The Minneapolis bus was crowded, but Ilhan Omar felt alone.
It was just after Sept. 11, and the “visibly Muslim” Somali refugee had noticed neighbors, colleagues and teachers growing increasingly suspicious of people who looked like she did.
“I remember … feeling everyone on the bus was staring at me,” said Omar, who made history this year as the country’s first Muslim refugee to hold elected office. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know who’s a friend. I don’t know who would help me. I don’t know who would stand up for me if I was attacked today.’ ”
A similar uneasiness took hold after Donald Trump’s election, Omar told the 300 people gathered to hear her speak in Phoenix on Monday. At the civil-rights dinner hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Arizona chapter, the Minnesota legislator described the president as “a leader who preys on people’s fear” and “spreads the disease of hate.”
Unlike in the aftermath of 9/11, however, Omar hasn’t felt abandoned. Instead, she has seen “people who were once silent” rise in defense of Muslims over and over again.
She pointed to the “three men, complete strangers, who stood up to a white supremacist to protect Muslim girls on a public train” in Portland in May. Two of the men died.
She described Minneapolis streets “lined with signs that say ‘Muslims and refugees welcome here.’ ”
She cheered the counter-protesters who faced off with participants in “anti-Sharia law” rallies, organized earlier this month by a group the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed extremist.
“It’s frustrating to fight for your own humanity. It’s infuriating to advocate for your own inherent worth as a person,” Omar said. “But (Muslims) are no longer alone.”
‘Shadows of ignorance’
Omar came to the U.S. at age 12, after escaping civil war in Somalia and spending four years in a Kenyan refugee camp. She expected America to be a land of equality and acceptance, she said, and was shocked to realize being a refugee, immigrant or Muslim could carry a stigma.
“During my first years in this country, I so desperately wanted people to see me as a person beyond my skin tone, my headscarf, my accent,” Omar said. “I wanted them to see the qualities that I brought to our community.”
Though Omar arrived knowing little English, she rapidly learned the language and began interpreting for her grandfather at political events as a teenager. She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies.
After college, she worked in community nutrition before becoming director of policy at the Women Organizing Women Network, which promotes civic leadership among East African women.
“When people started to learn about me, once they started to talk to me and be around me, they started to understand me,” Omar said. In the primary race for her Minnesota House seat, she defeated one the state’s longest-serving legislators.
“The people who claim to hate Muslims probably don’t know those who practice Islam, or even what Islam really is,” she said, encouraging Muslims to “do more in reaching out and connecting with people still living in the shadows of ignorance.”
‘Inspiring, inclusive message’
Omar also called on Muslims to stand up for members of other minority communities, saying that fighting for “issues that don’t directly affect us” is the “essence of ally-ship.”
Non-Muslim organizations such as migrants-rights groups Puente Arizona and Aliento occupied roughly half the tables at the CAIR-Arizona dinner.
“None of us has the right to wallow in complacency,” Omar said. “The ignorance that allows others to look down on our community is the same ignorance that tells us we are divided in our struggle.”
Saud Inam, operations director at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, said he found the diversity at the dinner encouraging because “minority communities didn’t work together much as one group before Trump.”
“We were all in our own bubbles before, and that includes Muslims,” Inam said. “Now, the national situation is forcing black, LGBT, Muslim, undocumented people to work together.”
Sumaya Abdul-Quadir, a Laveen resident, similarly applauded Omar’s “inspiring, inclusive message,” saying she was “really happy to see all the allies here.”
Abdul-Quadir said she brought her 8-year-old daughter to meet Omar because “growing up, I had very few Muslim women role models” despite civics being “a big part of our religion.”
Many other women and girls lined up to shake Omar’s hand, take selfies with her and ask for autographs.
Channel Powe, a Balsz School District Governing Board member in Phoenix, said Omar’s rise had excited her because “often, members of these communities are not part of leadership.”
“We need to embrace them, not ostracize them,” Powe said. “We need bold leadership right now. We don’t have time for fear.”