Civil War, the Challenges of Motherhood and Life in America: What Ilhan Omar Learned from What She's Survived
"Making full amends with your past is the only way to have a hopeful future," the Minnesota lawmaker says
That's what Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar says it was like to revisit her flight as a young girl from civil war-ravaged Somalia and her years living in a refugee camp.
In a new interview with PEOPLE, the Democratic congresswoman discusses her deeply personal memoir, This Is What America Looks Like, which was released last month. She explains that, just as she's had a reckoning with her own trauma in order to move forward, so too can America — amid a time of historic unrest over race and policing during a deadly viral pandemic.
“We've been a country that has been future-oriented without taking a complete look back at our past,” says Omar, 37. “And that, at some point, could just start with you. Making full amends with your past is the only way to have a hopeful future.”
In her memoir — subtitled "My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman" — one of the first Muslim women in Congress, and the the first Somali-American, describes her family's daring escape in the early '90s from Somalia in cattle trucks, which were attacked by gunmen.
Omar writes that she and some of her relatives managed to reach their first destination only to be told that her father and brothers had been murdered — and her sister raped. The next day, 9-year-old Omar saw her father and learned the horrific rumors weren't true. But their journey as refugees was just beginning.
She and her family would end up spending three years in a refugee camp in Kenya, where many people died of starvation and various diseases. In one of the most agonizing scenes in her book, she remembers the day her pregnant aunt Fos, who had been her mother in all of the ways that counted, died of malaria not long after they arrived at the camp. (Omar's biological mother had died when she was a preschooler.)
"It was torture. It was torture, absolutely," she tells PEOPLE now of the writing process. "I am someone who goes through moments in life. ... And that has been part of my survival. At times, that has caught up with me. The writing process for this book, it was painful to have all of those moments come to life. And to not only write about them, but to think through how those moments have impacted my life and shaped the person I am today."
With her autobiography, the congresswoman and mother of three traces her trajectory from her 1995 arrival in the United States (when she quickly realized the disparity between daily life and the idyllic videos shown to new arrivals), to her struggles as an immigrant and woman of color that would motivate her to enter politics.
Normally private about her personal life, Omar writes about the challenges she faced during her pregnancies and in her marriage and why she decided to isolate herself in North Dakota — away from most of her family for a year.
She also describes what led to her nomination as the representative for Minnesota's 5th Congressional District in 2019.
The result is a story that reimagines the traditional American narrative and, in Omar's view, deconstructs the "American dream" at its center.
"As someone who really is a complete unicorn in American politics today, I wanted to give the readers the opportunity to really get to know me on a personal level," Omar says. "And give them the chance to see the kind of trials and triumphs I've had. ... Your today never really has to determine your tomorrow. There's always a brighter day if you're willing to fight for it."
While she's willing to open up now, that wasn't always the case. The congresswoman admits that even her kids — Isra, Adnan and Ilwad — weren't aware of the trauma she's experienced.
"I was reading it to my oldest daughter. And she was like, 'You've never talked about any of this,' " Omar recalls to PEOPLE. "And so, it is not only painful, but it's also therapeutic. It's allowing for me to have a different conversation with my children, with my family and the people that I represent who have been on this journey with me, see me as an inspiration. [They] now get to see the full story."
Omar first married Hirsi in 2001 when she was 19. In her book, she writes about the struggle to be a traditional Muslim wife and mother while also getting her college degree. Just after their first wedding anniversary, she gave birth to daughter Isra. Still working on her associate's degree, Omar was anemic and weighed approximately 89 lbs. when she learned she was pregnant with twins, according to her memoir.
She was devastated when she miscarried at 13 weeks.
"I wanted to give people the opportunity to really see how curvy and bumpy and painful my journey has been, so that they can use that as inspiration when they feel stuck," she says.
"It is often a very lonely thing when you're going through stuff in life," she continues. "You think you might be the only one who's struggling ... My hope is that reading my book would give people the opportunity to know that that isn't true."
Omar found some comfort when she reconnected with her faith after visiting with family in Sweden in 2005. Around this time, she also started to wear a hijab, a traditional Muslim head-covering — a decision that was for herself and no one else, she explains.
But by 2008, she experienced an "early midlife crisis." She was buckling under domestic and community expectations. "What was I living for? It wasn't me," she writes.
Omar began to doubt her marriage, her family and even her relationship with her kids. Some days she would hug them tight, while other days she couldn't bring herself "to interact with them, let alone embrace them," she writes.
By the summer of 2008, Omar and Hirsi were estranged and divorced religiously, though not legally. (In the Islamic custom, he just had to declare that their marriage was over.)
Omar shaved her head. She then moved out of state with her kids so she could attend North Dakota State University. Originally she planned to get a bachelor's in nutrition, she writes.
Instead, she realized her interest in politics and switched to international studies and political science. After a year of separation from her family, and a trip back to Somalia with her father, Omar began to truly process her past and what centered her as a person for the first time. She was also able to reunite with Hirsi. (They had their third child, Ilwad, in 2012.)
"The breakdown of my marriage, like that of my relationships with other family members, was a direct result of my unresolved conflict over the fact that while people and places I loved had been destroyed, I had survived," Omar writes in This Is What America Looks Like. "I had to learn to forgive myself and fully accept the woman I had become, before Ahmed and anyone else could do the same."
Professionally, there were other challenges: She writes how she was attacked verbally and even physically because of her identity as a black Muslim woman. She remembers in her memoir once getting a concussion after she was punched and hit at a rally.
Unabashedly progressive, Omar has been a target of conservatives since her election. Her politics — including pro-Palestinian views in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what she says were missteps when talking about Israel and her vocal support of other left-wing policies — have sometimes drawn wider criticism.
In her book, she also addresses ugly conspiracy theories that sprang out of simple facts.
She did apply for a marriage license in 2002 and again in 2009 (when she eloped during her first split with Hirsi), she writes. But tabloids used these facts to support a theory that Omar illegally married her brother to get him into the U.S. — an idea she has called "absurd and offensive."
"It's heartbreaking for someone like me, who is not only private but sees themselves as a fighter, to feel stuck in my notoriety. That I can't really fully fight my way out of this one," Omar says. "The constant battle of figuring out which fight to pick and minimizing certain damages to my father's sanity, has been the most difficult part of this journey."
She continues: "I was raised by a very prideful man who's raised his daughter to be prideful. To know that I put him in a place which he can't defend me and where I can't also defend myself is ... it's like being hostage to your status and to your position and notoriety."
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Omar's focus, she says, is continuing to fight for her constituents. In the wake of nationwide protests over George Floyd's killing while in police custody in her home city of Minneapolis — after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — Omar has introduced legislation to combat police brutality and systemic racism in the justice system.
And on Sunday, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced their plan to break apart Minneapolis' police department, though next steps remain unclear.
"I have been organizing in the Twin Cities, not just against police brutality but for racial justice and equality, for a really long time," Omar says. "Now we find ourselves with the brutal killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department. And finally recognized that there is no amount of reform that can be instituted that would make this extremely disturbing police department more function[al] for all of our residents."
"It's liberating to hear the call to action from demonstrators," she continues. "We need to radically think about what public safety should look like in the future. How do we adequately address substance abuse and homelessness and many of the societal issues that we have criminalized in a way that is more just and preventive, rather than punitive? What role, if any, should police officers have in our community going forward?"
The congresswoman also addressed President Donald Trump's rhetoric about the unrest, including saying he would send in the military to states that do not quell demonstrators to his satisfaction.
While the majority of protests have been peaceful, some have seethed into violence and destruction — and Trump has responded with his own threats.
"You have a president who is spending his time talking about the 'vicious dogs' he has and the kind of armed brutality he is going to bring to crack down on demonstrators, which is the way in which tyrants and authoritarians speak," Omar says. "So we're working on policies to check those powers. And make sure that there is no transgression against the administrators, and that there is the restoration in belief in our constitution and in our democracy."