Ilhan Omar on her new memoir, and moving the needle toward progressive policies

A woman looks off over a podium.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar introduces Sen. Bernie Sanders during a rally at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Nov. 3, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

"I wasn't afraid of fighting," Ilhan Omar writes about her childhood in Somalia in her new memoir. "I felt like I was bigger and stronger than everyone else — even if I knew that wasn't really the case."

In This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman, Omar chronicles her childhood in a middle-class family compound in Mogadishu, followed by civil war, four years in a refugee camp, a journey to the United States and ultimately her election to Congress as a Democrat representing Minnesota's 5th District.

Since being elected as one of the first Muslim women to Congress in 2018, Omar has emerged as a progressive and polarizing figure. She has been the target of racist insults, but also drawn criticism for controversial statements of her own.

"I think oftentimes you have to make a choice: Whether you'll be a punching bag or you'll be somebody who's strong and stands up for themselves and for others," Omar tells NPR.

She talked with Weekend Edition about Joe Biden and the presidential race, what she wants in future coronavirus relief measures and an unlikely role model. Listen to the full interview with the audio player above.


U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar kicks off her reelection campaign.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar kicks off her reelection campaign by meeting with supporters including Davonte Robertson, far right, on Jan. 23 in Minneapolis.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii | Star Tribune via AP

Interview Highlights

On the influence of progressives in the Democratic presidential nomination

We might not have moved the needle on the nomination, but I think we certainly have moved the needle on the national conversation on the particular policies we've advocated for. "Medicare for All" is much more popular than it was before this election cycle, and we're having an honest discussion about canceling student debt. We're talking about economic and social injustices in ways that we haven't before. Taxing the wealthy is not just something that you say and people go, "Oh, my God." It's something that people are now actually debating and thinking about ways to be able to do that.

And to see so many people now running for office with the policy positions that we ran on and continue to advocate for really is a testament on how much we've changed the narrative of what is electable and what is debatable in Congress.

On why Joe Biden should choose a person of color as his running mate

I think it would be really helpful for our party to continue to have diversity as not something we talk about, but something we celebrate and push forward.

... To have somebody who is really connected to the people who have been the backbone of the Democratic Party will help create, I think, the enthusiasm that Biden lacks right now with the majority of the base.

On what she wants to see in the next coronavirus relief package

There are musts, right? We want to make sure that there is direct cash payment. We want to make sure that there is hazard pay for essential workers. We want the OSHA protections to remain as part of the final bill. We want increase in SNAP funding. We want to make sure that we're not just expanding COBRA, but getting emergency Medicare for All. We want rent and mortgage cancellation. We have to act comprehensively to stop the kind of economic crisis that is staring us in the face.

On why the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a political role model

It's interesting, right? Oftentimes, we're told who our heroes can be. And for me, I find it to be inspirational for a woman, when there were really no other women around who were leading, to say, "I can do this." And I think as I think about my own journey, dealing with the ideas that many within my own community had about, "a boy should be the first." I needed to have sort of an inspiration, and obviously, she's left a very dark mark in history. But we can't take away how inspirationally bold she was to believe that she can lead as a woman in her time.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Ed McNulty produced and edited the audio version of this interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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