On Tuesday night, America voted for its first Somali-American legislator in Minnesota, home to the nation’s largest Somali population.
Ilhan Omar won a state House seat in a neighborhood known as “Little Mogadishu” by defeating a 44-year incumbent in a three-way primary, reported the Associated Press. Her win is testament to a gradual rise in influence by the community who saw a Somali school board member in 2010 and a Somali city councilor in 2013.
“It’s the beginning of something new,” Ms. Omar told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “This district has a legacy of making history. I am excited for our progressive values and to be able to be on the ground at the Capitol representing the diverse people of my district and being a champion with them and for them.”
Omar is a hijab-wearing Muslim-American woman who came to the United States at age 8 after spending four years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Her identity – and victory – highlights the growing influence of an increasingly diverse American population where minorities are eager for their voices to be heard.
Against the backdrop of increasingly toxic rhetoric against immigrants and refugees, the demand for such voices may become all the more significant.
“It says something important about the future of Minnesota, and what it means to be a Minnesotan,” House minority leader Paul Thissen told the Tribune.
“From a refugee camp to the State Capitol with intelligence and insight,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak also told the Tribune in August. “This is a wonderful story to tell as Americans, and a great source of pride for the state of Minnesota’s open arms.”
The representative-elect delivered her victory speech in both English and Somali, calling her win evidence that she can break barriers.
But she may have her work cut out for her in trying to address claims that her community is harboring terrorism, and in helping minorities – women, Muslims, Somali-Americans – have their needs met.
In 2015, investigations found that Somali-Americans from Minnesota represent the largest group of Americans targeted for recruitment by Islamic extremists. President-elect Donald Trump has called Minneapolis and its “faulty” vetting of Somali Muslims a “disaster,” reported Reuters, citing it as justification for barring immigration from “terror-prone” regions until extensive measures are in place.
The problems present in the community, ranging from school troubles to lack of connection to the mainstream culture, are acknowledged by some who see a local leader like Omar as a solution.
“We need leaders who can change our community,” Hassan Abdi, who emigrated from Somalia himself and voted for Omar, told the Tribune. “Too many young people are going around with no jobs.”
Up to 40,000 Somalis have settled in Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and other areas in the state, according to census estimates.
Omar wasn’t the only minority woman to shatter a glass ceiling on Tuesday night. Across the country, Stephanie Murphy in Florida became the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress, Lisa Blunt Rochester became the first African-American elected to Congress from Delaware, and Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina US senator.