In November 2018, I was thrilled when progressives like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. I’ve continued to follow them over the last few years, and when Ilhan Omar published her book This is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee to Congresswoman, I was eager to read it. In the end, I actually opted for the audiobook version, in part because she narrates it herself.
Ilhan Omar’s autobiography begins in Somalia, on the eastern “horn” of Africa. She describes her early childhood as happy, despite losing her mother when she was young and despite often getting into fights with other kids. But everything changed when Somalia broke out in civil war. Ilhan and her family members ended up in a Kenyan refugee camp, spending four years there before moving to the United States.
After briefly living in Virginia, the family eventually settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ilhan describes growing up in America, balancing her Somali culture with her new American way of life, and discovering her own sense of faith. She dives into her personal relationships — both romantic and familial — and reveals how she developed a growing sense of community service, eventually leading her into politics. The later chapters highlight Ilhan’s activism and her election into public office.
This is What America Looks Like is a stunning portrait of a woman who has survived incredible hardship in her path to security and knowing herself.
I have to admit, part of my original interest in Ilhan Omar is because she, like a singer I love named K’naan, is from Somalia. I’ve been listening to K’naan’s music for several years, especially since early 2017. His lyrics often describe his experiences in war-torn Mogadishu and becoming a refugee, eventually settling in Toronto. As such, I had an idea of the kinds of experiences Ilhan would describe from her own childhood in Somalia.
While it’s true that my slight familiarity with Somalia, thanks to K’naan, was helpful in my understanding of Ilhan’s journey, needless to say, her life course was very different. Ilhan is only a few years younger than K’naan, but that age gap and their different family circumstances led to unique perspectives on the war and consequences from it.
These early chapters, especially during her time in a refugee camp, are harrowing. Ilhan was strong as a child and continues to be as an adult, but her story brought me to tears.
Things become marginally lighter in her chapters about living in the United States, though Ilhan still faced challenges. From the fights she got into due to her minimal understanding of English to her romantic struggles as a wife and mother, Ilhan demonstrates again and again how she has overcome so much, learned so much, and continued to push to be a better citizen.
One highlight is how Ilhan invites readers (or listeners!) into her personal periods of growth. At one point, it was a sort of emotional breakdown that led to her drastically changing her life — through divorce, a cross-state move, and new enrollment in school. Among these changes was Ilhan’s distancing herself from her family and the judgement she felt from them.
Another revealing chapter is when Ilhan describes how she reconnected with her faith. Though she was born and raised to be Muslim, she admits to how she went through a period in her early adulthood of not feeling connected to her religion. After an eye-opening visit with family members in Sweden, though, Ilhan developed a new understanding of Islam and how to practice it on your own terms. Although I myself am an atheist, I appreciated learning how Ilhan defines her religion and lives as a Muslim woman.
Throughout This is What America Looks Like, I loved getting to know Ilhan in a more personal way. But of course, my main interest in her stems from her role in politics. In the last one-third of the book, we get to see how Ilhan became more and more involved in social issues, tiptoeing closer to the political world. She has always stood for important issues, and her progression into politics was both natural and authentic. Although she started in supporting roles for other candidates running for office, it soon became clear that people liked — and would be willing to vote for — Ilhan herself.
Ilhan is honest about the pros and cons of being in public office, especially on such a nationally scrutinized scale. It started with dissent among her own Somalian community, with some tearing her down due to ideas that women shouldn’t be in such positions of power. But soon enough, Ilhan Omar became known across the country, largely due to Republicans — and Donald Trump — calling negative attention to her with smear campaigns and political attacks.
Indeed, in 2018, Ilhan was widely talked about, both positively (especially among progressives) and negatively (mainly among conservatives). This is when I first learned about her, and I quickly grew to like her, both politically and as a person. Her admirable attributes shine bright in This is What America Looks Like, shedding light on the woman behind the politician, but also affirming her stances on what social progress means.
This is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee to Congresswoman is a candid memoir about overcoming the odds, fighting for justice, and aiming to improve both oneself and the greater community. I loved learning about Somalia, life as a refugee, and Ilhan’s ascension to public service in politics. It’s a well written and touching account, and I like Ilhan Omar all the more after reading this book.
People who identify as progressive or liberal will surely get a lot out of this memoir, but I’d also recommend it for those who are more centrist or conservative, too. It’s valuable to understand those with different ideals than your own and to judge them based on their truth.
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