Ilhan Omar On Her Memoir And Moving The Needle Toward Progressive Policies

May 24, 2020
Originally published on May 26, 2020 7:29 am

"I wasn't afraid of fighting," Ilhan Omar writes about her childhood in Somalia in her new memoir. "I felt like I was bigger and stronger than everyone else — even if I knew that wasn't really the case."

In This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman, Omar chronicles her childhood in a middle-class family compound in Mogadishu, followed by civil war, four years in a refugee camp, a journey to the United States and ultimately her election to Congress as a Democrat representing Minnesota's 5th district.

Since being elected as one of the first Muslim women to Congress in 2018, Omar has emerged as a progressive and polarizing figure. She has been the target of racist insults, but also drawn criticism for controversial statements of her own.

"I think often times you have to make a choice: whether you'll be a punching bag or you'll be somebody who's strong and stands up for themselves and for others," Omar tells NPR.

She talked with Weekend Edition about Joe Biden and the presidential race, what she wants in future coronavirus relief measures and an unlikely role model.


Interview Highlights

On the influence of progressives in the Democratic presidential nomination

We might not have moved the needle on the nomination, but I think we certainly have moved the needle on the national conversation on the particular policies we've advocated for. "Medicare for All" is much more popular than it was before this election cycle, and we're having an honest discussion about canceling student debt. We're talking about economic and social injustices in ways that we haven't before. Taxing the wealthy is not just something that you say and people go, "Oh, my God." It's something that people are now actually debating and thinking about ways to be able to do that.

And to see so many people now running for office with the policy positions that we ran on and continue to advocate for really is a testament on how much we've changed the narrative of what is electable and what is debatable in Congress.

On why Biden should choose a person of color as his running mate

I think it would be really helpful for our party to continue to have diversity as not something we talk about, but something we celebrate and push forward.

... To have somebody who is really connected to the people who have been the backbone of the Democratic Party will help create, I think, the enthusiasm that Biden lacks right now with the majority of the base.

On what she wants to see in the next coronavirus relief package

There are musts, right? We want to make sure that there is direct cash payment. We want to make sure that there is hazard pay for essential workers. We want the OSHA protections to remain as part of the final bill. We want increase in SNAP funding. We want to make sure that we're not just expanding COBRA, but getting emergency Medicare for All. We want rent and mortgage cancellation. We have to act comprehensively to stop the kind of economic crisis that is staring us in the face.

On why the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a political role model

It's interesting, right? Oftentimes, we're told who our heroes can be. And for me, I find it to be inspirational for a woman, when there were really no other women around who were leading, to say, "I can do this." And I think as I think about my own journey, dealing with the ideas that many within my own community had about, "a boy should be the first." I needed to have sort of an inspiration, and obviously, she's left a very dark mark in history. But we can't take away how inspirationally bold she was to believe that she can lead as a woman in her time.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Ed McNulty produced and edited the audio version of this interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Growing up in Somalia, Ilhan Omar writes in a new memoir, I wasn't afraid of fighting. I felt like I was bigger and stronger than everyone else, even if I knew that wasn't the case. Her book details an idyllic childhood in a middle-class family compound in Mogadishu, then civil war, exile and a tortured journey to the United States and, ultimately, her election to Congress, representing Minnesota's 5th District. The book is called "This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee To Congresswoman." And she joins us now.

Welcome.

ILHAN OMAR: Thank you for having me, Lulu. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm well. You have vivid memories of your escape from Mogadishu. And you describe this absolutely harrowing scene of young men that your family knew trying to break into the house where you lived, the family compound, to kill you, essentially.

OMAR: When people hear that story, I think it's a reminder that today, everything can be normal, and tomorrow, everything can change. And the deterioration of a society can often lead families and friends and neighbors to turn on one another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't actually want to come to the United States initially, you write. And you arrive in America during middle school, which is not an easy time for any kid. And this is a theme in your book - you were getting into a lot of physical fights. You were being bullied. And you write, (reading) my choices were clear. I could bleed every day and go and cry in a corner, or I could fight back and have people respect me. When you look back at that girl that you were, do you think she was right?

OMAR: Yes. I think oftentimes, you have to make a choice - whether you'll be a punching bag or you'll be somebody who's strong and stands up for themselves and for others. But I think fighting, as I describe in my younger years, is often borne out of the limited, you know, resources and the development that you have. As I grew and I was able to communicate with people and have conversations, I no longer found it necessary to fight with my hands because I could essentially fight with my words and diffuse situations as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are a polarizing figure for many people, and I'd like to talk about the so-called squad to which you belong. There was a moment where it seemed you all were going to be a force in politics. Do you think it's been as effective as you'd hoped? You know, the progressive left ultimately did not move the needle on the nomination, for example.

OMAR: Sure, we might not have moved the needle on the nomination, but I think we certainly have moved the needle on the national conversation on the particular policies we've advocated for. "Medicare for All" is much more popular than it was before this election cycle, and we're having an honest discussion about canceling student debt. We're talking about economic and social injustices in ways that we haven't before. Taxing the wealthy is not just something that you say, and people go, oh, my God. It's something that people are now actually debating and then thinking about ways to be able to do that. And to see so many people now running for office with the policy positions that we ran on and continue to advocate for really is a testament on how much we've changed the narrative of what is electable and what is debatable in Congress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have not endorsed the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden. Why not? And are you ready to do that now?

OMAR: We've been in conversation with the campaign. I will be casting my vote for the Democratic nominee.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think he needs to have a person of color as his running mate?

OMAR: I think it would be really helpful for our party to continue to have diversity as not something we talk about, but something we celebrate and push forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is that yes?

OMAR: That is a yes. You know, to have somebody who is really connected to the people who have been the backbone of the Democratic Party will help create, I think, the enthusiasm that Biden lacks right now with the majority of the base.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about this moment in the coronavirus. Where do the negotiations stand this weekend? And what - briefly, what do you want to see in the next stimulus package?

OMAR: There are musts, right? We want to make sure that there is direct cash payment. We want to make sure that there is hazard pay for essential workers. We want the OSHA protections to remain as part of the final bill. We want increase in SNAP funding. We want to make sure that we're not just expanding COBRA but getting emergency Medicare for All. We want rent and mortgage cancellation. We have to act comprehensively to stop the kind of economic crisis that is staring us in the face.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just have to end by asking - you write in the book that Margaret Thatcher, the conservative former prime minister of the United Kingdom, is your political role model. And I must say, when I read, that I thought, huh. Please enlighten me on the attraction for someone like you, who obviously did not hold the same political beliefs.

OMAR: It's interesting, right? Oftentimes, we're told who our heroes can be. And for me, I find it to be inspirational for a woman, when there were really no other women around who were leading, to say, I can do this. And I think as I think about my own journey, dealing with the ideas that many within my own community had about, a boy should be the first - I needed to have sort of an inspiration. And obviously, she's left a very dark mark in history. But we can't take away how inspirationally bold she was to believe that she can lead as a woman in her time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Congressman Ilhan Omar - her new book is called "This Is What America Looks Like."

Thank you very much and happy Eid.

OMAR: Eid Mubarak. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIAMOS'S "LOOPED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.