Ilhan Omar fled her native Somalia amidst civil war to Kenya, where she lived for four years in a refugee camp. Now, the 33 year old is poised to become the nation’s first Somali-American legislator, representing a heavily Somali and East African district in Minneapolis.
Omar won the Democratic-Farm-Labor Party primary Tuesday, edging out Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a 44-year veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives in a highly competitive race. The DFL is the Democratic Party affiliate in the state, which has the highest population of Somali immigrants in the U.S.
“Tonight we made history,” Omar said Tuesday evening at a victory party in Minneapolis. “Tonight marks the beginning of the future of our district, a new era of representation.”
With nearly 41 percent of the vote, she also defeated Mohamud Noor, too a Somali-American, in the DFL primary for district 60B. Both received more votes than the incumbent Kahn, who is tied as the longest-serving legislator in Minnesota history. She called Omar’s victory “historic” and praised her opponent for running a “very good campaign.”
The district is heavily Democratic, making Omar the favorite in November.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback, who endorsed Omar, said the state should be proud of her campaign.
“From a refugee camp to the State Capitol with intelligence and insight,” he said. “This is a wonderful story to tell as Americans, and a great source of pride for the state of Minnesota’s open arms.”
Omar’s district includes the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the heart of Minnesota’s Somali-American community. Activists like Omar, who is director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women, have been increasing the community’s political participation in recent year as it struggles with economic inequality and several high-profile arrests of Somali-American men seeking to join the Islamic State group.
Omar isn’t the first Somali-American politician in the Cedar-Riverside area: Abdi Warsame was elected to represent parts of the neighborhood on the Minneapolis City Council in 2013, becoming the first Somali-American to serve in that role.