2017 Changemaker: Ilhan Omar

Photography by Nicholas French Portraiture.

lhan Omar was eight years old when a militia attacked the compound where her family lived, trying to break down the front door and spraying the home with gunfire. Her family fled, spending the next four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Her father, grandfather, and aunts and uncles had worked in government and teaching jobs. Omar and her six older siblings were raised by her father and grandfather after her mother’s death. They lived in tents and stood in long lines to use an outhouse. Omar hauled water and firewood every day.

After four years in the refugee camp, the family was sponsored by a Lutheran church and resettled in the United States. Omar learned English quickly, and interpreted for her grandfather at community meetings and political caucuses. Her grandfather told her that politics was a tool for positive change in people’s lives. “When you see something not going perfectly well,” he said, “you have a responsibility to get involved. Roll up your sleeves and be part of that change.”

The message resonated with her, despite the challenges for a woman entering the political arena: from being told that this is not her place to “the constant guilting” of being told that she is “taking time away from being a mother and a wife and your normal womanly responsibilities.”

“I think that women are the backbone of all of our societies and politics is part of our lives,” she says. “In order to create a better society we have to be actively involved in politics because that’s where change can be shaped. … I’ve always seen myself as someone who can do what’s needed.”

That conviction carried her through years of grassroots political work, and through the contentious 2014 caucus, in which she was attacked, beaten, and left with a concussion. Neither the physical attack nor subsequent smear campaigns deterred her.

In 2016, she defeated long-time incumbent Phyllis Kahn from District 60B in Minneapolis to win a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. As the first Somali-American legislator in the country, she has been in the national spotlight, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine and as a guest on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. She also works at Women Organizing Women, getting East African women involved in community leadership.

“My sister always says you can’t be what you can’t see,” Omar says. Her career shows young people, including her two daughters and her son that there are no barriers to their dreams. “That kind of limitlessness” led her daughter to tweet that people should remember her name, because she is going to be president one day.

Omar is excited about young people’s growing involvement in politics, especially those in marginalized communities who “are rising up to be changemakers.” She hopes that they “believe that if someone like myself who has only been in this country for two decades and has overcome so much is able to win, that they have no excuses. … They have to actively do something.”

Women Organizing Women aims to empower all women, specifically first- and second- generation immigrants, to become engaged citizens and community leaders. wownetwork.org