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“This Is What America Looks Like”: Ilhan Omar on Her Refugee Journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis

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We speak with Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar about her memoir “This Is What America Looks Like,” the Biden administration’s recent airstrikes in her birth country of Somalia and why the U.S. must remain a country of refuge for people fleeing war and poverty like she did. Omar adds that the Biden administration must stop enforcing Trump-era immigration rules that allow for expedited deportations of asylum seekers. “These policy choices have consequences. We have a moral imperative in this country to get our immigration policy right and make it a more humane system,” she says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to switch gears and talk about something else that has been happening. The U.S. military recently conducted at least three drone strikes in your home country of Somalia, in the first attacks, they said, targeting al-Shabab fighters in Somalia since President Biden took office. Congressmember Omar, your family came to the U.S. as Somali refugees. You wrote a letter to President Biden requesting more information on these strikes. You said, quote, “It is critical that any military action must be part of a broader strategy focused on the security of the Somali people and the stability of the Somali state.” Can you talk about what you understand why the U.S. bombed Somalia again?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: So, it’s been really hard to get any concrete information that is really — you know, that really answers any of the questions I put into my letter. It was our understanding that this administration was going to take a step back. They were going to look at a holistic approach. They were going to reassess their drone program and their engagement with Somalia. And the fact that they just started up the drone program without doing any of those things and without communicating any of those things to us, as members of Congress, was really alarming.

Somalia has faced instability. You know, I fled civil war in the early ’90s. And to this day, you know, there is places in Somalia where it is still unsafe for people to live in. Al-Shabab has and terrorism in Somalia has caused lots of devastation. And it is abhorrent for them to continue to operate. And so, I do stand with the Somali government and our administration in fighting al-Shabab. What I do not appreciate is for us to not have a holistic approach to both fighting al-Shabab and creating stability and having policies that are going to create a long-term stable Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: So, speaking of Somalia, in your book, you so eloquently talk about your growing up, your first eight years in Somalia. Talk about Somalia. Tell us — you know more than anyone, being in Congress, how little information most people understand about Africa, unless they are from there. And then, particularly Somalia, why you left, your experience as a refugee, which so informs what you do now, working on immigration rights. Talk about your family.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, my story is uniquely an American story, right? We have been known as a country of immigrants. There has been the arrival of immigrants for a really long time from different parts of the world. But we are now just seeing Somali immigrants, and there’s a lot that is not understood.

And I thought it was really important for me to write this book and spend a lot of time telling people about the Somalia I grew up in, where, you know, there was a lot of warmth. I had a really happy upbringing up to the age of 8. I grew up in a very loud, loving family, where we didn’t really have any ideas of hierarchy. We were all allowed to have the freedom to express ourselves, to own our agency. And, you know, I grew up in a household and in a community where music and the arts and all of those things were very vibrant.

And, you know, the tragedy of living in that and then one day waking up and having the kids that you played with in the streets now carry guns is something that most people don’t know. And I wanted to give people an insight of what happens when a society is stable and is not really nurturing that stability, how everything can disappear in a day and how someone who had that happy upbringing finds herself in a refugee camp, missing four years of formal education, coming to the United States, getting that golden ticket and opportunity, and overcoming a lot of the challenges that continue to exist in this country for people who arrive without nothing, and what it means to now have that voice in Congress bringing attention to all of those disparities that exist here and in countries like Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you could talk about — if you could respond to what’s happening now on the African continent as it relates to COVID? Our first headline today is about the desperate plea of the World Health Organization head, saying there should not be, you know, third-shot boosters in the wealthiest countries in the world before 10% of all countries are vaccinated. We’ve talked several times to the head of the African CDC. If you can talk about the situation in Somalia, as well, and whether you support Ghebreyesus’s call, something that Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said, “If FDA says we need third-shot boosters, we’ll go for them”?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. I mean, so, you know, when COVID began, there was a call to social distance. And I remember thinking about Somalia and other countries in Africa where social distancing would be a luxury, right? These are places that are sometimes overpopulated, where there are open markets, where people don’t have a lot of space to distance in the ways that it was being recommended. And they have fragile healthcare systems. There is lots of poverty. There is a lot of insecurity in all aspects of life. Many of these governments don’t have the resources that it takes to be able to keep everyone safe. As you know, we’ve struggled here in the United States, and we are one of the countries that has the most resources in the world.

And so, I do think it is really important for us to recognize that our humanity is tied to one another. And, you know, I waited to get vaccinated because I thought it was important to have other people who are at risk be vaccinated before me. I’m finally vaccinated. My whole family is vaccinated here. But I do often think about my family in Somalia and what it means for them to have access to that vaccination. You know, we led a global call to send vaccinations to countries like Somalia and other countries in Africa and around the world that desperately need these resources. And so, I do hope that before we think about giving ourselves a boost, that we send those resources to people who are less fortunate than we are.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the issue of refugees, certainly your experience, and immigrant justice in the United States. Groups are now suing the Biden administration over its use of Title 42, that Trump-era policy that allows for the expedited deportation of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, citing so-called public health concerns during the pandemic. The Biden administration says it will continue enforcing the policy, which could bar entry to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch says over 600,000 have been expelled from the U.S. under Title 42 since March of 2020, you know, going back through Trump. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, RAICES and Oxfam, among other groups, which denounce Title 42 as cruel, illegal and a violation of due process rights. Your thoughts, Congressmember Omar?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: I think these Trump-era policies that the administration chooses to keep in place are inhumane on a deep personal level. I got emotional just thinking about this right now, because a lot of the people that come to our border are escaping desperate situations. And it’s easy for people to judge. It’s easy for people to talk about what makes somebody come to the border, until they find themselves there. And I think a lot about what would have happened if Kenya closed its borders to my family when we were fleeing, or chose to deport us back. Where would I have been today?

And so, for me, it is really important for this administration and for every single person in this country to realize that these policy choices have consequences. And, you know, we have a moral imperative in this country to get our immigration policy right and make it a more humane system. We have the Citizenship Act that we have been pushing for in Congress that would stabilize the status of 11 million people in this country. We have been working so hard to try to come up with actual solutions to our immigration crisis. And it is disheartening that instead of people working with us to find a solution, that they do the easy thing that sometimes seems might win you political favor, might stop some headlines from being written, but, you know, chip away at your soul, knowing that you are turning people away who desperately need help and are coming to this country knowing that we have been a country that welcomes people and provides opportunities for people.

AMY GOODMAN: I choked up reading your book, a part where you’re in the refugee camp and you lose your beloved aunt. Was her name pronounced Fos? Can you tell us about her? And this goes to people waiting in refugee camps, waiting and waiting, and the devastating toll it can take.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah. You know, I think a part of my story that most people don’t know, which has made me a really strong advocate for a lot of the young people who are coming and has made me speak out in regards to family separation, is that I was separated from most of my family. My aunt Fos was the one who, you know, was — who brought me and three of my siblings along with us on that journey to escape Mogadishu as war raged on. And she was my everything. You know, I owed my life to her.

And life in a refugee camp is not an easy one. In the refugee camp, Utange, that we were living in, malaria was devastating the camp and taking lives. And she ended up getting malaria and ended up losing her life. And, you know, there was no healthcare that we could provide for her. There was no way to save her life. And just to watch helplessly and know that she wasn’t going to make it, but that to not just like live with the fact that we were losing her, that she wasn’t going to live anymore, but that we were losing someone who really our survival depended on in so many ways, was very hard. And writing those chapters were very hard. Doing the audiotape for those chapters was very hard. Doing this interview is very hard.

But it’s not as hard as what people have still been experiencing. There are a lot of young people who I lived in that refugee camp with who didn’t get the opportunity to stabilize their lives. Once that camp closed, they were sent to another camp. And I went in 2011, when drought was devastating Somalia and over a million people were at risk of dying from famine, to Dadaab refugee camp, which is one of the largest refugee camps in Africa, if not in the world. And I saw some of the young people that I was in the camp with, some of the kids I played with, who were also adults and had children themselves in those camps as I’ve had opportunities to fulfill my education and now become a member of Congress. And so, I feel like I owe it to those people to speak up about the plight of refugees around the world, to seek justice for people who have experienced war, who haven’t experienced a remedy, not just for their trauma, but everything that they have lost, and for people who are in this country who just want to have their humanity seen and want to be treated with dignity.

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