Ilhan Omar: ‘There’s a Reason That I Got Elected to Be in Congress, and It Has Nothing to Do With the Fact That I’m a Refugee’

Ilhan Omar: ‘There’s a Reason That I Got Elected to Be in Congress, and It Has Nothing to Do With the Fact That I’m a Refugee’

On the first episode of our new podcast, Next Left, we talk to the trailblazing politician about how she went from refugee to US representative.


From the grass roots to the ballot box, we are witnessing an explosion of progressive political energy. New candidates are running for offices high and low—and they’re winning. In Next Left, a new podcast from The Nation hosted by national-affairs correspondent John Nichols, these insurgent politicians let us into their lives, tell us their stories, and explain how they plan to change our country for the better.

We want to understand how the people who are forging the next left got turned on to politics, and what they plan to do now that they have been entrusted by voters to upend the status quo.

The first guest on Next Left is Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar. We spoke in her Capitol Hill office, where visitors are greeted by an image of Shirley Chisholm, who 50 years ago was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Omar is, herself, a woman of many firsts—the first Somali American and the first naturalized citizen to serve in Congress, and one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the House. She is also the first member of Congress to wear a hijab. We are delighted that she is the first guest on Next Left.

Subscribe to Next Left on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Show Notes

Reps. Omar and Schakowsky: We must confront threat of white nationalism—together
CNN Opinion, May 14, 2019
Black History Month Playlist: Ilhan Omar talks Prince, music that inspires her
Marla Khan-Schwartz, The Current, January 31, 2019
Why Liz Cheney Is So Determined to Marginalize Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar
John Nichols, The Nation, May 14, 2019
Time for Ilhan 2018 Documentary by Norah Shapiro
This week’s sponsor: A Crisis Wasted, by Reed Hunt
Theme song: “Deli Run,” by Ava Luna

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Full Transcript

Introduction from John Nichols

Welcome to Next Left. I’m John Nichols of The Nation magazine. This is a political podcast that looks forward, not backward. We’re interested in new ideas, new candidates, new ways of campaigning, and new ways of upending status quo politics. We begin with a set of ground rules. Ground rule number one: no presidential candidates. That makes things harder, because it seems like everyone is running for president in 2020, but we’re talking to the people who will be running 10 years from now, 20 years from now. We’re talking to the people who will forge and define the next left. Our second ground rule is just as strict as the first: no of-the-momentism. We aren’t going to focus on the controversy du jour, we’re not going to obsess about what the president just tweeted or about the latest ginned -up controversy. We’re obsessed with the people whose energy and ideas are generating a new politics and renewing the promise that another world is possible. We want to get to know the change agents and the challengers, the rabble-rousers and the rebels, we want to understand how they got turned onto politics, where their ideas come from, why they chose to step up at this point, and how they plan to change communities, states, and the nation

This podcast extends from a remarkable moment in American politics. At The Nation magazine in the past few years, we’ve been covering people who have been stepping off from picket lines and out of demonstrations and going straight into the corridors of power, but these people don’t forget where they come from. On Next Left, we’ll be talking to people at every level of politics. We’ll talk to members of Congress who have been on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek, but we’ll also talk to city council members, state legislators, and other folks, who you may never have heard of, but who you need to know. We believe, that in coming to understand who these people are, we will get to know a lot more about our politics, and about the intersection of movements and elections and governing, where real change, fundamental change, becomes possible.

We begin today with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who represents the 5h Congressional District in Minnesota. We met in her office in Washington, where visitors are greeted by an image of Shirley Chisholm, who 50 years ago was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Omar is herself a woman of many firsts: She is the first Somali American in Congress, the first naturalized citizen from Africa in Congress, the first woman of color to represent Minnesota, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the House, she is the first member of Congress to wear a hijab, and she is the first guest on Next Left.

John Nichols: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, thank you so much for joining us.

Ilhan Omar: Thank you so much for having me.

JN: I wanted to start with the statement you made on the night you were elected. I believe it was, “Minnesota doesn’t just welcome immigrants, it sends them to Congress.” Did that just occur to you or did you think about that a little before you said it? Because that was a strikingly good opening line for a congressional career.

IO: Yeah, Trump came to Minnesota two days before the 2016 elections and that piece really is a significant piece in, in the documentary Time for Ilhan, that’s about my election to the Minnesota House. And there’s this, this question right about what, what happens in a time where someone who was running for president, who eventually becomes president, has used his platform to demonize refugees and immigrants and to tell Minnesotans that they should not be as welcoming and that without their knowledge, these people were just coming into their state. It sort of was a reminder that in Minnesota we didn’t just welcome refugees. We were proud enough to send them to Congress.

JN: I was a remarkable moment. I remember that Donald Trump and his campaign made a strategic play for Minnesota. They surprised people by winning Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan. But they thought Minnesota might be one of their states as well.

IO: Yeah.

JN: They came in at the end and Trump had a component in his speech that was quite visceral as regards Somali immigrants, if I’m not mistaken.

IO: Right.

JN: So suddenly you’re elected, and you had this teaching moment. It strikes me that, in watching you, you are conscious of teaching moments and of that opportunity to say something that might cause people to think differently about what’s going on.

IO: Right. I mean, I think people have a misconception about refugees and, and the process they go through to come to the United States. They certainly have been misinformed about the process of resettlement as well. And the Republicans are really good at misinformation and sort of really reorganizing facts to sort of paint a picture that really eventually is not rooted in fact. We had a person who was running for governor, and he kept talking about ending the resettlement program and making sure that that that wasn’t going to happen. And I remember I wrote this tweet and I said, you know, I wish that you would take the time to at least educate yourself about how the resettlement program works. There are agencies that run the resettlement program. This is, this is a process that’s run through them. If you end that contract, it’s not that refugees are not going to be resettled, it’s that the state just doesn’t get informed. And so the only leverage you have is that you are part of this contract and you can be part of the negotiations on how many people get resettled in your state. And so it is not that they might not be knowledgeable about this, but they use it as a tool to stir up hate and division. And ignorance really is pervasive in many parts of, of this country. And as someone who was raised by educators, I really like to inform people about things that they might be ignorant to, willingly or unwillingly.

JN: I’m interested in your experience, it obviously influences not just who you are, but also your politics—

IO: Right.

JN: You spent a substantial portion of your childhood as a refugee in an exodus experience to some extent. I know your parents were educators. Were you conscious as a child of being buffeted about by geopolitical differences? When did you start to become aware of the fact that politics and governments could have profound positive or very negative effects on people’s lives?

IO: Yeah, I think I was aware of all of it actually quite young. You know, this is, this again goes to my distaste for a lot of the kind of journalism we have here in the United States these days. I grew up really being glued to the news. Listening to BBC was very much part of my day-to-day life, from like 4 to 8 [years old] and in the most ways that I can remember. And so, you know, we, we learned really about much of what was happening around the world. I was quite informed about the Cold War and the kind of struggles that some of the African nations that remained under colonial power were going through. And the idea of Pan Africanism, the work that needed to get done there, a lot of the struggles that were happening in the Middle East for peace, all of that, the United States’ role in that was, was very much a part of our informed lives. And I don’t think that I really ever did not have a time where I didn’t really connect politics to how we were living. And I think certainly when you’re living under a dictatorship that that is very clear. I mean, I, you know, we were, we were Muslim, but we were in a very secular country. And I remember my aunts and sisters talking about the fact that they couldn’t wear their hijab to work or to school and how, you know, the only times they could wear it was to go to the mosque and sort of talking about the politics of that and, and the spread of Wahhabism coming in to Somalia and how that was shifting the culture in the country. And how my grandfather and others had a complete distaste for it. And what happens when your norm, is sort of shifted and, and so I think I always had a sense of of what outside influence looked like, what struggle for your own liberation felt like and how you had agency, whether you knew it or not, you know, was very much part of the 8-year-old, 10-year-old Ilhan’s life.

JN: That’s a pretty remarkable 8-year-old, 10-year-old experience. And you have to give your parents some credit for that.

IO: Yeah, yeah.

JN: At a certain point you came to America, as many Somali refugees did. Your father was a very educated man and he became a cab driver, which is not uncommon in the immigrant experience. Tell me about that, that arrival, that coming to America experience.

IO: So, you know, it’s a huge transition. I talk a lot about this, this weird orientation that we had to go through to come to the United States. My family we’re very excited about the prospect of coming here and we go through these orientation classes and you know, my dad went to most of them and my older siblings were also required to go. I really, I wasn’t, and I went to a few of the earlier ones and I just remember like the, the kind of American life experience that we were being exposed to and being excited about that and everybody being excited about that. And I remember when we came, you know, this is again the, the untold stories. You get help with one month’s rent. Everybody is expected to, to find a job and, and sort of figure things out. The resettlement agencies help, but you know, if you are a literate person and certainly someone who speaks English or you know, family with multiple members who speak English, you don’t really get help. But English language isn’t the only thing that you need to be able to start a life in the United States after having lived in a refugee camp for four. And so there, there were many challenges and I know that dad was very excited about the ability to earn and so he, he worked at the airport, that was kind of his, his first job and then eventually became a cab driver here. And then when, when we moved, he worked at the postal office and retired with a beautiful pension.

JN: Well, the Post Office has often, has been a road up for many people from many backgrounds. It’s underestimated or we fight over with privatization of the Post Office. And I always think this is one of the lost parts of it—that these are good jobs.

IO: These are, it was a great job and he loved it, you know? He’s a night owl like I am. And so he often worked a night shift and I worked with him one winter. My junior year going into senior year-

JN: This was high school or college?

IO: In high school-

JN: You were a postal worker?

IO: I did, I worked at the post office, because I needed to get a car and this is the thing you do when you’re a senior. And my dad believed that you had to earn everything that you had in life and uh, told me I had to work and that he’s gonna help find me a job that could, could get me, you know, enough money to, to get my first car. And if I fell short, he’d help. And so I worked at a night shift. I would go in and come out at 7 am in the morning and go to school and be present for my 8:20 am class. And I did that for, for six weeks and earned enough, for him to supplement. For me to get—

JN: What kind of car did you get?

IO: I got a two-door red Cavalier.

JN: Nice

IO: Good American made car. Enjoyed it for a little bit.

JN: Benefited from a union work setting.

IO: I did, yeah.

JN: Got a good American made car, did you have decent radio?

IO: It did. Yeah.

JN: What did you listen to? What music did you listen to?

IO: Everything.

JN: Really?

IO: Everything, I kind of really listen to, you know,  I’m a huge fan of pop music obviously, but I enjoy rock. I have surprising, surprising to many people, a huge love for country music, and I also just love Somali music, it gives me nostalgia.

JN: You are the first, if I’m right about this—and I’m pretty sure I am—the first Muslim American to succeed a Muslim American in a congressional seat.

IO: I suppose.

JN: [Former Minnesota Democratic Congressman] Keith Ellison held your seat.

IO: Yeah. He was also the first person of color to represent Minnesota. And I became the first woman, yeah, black woman, woman of color to represent Minnesota.

JN: Where did you make that pivot from? Obviously growing up in a very political family to deciding to make that state legislative race in 2016?

IO: Hmm. I mean, like I alluded to earlier, that was born out of urgency. You know that we were being represented by someone who was there for 44 years-

JN: You challenged an incumbent in the primary.

IO: Yeah. I suppose this is the piece a lot of people don’t know. And it was, you know, the David versus Goliath kind of race. There was a Somali man who was also running in the race who now succeeded me in that seat. And it was, quite a challenging race to think about entering. But I really believed that we needed people who understood that the idea of being a liberal was very much different than being a progressive, because to me being a progressive meant that you were actively seeking to create progress. And I didn’t feel that the person who was representing us was actively working to create progress—[I didn’t feel] that there was an urgency about the work that she was doing. And I certainly didn’t feel like there were a lot of people who were working with urgency in creating positive change. And so I eventually decided to, to enter the race. And, you know, people would say to me, “If you get 10 percent of the votes, Ilhan, you should be proud of yourself.” And people had very fascinating advice about taking off my hijab and what assimilation meant to them.

JN: Don’t be you.

IO: Don’t be me. Yeah. But the whole idea was that it didn’t matter what the person looked like or where they came from, that we really should be interested in a participatory democracy where the person who seeks to represent you has fluency in your day-to-day lives. And I felt like I knew the people who lived in my state district. And I, I believed that I could represent them in the best ways possible.

JN: Lo and behold, you ended up in Congress-

IO: Yeah, who knew?

JN: Yeah, but it’s interesting because you do come out of this experience where you really were drawing so much from your constituents and you get elected to Congress it has be an exciting thing and you’re, you come and you have all these ideas. You, especially because of the diverse nature of your district, want to talk about a lot of human rights issues, as well as just basic issues on the ground at home—

IO: Right.

JN: You want to work on Medicare for All and all these things. You get to Washington and almost immediately there are people who want to pigeonhole you, right? They want to get you into the narrowest definition of who you are. And as a freshman member of Congress, you’ve got the president tweeting about you and []Wyoming Republican Congresswoman] Liz Cheney and other people. How do you deal with that, that sense of people trying to make you into one kind of very narrow thing when you have obviously so much you want to do?

IO: Yeah, I mean I think that there is really a clear, orchestrated effort to talk about me as the Muslim refugee, you know, foreign member of Congress, and I am that. But there’s a reason that I got elected to be in Congress and it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a refugee, an immigrant Muslim or woman, or black woman. It’s because I am someone who has a particular lens about how we approach policy domestically and internationally and to many of the people here my approach is more threatening to them. And I think for them it is more pleasant for me to just be seen as like this person who, you know, is sort of like an example of like hope still being alive, which is wonderful. But I’m someone who is agitated about things, the way things work here. I’m someone who believes that Congress needs to be beholden to the people and not special interests, that we have to be consistent in our values, whether they are domestically or internationally, and that fighting for prosperity shouldn’t be that hard.

We don’t have to settle. We can fight to have our Green New Deal. We can certainly get Medicare for All. We can cancel out student debt. We can certainly pass our Housing for All Bill. We can get a universal school meals program up and running. But in order to do all of those things, we have to stop policing the world, right? We have to not have over 800 bases, military bases around the world. We have to not spend 57 cents on the dollar on defense, while we cut education and health care and housing funding. If we truly say that we believe in the young people who are so patriotic that they sign up to sacrifice their life, their time with their families in order to protect our lives and to provide us with the comfort of knowing that they are out there protecting us. Then we also have to provide them with the comfort of knowing that we are going to take care of their families, that we are going to take care of them when they come back, whether they have an injury that is visible or not.

And so that kind of hypocrisy is what sometimes gets to be visible to me: in the way that we speak about our values and how we carry out our values. It might not be something that is visible to everyone, but I hate hypocrisy, and I think it’s very hypocritical for, for us to say, you know, “We love our brothers and sisters who go to fight for us,” and then not to show them that love and care when, when they come back—and [not to]show that love and care to their families.…

I was having a conversation with a congressman from Florida and I said, you know, “We should scale down our defense budget.” And he said, “Ilhan, you know I have military bases in my district.” And I said, “Well, that’s precisely why I wanted to talk to you. You should know your constituents who are vets, who have families that are struggling with feeding their children… And many of them are homeless. Or you know, don’t have the security of having a home.” And so I said, “What if we spent money in providing housing for our military families and our vets? How about we spend money on providing health care for them? How about we spend money on alleviating the stress that’s caused by the debt that they are shackled with?” And he said, “You know, It was really nice chatting with you. I’ll catch you later.” And so to me, that is someone who is quite a hypocrite and his constituents will never get to know that because he’ll get on a podium and he’ll talk about how much he loves our vets, and how much he supports them and how much he stands with our men and women in uniform. But when it comes to showing up for them in real ways, he will not; and he will be the first one to say, “Ilhan doesn’t care about you. Ilhan doesn’t care about our military. Ilhan doesn’t value our soldiers.” But the reality is I value them. I see them, I see their humanity. And I feel their sacrifice. And I think that as a society we should compensate for that sacrifice that they’re making.

JN: I wonder whether there are folks who think, “Well we have got to identify her as anti-Semitic or as a friend of terrorists or as…” I mean just run down whatever tweets that have been sent. [I wonder if your critics] say these things because then maybe folks won’t listen to you when you start to talk about, when you speak just in the way you did.

IO: Yeah.

JN: One of the most interesting things about you is that as people get to know you, you do build relationships. You just had an op-ed with [Illinois Democratic Congresswoman] Jan Schakowsky, and I thought that was kind of a heart-and-soul message there. That brings together so many things, because you were saying we’ve got to go together, we’ve got to go forward together. And speaking about this divisive politics is politics that tries to marginalize folks. How did you two get together to do that?

IO: Yeah, I mean, so you know, there are a lot of opportunities to focus on the things that unite us, if you’re willing to see those opportunities. We oftentimes are forced to see the things that divide us. And so I am someone who always is trying to find, right, where the common ground is with people and connect with people. And I know that with conversation, always, as my dad used to say, “It is hard to hate up close.” Once you are in conversation with people, those things sort of really disappear, all of your differences in your otherness disappears. You’re just people.

In the case of Jan and I, we are just mothers who, you know, are from the Midwest who represent districts from the Midwest with Midwest values who both come from backgrounds of being a religious minority, understanding the struggle of having both of our faiths being attacked and people really being hunted down and killed because of it. And so in sort of being in conversation around that in the last few months, it just was a natural fit for us to think about doing this op-ed in light of what happened in California and the domestic terrorist in that case being linked to a bombing of a mosque. It just was a perfect time to have the conversation on how really when we are talking about anti-Semitism, the threats are coming from white supremacists and it’s this idea of, you know, having Islamophobia and anti-Semitism being on the two sides of the same coin, and the linkage of othering and xenophobia really being the driving force of it. You know I mean racism’s also in the root of that.

And so we also wanted to uplift the fact that black churches have been attacked. So Christians aren’t really immune to it. And around the world, we see that every religious minority in whatever form it might be, whether it is Christians, it’s Muslims or Jewish people, you will see that there are, you know, terrorists that are attacking people of faith in a place of prayer. I mean, I was having a conversation with my dad: In a time of war, the only place that you would go to seek shelter used to be in a place of worship because that was the place that nobody would be so soulless enough to enter, to take a life. And you have people now in the name of faith taking the lives of people in a place of worship. And so that sort of stripping of morality and humanity, it’s one that should shake all of us to our core. And we have to find ways to remedy that and bring us back to a place of unity.

JN: Can we get there?

IO: I’m hopeful. I mean, you know, I’m an optimist and I believe that regardless of how challenging things get, how uncomfortable things get, we will always find a path forward together if we’re willing to do the work. I like to shake people into that reality sometimes and make them realize that our discomforts are really rooted in not challenging the status quo, and that having the difficult conversation, once we allow ourselves to talk about the awful things, account for historical trauma, have the the kind of gut-wrenching conversations you get to have with people that you feel like might’ve hurt you, we end on the other side of that in a more positive way, that strips us of an ugly armor, and allows us to sort of unveil our more vulnerable, freed persons. And I believe that there is an opportunity here in the United States for us to have a honest conversation about our challenges, have an honest conversation about the things that divide us, have an honest conversation about where hate is being fueled, and the political nature of it. And I think once we are able to do that, we will eventually find our way. As I say, love trumps hate and we are better when we are united in our diversity.

JN: Thank you, Ilhan Omar.

IO: Yeah. Thank you so much.

JN: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

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