Ilhan Omar was eight when Somalia’s civil war broke out, and her family fled to Kenya to live in a refugee camp for the next four years. From there they arrived in the United States in the early 2000s, when Omar was 12. According to The New Yorker, the only English she knew was “hello” and “shut up.”
On Thursday, Omar, 36, a Democrat from Minnesota, made history when she became the first Somali-American congresswoman in U.S. history. She joins Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib as the first two Muslim women in Congress.
Omar tweeted on the eve of her swearing-in, “23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC. Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.”
“Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants; we send them to Washington,” Omar told supporters at a victory party after her win back in November, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The married mom also spoke of the historic significance of her win at the time.
“I stand here before you tonight, as your congresswoman-elect, with many firsts behind my name,” she said, according to The Washington Post.
“The first woman of color to represent our state in Congress,” she said. “The first refugee ever elected to Congress, and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.”
After her family was sponsored for asylum, they came to Virginia before moving to Minneapolis, with its vibrant Somali community.
Omar was motivated to run to help those who are struggling, something she found surprising upon arriving in America over 20 years ago, Reuters reported.
“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, the outlet reported.
Omar attended North Dakota State University and worked as a Minneapolis City Council policy aide before winning a seat in the State Legislature in 2016, the first Somali-American woman elected to a legislature.
And now, she’s onto bigger things.
“My grandfather taught me that when you see injustice, you fight back,” she said in November, according to the Post. “You do not give in to sorrow, you do not give in to sadness.”