U.S. midterms

Newly elected congresswoman would have been barred under Trump’s Muslim ban

As a Black Muslim refugee woman, Ilhan Omar epitomizes everything Trump has contempt for
Photo: Lorie Shaull
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What better way is there for a newly elected congresswoman to celebrate sweet victory in the age of Trump than to dance to the traditional Somali song “Dirgax”?

A video of llhan Omar, a Somali-American politician who won Minnesota’s fifth congressional district in the U.S midterm elections, dancing with her husband and children quickly went viral Monday night — and for good reason.

Omar is the perfect antidote to U.S. President Donald Trump because she epitomizes everything he has expressed contempt for. Black people. Women. Refugees. Muslims.

Consider Omar’s humbled first words upon taking the stage Monday night after poll results indicated she had won with a 78 per cent majority in her district.

Here is a Black woman from Africa, a place Trump has referred to as a “shithole.”

“Assalamu alaikum,” she began to loud cheers, using a common Muslim greeting that in Arabic means “Peace be upon you.”

“Alhamdulillah (praise be to God). My grandfather taught me that when you see injustice, you fight back. You do not give into sorrow, you do not give in to sadness. You organize.”

The significance of Omar’s victory — and those of the other racialized candidates that won seats at the U.S Congress, including a Palestinian-American politician from Dearborn and two Native American women — shouldn’t escape us.

Nothing short of remarkable

Here is a Black woman from Africa, a place Trump has referred to as a “shithole.” She was born in Somalia and came to America as a refugee. If she had been trying to come to the U.S. now, Trump’s Muslim ban would have barred her, as Somalia is one of the seven countries on Trump’s list.

She also wears a headscarf, which Trump has made clear he thinks is a symbol of repression.

That’s three generations seeing themselves in spaces of leadership.

It’s hard to forget the time the U.S. president mocked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose American Muslim son died in military service in Iraq. After suggesting that Hillary Clinton's speechwriters wrote the speech Mr. Khan delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, Trump turned on Mrs. Khan, who had stood next to her husband on stage, her hair covered.

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” Trump said. “She had nothing to say…. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”

So it is nothing short of remarkable that Ilhan Omar, a woman who wears a headscarf and who moved to the U.S. from a refugee camp at the age of 12, not knowing a word of English, now holds an elected seat in the state legislature.

“Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants. We send them to Washington,” she told her campaign supporters Tuesday night.

‘Three generations seeing themselves’

At only 36 years old, Omar is a beacon of hope for young people everywhere. But she is especially an inspiration for those who come from marginalized communities who don’t have the same access and connections to political resources.

Samiya Abdi, a Somali-Canadian woman who recently ran for Toronto district school board trustee, said watching Omar’s success was uplifting.

It’s hitting Canadians harder than many would feel comfortable admitting.

“I stayed up and watched the election results with my mom and my daughter. That’s three generations seeing themselves in spaces of leadership and knowing that this is not only possible, but that it’s actually happened.”

Abdi, who works in public health, was narrowly defeated in the municipal election but says she and her campaign of young volunteers, many of whom are racialized, came out of the campaign experience much more enriched.

“Everyone in my campaign was in their early and mid-20s,” she said. “It was all these people who never knew politics and who never saw a campaign run from the inside. We don’t have access to the knowledge that folks who have been doing this for years have. But we’re building that capacity.”

Climbing the political ladder

With all the fascinating reverberations that came out of the U.S. midterms this week — from the record-breaking number of women who were elected to Trump’s ludicrous performance at his first post-election press conference — it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how extraordinarily far racialized people have come in climbing the political ladder.

This matters, especially when we’re haunted by constant reminders that xenophobia still exists.

But it also speaks to why people like Ilhan Omar need to be heard and championed.

Consider the video that surfaced on social media this week of a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower, the social housing apartment block in London that became engulfed by flames last year, killing 72 people, mostly from racialized communities. Laughter and joking could be heard in the background as the model, which had cut-outs of residents in the windows being set alight, was placed on a bonfire.

What happened at Grenfell Tower could have happened in Canada. Only last month, a gasoline can was discovered on fire in a hallway of a Radisson hotel that housed refugees in east Toronto. Police believe the fire was deliberately set.

Trump’s divisive rhetoric has emboldened those with racist and anti-immigrant sentiments to a terrifyingly new level, and it’s hitting Canadians harder than many would feel comfortable admitting.

But it also speaks to why people like Ilhan Omar need to be heard and championed — not just by racialized communities but also by the mainstream.

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