Ilhan Omar Cries During Moment of Silence for COVID Victims After Her Dad's Death Last Year

"No words can describe what he meant to me and all who knew him," the Minnesota lawmaker said of her father after he died

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty

A moment of silence held by lawmakers for those lost to COVID-19 grew personal on Monday as Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar held back tears one year after her father died of complications from the virus.

A bipartisan group of members of Congress gathered on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol building to mourn the approximately 600,000 people killed in the pandemic in the United States.

Among those lost is Nur Omar Mohamed, Omar's father, whose death she announced in a June 2020 statement.

"No words can describe what he meant to me and all who knew him," the 38-year-old Democrat said at the time, adding: "My family and I ask for your respect and privacy during this time."

In a tweet last year echoing that statement, she wrote of her "tremendous sadness and pain ... to say goodbye" to her father. Omar also quoted the Quran: "Surely we belong to God and to Him shall we return."

On Monday night, she could be seen wiping tears from her face as she stood with her colleagues for the moment of silence, which was followed by a rendition of "God Bless America" sung by a member of the Air Force Band.

After fleeing the Somali civil war as a child, Omar and her family later spent three years in a camp in Kenya before arriving to the U.S. in 1995. She recounted that journey and her own upbringing in her 2020 memoir, This Is What America Looks Like.

A former refugee and one of only two Muslim women in Congress, Omar told PEOPLE last year that she called herself "a complete unicorn in American politics today," adding that with her book, she "wanted to give the readers the opportunity to really get to know me on a personal level."

"Your today never really has to determine your tomorrow," she said. "There's always a brighter day if you're willing to fight for it."

Omar's ascent to Congress hasn't been without its controversies.

As a vocal progressive, she is a lightning rod for conservatives and, since her ceremonial swearing-in with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the start of the the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019 (during which her father held the Quran), she has at times angered those on either side of the aisle with politically charged comments regarding America's with Israel.

After one such incident in 2019, when she criticized a lobbying group that supported Israel, Omar said: "Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. ... I unequivocally apologize."

Ahead of the Monday remembrance for COVID-19 victims, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer touched on the "grim reality" of those who lost their lives just as "Americans were on the verge of getting the vaccine."

"So, as our fellow Americans are taking their masks off, going back to work, seeing families and friends, and returning as they should to life, let us remember those who cannot," Schumer said. "Let us hold them in our hearts a little while longer."

While the death toll from virus in the U.S. is some 600,000, the number of deaths from the virus - as well as the number of cases and hospitalizations - has dropped in recent months, particularly as several vaccines have rolled out across the country.

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