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Rep. Ilhan Omar Talks About Her Life And Embattled First Months In Congress


Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar has been a polarizing figure since she was first sworn into Congress in January. From her time in a Kenyan refugee camp to her days as a state legislator, Omar has had a tumultuous history. The congresswoman recently sat down for an interview with Minnesota Public Radio reporter Briana Bierschbach to talk about her life and embattled first months in Congress.

BRIANA BIERSCHBACH, BYLINE: Growing up in Somalia, Ilhan Omar's grandfather would tell her the story about Arawelo, a queen who ruled over a kingdom where all women were leaders and all the men were peasants. Here's Omar telling the story of this polarizing mythical ruler a little over a year ago in front of a crowd in Minneapolis.


ILHAN OMAR: She wasn't feared because she was a big person. She wasn't feared because she was a tyrant. But she was feared because she was wise, and she was just.

BIERSCHBACH: The story about a woman who was both revered and despised seems apt now. In a few years, Omar has gone from an activist in Minneapolis politics to a congresswoman and figure known around the world. Progressives have celebrated the rapid rise of a refugee and Muslim woman in the era of Donald Trump. One barrier she broke was ending a 181-year-old rule barring headwear on the floor of the U.S. House so that she could wear her hijab. Omar has also faced death threats, and her name was on the hit list of an alleged domestic terrorist. Omar, who's 36, says she pays attention to the attacks but doesn't always take them seriously.

OMAR: Some people are very creative. So I am really entertained by their creativity in the things that they come up with.

BIERSCHBACH: Omar has grown accustomed to the chaos. It's been there her entire life, starting with her childhood in Somalia. She was only 8 when the country's president was overthrown.

OMAR: I remember hiding under the bed with one of my aunts and one of my sisters and sort of everything kind of getting quiet inside the home. And then the militia men, who were sort of outside of our windows, started talking about ways that they could make their way in.

BIERSCHBACH: Her family spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before they moved to the U.S. For the first time in her life at all of 12 years old, Omar felt different.

OMAR: Growing up in a all-black, all-Muslim society doesn't really lend itself to a lot of discussion about what it means to be Muslim or black.

BIERSCHBACH: She learned English in six months, which came in handy when her family relocated to Minneapolis. She got her start in politics by interpreting for her grandfather at political meetings. Eventually, Omar went from activist to candidate, winning a seat in the state House. But her step into public life kicked off a never-ending string of controversies. Republicans in the state legislature complain that Omar repeatedly flouted campaign finance laws. The scrutiny only continued into her tenure in Congress. In February, she tweeted that American politicians' support for Israel is, quote, "all about the Benjamins." Her use of anti-Semitic stereotypes, whether intentional or not, culminated in a vote on the House floor condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. And it has caused some heartburn in her district, which has a sizable Jewish community. Shep Harris is Jewish and mayor of Golden Valley, a suburb of Minneapolis.

SHEP HARRIS: We need a member of Congress who can help unify the majority of this district, and right now, that's not happening.

BIERSCHBACH: But recently in New Hope, a suburban community in her district, she got a warm welcome from her constituents.


BIERSCHBACH: Omar was surrounded by Liberian women who were worried about being deported by the Trump administration. One of them, Betty Munford, was breathless about her meeting with Omar.

BETTY MUNFORD: Oh, I feel so good. I feel so blessed. I love her so much.

BIERSCHBACH: When the House voted to condemn anti-Semitism as a rebuke of her comments, I asked Omar how that felt considering her experiences as a refugee. Omar turned the question around, saying it also marked the first time Congress voiced opposition to Islamophobia.

OMAR: It is those kind of moments where millions of people finally feel like the most powerful body in the world is able to see them and acknowledge their existence.

BIERSCHBACH: She still thinks back to the story of Arawelo, the powerful ancient queen.

OMAR: No matter what you do, your story will be written. And the best that you can do for yourself and those around you is make sure that you are living the story that you want to be written about you.

BIERSCHBACH: That idea holds a lot of currency for Omar today. For NPR News, I'm Briana Bierschbach in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Briana Bierschbach