by Al-Qaeda terrorists, women took off their scarves and men cut their beards. There was an imminent threat to being visibly Muslim as we reckoned with the automatic association with Islamic terrorism.”

“Speaker Pelosi and McGovern not only made sure I was able to be on the floor to vote for the package, they also had me author the amendment that overturned the 181-year-old ban on headwear to allow for hijabs, yarmulkes, or head coverings for illness or hair loss.

I got emotional at the suggestion because of what putting my name on the provision symbolized. They weren’t making an accommodation for me, but were encouraging me to take ownership of the change I’d sought. It said a lot about their character.”

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