Minnesota voters have elected the first Somali American Muslim woman legislator in a state where the uneasy assimilation of large numbers of Somali refugees became an issue in the US presidential campaign.
Ilhan Omar, a 33-year-old former refugee who wears the hijab, ran uncontested for a seat in the legislature of the Midwestern state, home to a sizeable Somali population.
Her victory is notable in a campaign season that saw Republican Donald Trump disparage Muslim immigrants and refugees before going on to win the White House.
“Even though his message is supposed to function as a fear element in making sure that we don’t vote, so we don’t see ourselves as part of the American system, it’s had the opposite effect,” Omar told AFP about Trump.
Trump ended up losing Minnesota to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton 45 to 47 percent.
But in the campaign’s final week the real estate magnate had blamed the Somali community for Minnesota’s travails.
“Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval,” Trump told a rally near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“Some of them (are) joining ISIS (the Islamic State group) and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.”
Nearly a third of Somali refugees resettled in the United States live in Minnesota. They number around 25,000 according to 2010 data, the latest available.
Some of the community’s young men have been lured by extremist groups -- notably Somalia’s Shabaab militants -- to fight overseas.
In one incident that sent shockwaves through the country, members of the city of St Cloud’s close-knit Somali refugee community expressed shock after one of their own stabbed 10 people at a mall there in September.
Omar entered her campaign rally late Tuesday to the “Rocky Balboa” soundtrack.
After Omar’s victory speech, her supporters, many young immigrants or first generation Americans, clustered around her and waited for their turn to take a selfie with the newly elected state representative.
She learned of Trump’s pending White House victory from an AFP reporter.
“It’s going to be very tough, we have to figure out how to organize the community to prepare for what’s to come. We have to amplify our voices of love against the rhetoric of hate,” Omar said.
Omar’s political assent had less to do with her Somali community, though, than with her efforts to broaden her support to include other minority groups such as other East African immigrants, white liberals and college students.
“That’s a very important transition that we’ve seen in America, as Germans, the Irish Catholics and the Jews and others have come to the country,” said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
“The politics starts off as purely ethnic, and then it evolves into coalition building.”
That Omar, as a Somali-American, appears to now be making a similar transition is a “very positive development,” Jacobs said.
Omar, who takes office January 3, says among her priorities are increasing funding and access to education, as well as criminal justice reform.
Memoona Ghan, a 35-year-old woman from Maple Grove, Minnesota, said her victory felt like rebuke to Trump and inspiration for the Muslim community in the state.
“Seeing her up there is quite inspiring, not only for us but for the youth as well. It’s a source of pride for all Muslims, not just the Somali community, that Ilhan is up there, and winning,” said Ghan.