Ilhan Omar. PHOTO: gettyimages
Ilhan Omar is a Somali-American woman born in the capital city, Mogadishu in the horn of Africa. A place she called home for her first eleven years. The quintessential African character forming values which she would have imbibed from infancy and which will follow her to her grave include, reverence for elders, family and communal cohesion, providing support, hospitality, work responsibilityand zeal for self-improvement. Central to Omar’s reflections on Africa would be images of the daily toil of its entrepreneurial, indomitable and irrepressible populations. This unconquerable spirit which refuses to give up despite debilitating odds would no doubt be a factor in propelling her to reach her personal and career goals.
Omar was raised in Baidoa, a cityin a semi-arid region of Somalia, with a population of under 400,000. She would have been all too familiar with the myriad of villages and hamlets, set on a sea of reddish to dark clay, surrounded by the pristine wilderness of Africa’s flora and fauna andbathed in the yearlong splendour and warmth of the African sun. These places are more than often, deemed abject as they are bereft of vestiges of urban sophistication or chic andlack most modern amenities and conveniences. Nevertheless, they areworlds away from the crippling stresses and dangers of advanced metropolitan centers, which experienceincessant waves of soul destroying turmoiland ever-increasing angst. These locales characterized by calm and stillness appear to be lost in time.
Moreover, the generality of the inhabitants being guile less, wear their hearts on their sleeves and possess compassion in spades. They would share their last meal with a total stranger and protect them against peril to their own hurt. As an African, I can attest to the fact that regardless of the attainment of a world class education and commensurate admirable accomplishments, we are tinged with some aspects of Africa, in its simplicity and openness. This would make Omar’s present predicament very difficult for her to understand or to abide with. The fact that a target has been put on her back, placing her life at risk and exposing her children to threats of violence, is a price no one should be asked to pay for speaking their truth in an advanced Democracy.
Omar was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016and in 2018 she became the first naturalized citizen from Africa to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.She is an advocate for a living wage, affordable housing, healthcare and student loan forgiveness. Her orientation towards people empowerment is no doubt wedded to her strong African familial and community spirit, which is diametrically opposedto ever-increasing Western societal interpersonal alienation and noxious competition. Her strong, articulated views have earned her the wrath and rancour of certain media organizations and the Republican Party leadership.
She has distinguished herself as an African, a woman, a Muslim and a refugee. These are all categories of humanity deemed loathsome by Donald Trump, the President of the United States. Trump has been so craven as to encourage death threats against her, ostensibly for her political statements. Such is his obsession with bringing about her downfall that this dainty, diminutive political colossus from a small, dusty city in a small African country is living ‘rent free’ in the head of the U.S. ‘Potentate’ at the most lofty address on the planet. By the by, she arrived via the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where she lived for four years, after fleeing war in Somalia with her family. The UNHCR camp once hosted close to a quarter million refugees and asylum seekers, making it the third largest such complex in the world.
After narrowly escaping an attack by militiamen, Omarand her family left their home and she remembers walking though streets littered with debris and corpses. The fact that Omar was uprooted from her home due to the civil warwould have resulted in major material loss as well as psychological and emotional trauma, in addition to which she would have had to contend with the pressureof her refugee status and its ramifications. The exigencies of a refugee camp would have entailed that she be assigned a number, thereby further eroding her sense of personhood, self-respect and individuality, as she became a statistic.
Her experiences in the refugee camp could have marred her for life. Obviously her strength of character and determination were pivotal to her survival and growth. Jason Burke, Africa correspondent for The Guardian after interviewing Omar, wrote the following in an article entitled ‘The lesson is to be hopeful’ – ‘The Utango camp was isolated and rudimentary with limited sanitation. Omar collected firewood and water for the family and has described how she enviously watched similar-aged children going to school in uniforms, and asking her father if she could resume her education.’
Omar arrived in the U.S. under a refugee resettlement programme. She has experienced life at the bottom of the rung and has had to pull herself up by dint of hard work, discipline and sheer bloody-mindedness. Her background was bleak, laden with dark portents for her future. The vicissitudes and vagaries of life presented her with few silver linings and she was certainly not the beneficiary of a golden parachute. Citizen Omar is a genuine patriot and a worthy ambassador of her adopted country and is living proof that the ‘American dream’ is still alive, even under the Oligarchic system which has its tentacles around democratic institutions and values.