Expanding diversity of U.S. Congress is a product of the civil rights struggle — Mohamed Hamaludin

Expanding diversity of U.S. Congress is a product of the civil rights struggle — MOHAMED HAMALUDIN

The event would be so momentous that it had to be seen to be believed. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab, who was born in Somalia, fled a civil war with her parents when she was 8, lived four years in a refugee camp, AND LEARNED English by watching TV was sworn in on Jan. 3 as a member of the Congress of the United States of America.

The story of Ilhan Omar, now 38, remembered by those who knew her at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya as a shy child, who learned English by watching American television, affirms that anyone can achieve the American dream and rejects the Trump administration’s slanders against refugees, particularly Muslims.          

“I remember in the hot weather afternoon, Ilhan and I used to play jumping rope near our homes,” Fadumo Kuusow, who spent time with Omar in the camp, told the Guardian. “Life was very tough those days.  Camp security was a disaster. Girls and women were raped.”

Abdullah Osman Haji Adam, another refugee, remembers Omar as a child who “was always alone and sat near their makeshift home. What I can tell about her is only her smile and how shy she was. She did not talk much.”

Omar’s Nov. 6 election victory, Adam told the Guardian, “made us proud as refugees and as Somalis. This shows that even if you are a refugee, you can still succeed. We pray for her and hope she will support the refugees. She must know that we are here in Dadaab.”

It is unlikely that Omar will forget, especially in view of President Donald Trump’s draconian immigration policies, including a ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, among them Somalia – policies which would have barred her from coming to the United States. The Guardian reported that 251 Somali refugees were resettled in the U.S. in the first nine months of 2017, compared to 8,300 for the same period in 2016.

“I stand here before you tonight… as the first refugee ever elected to Congress,” Omar said in her victory speech.

Granted refugee status, Omar and her family arrived in the U.S. in 1995, settled in Arlington, Va., then relocated to Minneapolis two years later.  She worked as a community organizer, was a leader of the local NAACP chapter and had a built-in base for a political career. Minnesota has the largest number of Somalis outside of Somalia, the Associated Press reported. She won a seat in the Minnesota legislature in 2016 and when Keith Ellison – like her a Muslim – resigned as the Fifth District representative to run for attorney general, the mother of three entered the race to succeed him and prevailed in a field of eight Democrats, including a former state House Speaker, two state senators and Ellison’s ex-wife Kim Ellison, and easily defeated her Republican opponent.

Omar’s story is, however, only one of many firsts to emerge from the mid-term elections, especially among women, who total 127 in the 116th Congress or 17 more than in 2016. Rashida Tlaib, elected in Michigan, joined Omar as the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Ayanna Pressley and Jahana Hayes are the first African American women elected from Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively. Lucia “Lucy” McBath, whose son Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a gas station in Jacksonville in 2012 by a man who did not like the music he was playing in his car, won in Georgia. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native American congresswomen, were elected in New Mexico  and Kansas, respectively.

Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia are the first Latina elected from Texas and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is the youngest woman elected to Congress. Their victories call attention to the fact that 32 percent of Latinos voted for Republicans in the mid-term elections, three in 10 voted for Trump in 2016 and about a third continue to support the Republican Party, according to the Associated Press VoteCast. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona  is the first openly bisexual senator and Davids is openly gay.

Sinema wore a sleeveless white top in an outfit which “can best be described as high femme: a hyperfeminine appearance with all the trappings, like nails, hair and high heels,”  Huffington Post writer Lily Burana reported. Omar wore the Muslim woman headwear for her swearing-in ceremony, made possible after the new Democratic House majority abolished a rule banning head wear.  Haaland wore a traditional Pueblo of Laguna tribal dress. Tlaib donned the traditional Palestinian a thobe and took the oath of office on a 1734 English translation of the Qu’ran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

But the celebration of diversity must acknowledge that African Americans have played the decisive role in making it possible through the civil rights struggle starting more than 50 years ago. The newly empowered women – and men – can repay that debt by continuing to confront those who think making America great again means making America white again.

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who  worked for several years at The Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating to the United States in 1984 where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a commentary every week or two for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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