Ilhan Omar fled civil war in Somalia and spent four years of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. Now she is poised to win a seat in the U.S. Congress, taking on a president who has tried to prevent people like her from coming to America.
The Democratic state legislator is heavily favored to win her Minneapolis-based district over Republican Jennifer Zielinski in the Nov. 6 congressional elections, which could make her one of the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Omar, a 36-year-old naturalized American citizen, said she is running for office to make sure fewer people have to struggle with the daily necessities of life, something she was shocked to find when she arrived in the United States as a refugee with her family at age 12.
“I did not expect to come to the United States and go to school with kids who were worried about food as much as I was worried about it in a refugee camp,” Omar said in an interview.
An Omar win would not affect the balance of power in the House, where her party needs to win 23 seats to take a majority, because she would succeed fellow Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006. Ellison is stepping down to run for Minnesota state attorney general.
She is campaigning on policies embraced by the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party - universal healthcare, free college tuition, robust public housing - that are popular in a district that has not elected a Republican to the House since 1962.
Omar made history two years ago when she became the first Somali-American in the country to win a seat in a state legislature, unseating a 44-year incumbent Democrat along the way. No Somali-American has ever served in the U.S. Congress.
That same night, Republican Donald Trump won the presidency after a campaign in which he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.
Trump has since banned people from Omar’s native Somalia and several other Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, citing national security concerns. He also has sharply scaled back the number of refugees admitted into the country.
Like many liberal Democrats, Omar has said she would vote to impeach Trump, citing his business conflicts and the ongoing investigation into his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia. Many Democratic leaders ahead of the election have downplayed the possibility of impeachment, wary of inciting a backlash from Trump supporters.
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to remove a president from office through the impeachment process for treason, bribery or other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” No president has ever been removed through impeachment.
Omar also said removing Trump from office would elevate Vice President Mike Pence, known for his own conservative views.
“It is a completely difficult position to be in,” Omar said. “Yes for impeachment, lots of anxiety about what comes next.”
With her election all but assured, Omar has been campaigning for other Democrats across Minnesota. She has sent roughly $50,000 to other Democratic House candidates around the country, according to an aide, Connor McNutt.
She has been accused by a Republican state legislator of misusing campaign funds while in the state legislature. Records showed she has spent money on trips to Estonia as well as Boston and other cities, and she has returned $2,500 in speaking fees from two state colleges. Omar said she believes her office has complied with campaign-finance rules.
If elected, Omar may take office at the same time as another Muslim woman, Democrat Rashida Tlaib, who is running in a solidly Democratic Detroit-area U.S. House district.
“She comes in at a time when the president is hostile to immigrants, Muslims, women, a whole lot of different kind of people who are represented by her,” Ellison said of Omar. “Facing war, facing displacement - these things will make you strong, and she’s plenty strong.”