Ilhan Omar spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp as a young girl, fleeing with her family from civil war in Somalia. Two decades later, after forging a new life in Minnesota, she appears on the brink of becoming the nation’s first Somali-American state legislator. Omar, a 33-year-old community activist, cried as she delivered victory speeches in English and Somali after defeating a 44-year incumbent in the latest sign of the Somali community’s growing influence in the city and state. Her victory in a heavily Democratic Minneapolis district makes her a strong favorite in the general election — where her Republican opponent is also a Somali immigrant. A seat in the Legislature would be a new high-water mark for Minnesota Somalis, who in recent years have won seats on the Minneapolis school board and City Council. First drawn in the early 1990s by welcoming social programs, they’re now estimated by the census to number around 40,000, though community advocates say the figure is much higher.
Tonight we made history.
In an interview on Wednesday, Omar said her campaign set out to build a broad-based coalition of not only East Africans, but longtime residents and students in a district that encompasses the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus and Augsburg College. She said she hopes her victory sends a message to young women of color who are thinking about running for office that they can raise money, shatter stereotypes and win big. “I hope our story is an inspirational story to many people,” Ilan said. She said her priorities would be “closing the opportunity gap in our educational system, working on criminal justice reform, taking on policing reform,” and making sure that minority women entrepreneurs are given the help they need to succeed.