On World Refugee Day let's figure out what really makes America great

On World Refugee Day let's figure out what really makes America great
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I am a refugee. I am African. I am Muslim. And I am a woman. If it were up to the Trump administration, I would not have been allowed into this country. But because of the United States’ proud history of welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds, two decades ago I was given the opportunity to come to this great country in search of a brighter future.

Two years ago, I made history when I became the first Somali-American to be elected to office in the Minnesota state legislature. It was an incredible moment that brought me to tears as I recalled my journey from humble beginnings in a war-torn African nation to the cover of TIME magazine.

As we celebrate World Refugee Day today, a day to celebrate the lives and contributions of refugees, I am moved to share my own story. That’s why I’m in Washington today to tell my story and speak out in support of the refugee resettlement program.


I grew up in Somalia, a country long-associated with war and conflict. My family fled to neighboring Kenya when I was 8-years-old and I spent four years of my life living in a refugee camp, an experience unimaginable to many.

Today, Dadaab is the world’s second largest refugee camp and hosts more than 235,000 refugees, many who have spent decades in exile with little hope of a better life. At age 12, my family was given the privilege to leave life in the camp to start over in the United States, a blessing for which I will forever be grateful.

My mother and grandmother died when I was a child, so I was raised by my father and grandfather, who gave me my passion for politics. My grandfather did not speak English but was keen to get involved in democracy. Eager to begin my new life in America — I learned English in just three months — I attended caucuses in Minnesota with my grandfather and translated for him. It was there that I got my first glimpse of democracy. I was enthralled at the concept; it wasn’t a hard decision to dedicate my life to one of public service.

I’d like to think my story is one that most Americans should feel proud of: Someone who came to this country with nothing, worked hard, led a life of integrity, and fulfilled the American dream. However, the Trump administration has spent the last two years signalling that people like me are no longer welcome here.

The U.S. was founded as a nation of immigrants. For more than four decades — through both Democratic and Republican administrations — the U.S. refugee resettlement program has given safe harbor to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. It’s a legacy that America should be proud of: other countries look to the U.S. — at least they used to — as a place where all are welcome, where a Somali refugee fleeing war is just as welcome as a European immigrant.

It’s clear the Trump administration cares little about upholding this image. Last year, the Trump administration set the goal for resettlement spots at just 45,000, a paltry number considering the immense global need.

What’s worse is that the U.S. is on track to resettle just half of that number, the lowest amount in the history of the resettlement program. And admissions of people like me — Muslim refugees — have fallen to historic lows, with a 90 percent decrease between this year and last year, according to humanitarian organization Oxfam. In the midst of the worst humanitarian disaster of the modern era, this year the U.S. has resettled just 13 Syrian refugees. Surely we can do better.

Critics of the refugee resettlement program claim we don’t need to resettle refugees when we can support them abroad. But it shouldn’t be a choice of either/or – we can support refugees like the Somali refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab camp and give some the opportunity for a new life through the refugee resettlement program.

That’s why on World Refugee Day, I’m in Washington. A voice like mine has never been heard in the halls of Congress. I’ll be raising awareness of the plight of refugees on Capitol Hill, bringing much-needed attention to these shocking changes to the refugee resettlement program and renew attention on the great contributions refugees make to American society.

When I won on election night, I proudly declared that “my success is not only for me, but for every Somali, Muslim and minority group, particularly the young girls in the Dadaab refugee camp.”

I’ve since come to learn what really makes America great: it’s a place where a minority, refugee woman, through hard work and perseverance, can show the world that anything is possible.

Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is a state representative and the first Somali-American elected to office in the United States.