'Your story will be written': Ilhan Omar's stormy rise

Rep. Ilhan Omar walks through a crowd at a press conference.
Rep. Ilhan Omar walked through a crowd at a press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul in 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Growing up in Somalia, Ilhan Omar's bedtime stories were about Araweelo, a tiny queen who ruled over a kingdom where all women were leaders and all men were peasants. Araweelo's folklore spread throughout Africa, and even long after she died, women left flowers at her grave while men threw stones.

"My grandfather would tell me this story every single day," Omar said to a crowd gathered at St. Joan of Arc, a progressive Catholic church in Minneapolis, her small frame pacing across the stage.

"Araweelo was also a very small, tiny person," Omar said. "She wasn't feared because she was a big person. She wasn't feared because she was a tyrant. She was feared because she was wise and she was just."

The story about a woman who was both revered and despised seems prescient now, given Omar's political future. Omar made these remarks back in 2018 when she was still a first-term DFL member of the Minnesota House from Minneapolis. She was months away from winning an open race for the 5th Congressional District.

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In the span of a few short years, Omar's gone from a behind-the-scenes activist in Minneapolis politics to a figure known around the world, loved or loathed for what she represents to people.

Young progressives have celebrated the rapid rise of a refugee and Muslim woman in the era of Donald Trump. She's joined forces with other prominent freshman lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., with the intent on shaking things up in Congress. She's appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and as a guest on "The Daily Show" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," racking up nearly 1 million followers on Twitter in the process. She even had a cameo in a Maroon 5 music video.

But her critics are just as fervent.

Early in her time in Congress, Omar fired off a series of tweets on the conflict in Israel and the lobbying forces behind it in Washington that were criticized as playing on anti-Semitic stereotypes and culminated in a dramatic vote on the floor of the U.S. House condemning all forms of hate.

Supporters wait for the president to arrive in Burnsville, Minn.
Supporters of President Trump and Rep. Ilhan Omar lined the street outside of Nuss Truck and Equipment before a roundtable with the president in Burnsville Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Recently, a picture of Omar's face next to the flaming World Trade Center — falsely linking her to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — caused so much outrage in the West Virginia Capitol that it resulted in a staffer's resignation and lawmaker kicking a door open so hard he injured a doorkeeper.

And just last week, Trump issued a tweet suggesting Omar downplayed 9/11 in speech in March to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It's caused backlash for Omar and an uptick in death threats to her office. But it's also sparked a #StandWithIlhan movement on social media, with her supporters arguing the president and Republicans took the quote out of context to villainize her.

University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said the tweet rallied Democrats around Omar, but she is quickly becoming the mascot of the GOP's 2020 election strategy, with the party using her as a proxy to tar all Democrats.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), center, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a rally.
Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rallied with fellow Democrats at the U.S. Capitol last month in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images file

"It used to be done with Nancy Pelosi for a long time, and now there are a number of first-term Democratic women, Democratic women of color in particular, that I think Republicans will really focus on in the next election," she said.

The whole situation has brought glaring attention to Omar, 36, whose droll sense of humor and slow, deliberate manner of speaking belie the controversy that constantly surrounds her.

"I actually read the comments on Twitter, I read the comments on news articles, because I find them sometimes to be the most entertaining things," Omar told MPR News in an interview, one of only a few with local media since she's been elected to Congress. "I'm really entertained by their creativity and the things they come up with."

Omar has, in some ways, grown accustomed to the chaos: it's been there her entire life, from her childhood in a refugee camp to her days as a DFL activist and state legislator. All of it has shaped her approach to Congress as much as her grandfather's words of advice, who told Omar to take the day like Araweelo.

Refugee and immigrant

Omar was just 8 years old when civil war broke out in Somalia. She still remembers the night militia men entered her family's compound in Mogadishu.

It was the early 1990s and the nation imploded over the increasingly totalitarian rule of President Siad Barre. He was ousted along with the national army, and in their void a conflict among clans erupted, pitting neighbors against neighbors. Omar's family home in the city was in the middle of two opposing forces.

"I remember hiding under the bed with one of my aunts and one of my sisters and sort of everything getting quiet inside the home," Omar recalled. "And then militia men who were outside of our windows started talking about ways that they could make their way in."

Fortunately, Omar said, her aunt recognized the men's voices and realized they were her classmates. She negotiated with them to leave the family alone. Eventually the voices faded away, and by morning they were gone.

But so was the Somalia of Omar's youth, which she remembers as "glorious" before the war.

She said she was the youngest of seven children in a prominent, affluent family. Omar lived in a blended compound with her grandfather and other relatives, many of them educators and officials in government. Her education was a top priority for the family: she went to school during the day, and when she returned home, her relatives would act as her "third" and "fourth" teachers, Omar said. In the afternoons, the family would eat lunch together, debate politics and listen to music and the news hour on Radio Mogadishu.

Her mother died when she was 2, but Omar said she never really understood that she grew up without a mom. In an interview with MPR News last year, Omar said she didn't know exactly how her mom died. She said she was spoiled with the affection of her father and grandfather, who raised her to feel she was special and to voice her opinions in a mostly patriarchal society.

But after their close call with the militia, the family decided it was no longer safe to stay in their home. They were some of the first people to settle in the Utanga refugee camp near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa. At the time, the camp was just some tents and makeshift huts erected in an isolated jungle setting. Omar remembers it like a "huge playground."

"I know that even sounds silly saying it, but as a kid it was like a newfound independence to be able to roam around," she said.

There was no sanitation or water at the camp, and with restrictions placed on the adults, it became young Omar's job to do many of the chores, such as fetching water. The family spent four years there before they got sponsorship through a resettlement program to move to Arlington, Va. Omar said the only things she could say in English were "hello" and "shut up."

For the first time in her life, Omar felt different in her mostly white school, where she said she was bullied.

"Growing up in an all-black, all-Muslim society doesn't really lend itself to a lot of discussion about what it means to be Muslim or black," Omar said.

When she complained about it to her father, he pushed her to learn English as quickly as possible.

"He talked about how it's hard to hate up close," she said.

She was proficient in English within six months, according to Omar, and a few years after moving to America her family decided to resettle in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis and its growing East African community.

Political 'trial by fire'

Knowing English came in handy when Omar started attending DFL caucus meetings as a teenager, interpreting for her grandfather. They weren't necessarily invited, she said.

"I believe that you have to try something to really know what it's like," she said. "There is this idea that you have to get invited or asked for permission to participate in any kind of way, I've always believed that is not necessary."

Ilhan Omar celebrated with her husband Ahmed Hirsi after her Congressional 5th District primary victory in Minneapolis last year.
Kerem Yucel | AFP | Getty Images 2018

Omar went to college, started a family in her 20s and worked as a nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota. At the same time, she was rapidly rising in the activist ranks in Minneapolis DFL political circles. She served on local boards and ran several campaigns, eventually landing a job as a policy aide at Minneapolis City Hall.

"Sometimes she will tell you stories about her life, and you will realize two things were happening at the same time," said Erin Maye Quade, a former state DFL representative who worked with Omar. "She is talking about being in college but also talking about being a mother at the same time."

"She just doesn't strike me as someone who is patient," she added. "That is just not who she is, and the more you hear about her life and the more she talks about it, the more you see that she's like, 'I'm ready to go, right now, and do the work.' "

By 2016, Omar had made the transition from activist to candidate, running in a competitive three-way DFL primary for a Minneapolis seat in the state House. She won — toppling a 44-year incumbent, Phyllis Kahn — and was handily elected in November.

She became the first-ever Somali-American woman elected to a state Legislature in the nation — the same night Trump won the presidency.

Ilhan Omar takes the oath of office.
Then-state Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, took the oath of office as the 2017 Legislature convened in St. Paul.
Jim Mone | AP 2017

But Omar's step into public life kicked off a string of controversies that followed her everywhere. She's been dogged by and denied allegations from the conservative blogosphere that she was married to two men at once, one being her brother to help him obtain legal status. Republicans in the Legislature mounted a series of complaints that Omar repeatedly flouted campaign finance laws. The Minnesota Campaign Finance Board cannot confirm or deny the existence of any complaints.

"It's been a trial by fire for her," said Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who hired Omar as his policy aide in City Hall. "You see that taken into every new experience, she has to quickly learn to navigate and get her feet under her and learn how to be more successful in every situation she is in."

Embattled start in Congress

The scrutiny on Omar only intensified when, two years later, she emerged as the Democrat who would replace former DFL U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in Congress.

In February, just weeks after being sworn into office, she sent a tweet suggesting American politicians' support for Israel is "all about the Benjamins," a reference to $100 bills. She followed that with a tweet specifically calling out the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the main lobbying forces behind Israel.

That earned her swift rebuke from the Jewish community, who accused her of trafficking in dangerous anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews use money to gain power. Republicans called for her to resign from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., arrived to observe the Senate's failed votes to reopen the federal government on Capitol Hill in January.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images file

Omar eventually "unequivocally" apologized for the posts, saying her Jewish allies were educating her about "the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes."

But the next month, at a forum in Washington, D.C., bookstore, Omar said, "I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country."

That was also criticized as playing into stereotypes about divided loyalties among Jewish-Americans. This time, Omar didn't apologize.

That triggered the House resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, but not specifically Omar.

The situation is causing some heartburn back in her liberal 5th district, which has a sizable Jewish community. Shep Harris is one of them and a longtime Democratic activist and mayor of Golden Valley. He said Omar should meet monthly with rabbis, synagogues and other Jewish leaders to show the community that she's listening and learning.

"That's what we need," he said. "We need a member of Congress who can help unify a majority of this district, and right now that's not happening," he said.

Her friends and allies in the district are watching in disbelief. Habon Abdulle, a Somali activist who encouraged Omar to run for office, said she doesn't know how to process hearing Omar called an anti-Semite. She said she's being unfairly targeted as a Muslim woman.

"I wish people could know her, because she is the person you want to have at your side when you are a marginalized person and if you want to be defended," Abdulle said. "And it's totally untrue how people are saying she's an anti-Semite.

"I was like, do they even know Ilhan?"

Omar's story 'will be written'

At the St. Therese senior care facility in New Hope in March, Omar was surrounded by women much like her: They fled civil war in Africa and came to America for a better life.

But these women, employees at the facility and others like it across the Twin Cities metro area, were Liberians at risk of losing their legal status in the U.S. in days if Trump didn't extend the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program.

"Twenty years, 10 years, 15 years is putting deep roots in a community, so when you do that in a new country, the old country is no longer home," Omar said, highlighting her bill that would extend their status.

In the middle of the press conference, Betty Munford started to weep at the thought of her friends and co-workers being sent away. Omar walked over and put her arms around Munford. Afterward, the women mobbed Omar for selfies. Munford was breathless about her encounter and embrace from the congresswoman, an immigrant like herself. She was unfazed by any of the controversies surrounding her.

"Oh, god, it felt so good, I felt so blessed," she said. "I love her so much. I love her so much no matter what she does."

Trump ultimately did extend the DED program for another year.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., listened as lawmakers spoke about the Voting Rights Enhancement Act on Capitol Hill in February.
Joshua Roberts | Getty Images

Omar considers part of her responsibility in Congress to bring a voice to refugees and others who haven't had "a seat at the table." As one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, one of her first acts was to change a 181-year ban on headwear on the House floor so that she could wear her hijab. She went viral in February over her tough questioning of Trump's special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, about his role in Central American killings during his stint in the Reagan administration.

She said her views on Israel — she favors a two-state solution — are informed by her experience as a survivor of war and as a refugee. Without their homeland, the Palestinian people are permanently displaced, she said in a recent editorial in the Washington Post. "This, too, is a refugee crisis, and they, too, deserve freedom and dignity."

"There's a challenge for every first, but eventually we can transform this place," she recently told MPR News. "There are lots of policies that are nuanced now because we have moms in Congress. There are policies that are nuanced because we have people who come from working-class backgrounds."

That's how she views her moment of controversy as well. When the House voted to condemn anti-Semitism as a rebuke of her comments, Omar noted it marked also the first time Congress voiced opposition to Islamophobia.

"It's in those moments when millions of people feel like the most powerful body in the world is able to see them and acknowledge their existence," she said.

Ellison, now Minnesota's attorney general, held the seat before Omar and was a first, too: He was the first Muslim member of Congress.

"Not all of them are coming at you because they hate you. Most of them are, yes, but some of them are people who are just thrilled that you are there because nobody like you has ever had this position, and their expectations of you are too high," Ellison said. "There's a lot of hostility and there's a lot of high expectations, and it's just not easy. Anything you say or do is going to be taken down and reinterpreted in some kind of way."

Supporters wait for the president to arrive in Burnsville, Minn.
Supporters of President Trump and Rep. Ilhan Omar lined the street outside of Nuss Truck and Equipment before a roundtable with the president Monday in Burnsville.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Omar doesn't expect the people who dislike her to stop trolling her on Twitter or stop leaving comments about her on news articles, and she chuckles now about her grandfather telling her the story of the controversial Araweelo, the powerful ancient queen.

In Somalia, there are two diverging versions of Araweelo's myth: Some men say she was a ruthless ruler, while many women idolize her. Omar said the message he was trying to convey holds a lot of currency with her today.

"No matter what you do, your story will be written," she said. "The best that you can do for yourself and those around you is make sure that you are living the story that you want to be written about you."