Ilhan Omar made history last month when she won the primary election for a seat in the Minnesota State Legislature.
Now that her opponent (who is also Somali American) has suspended his campaign, Omar’s path to become the first female Somali-American to hold a seat in Minnesota Legislature is virtually guaranteed.
In her victory speech Omar said she hoped her win would herald “a new era of representation.”
According to the Associated Press, no Somali American has ever been elected to a state legislature before.
It’s a historic moment that has been a long time coming, especially in Minnesota, which has the largest Somali population in the United States, and has seen Somalis win seats in City Council and the Minneapolis School Board.
But other states seem to be more than a few steps behind when it comes to representing the Somali community in local or state government — not for lack of effort on the part of Somali American citizens.
Considering the rate that Seattle’s Somali community has been grown in the last 20 years, you can’t help but wonder: why don’t more East African candidates in our region run for political office, and why do those who do rarely succeed?
Back in 2011, for instance, Otham Heibe ran for SeaTac City Council and pledged to be a voice for improving transportation and promoting human-service programs. He didn’t win, and according to the Seattle Times, doors were literally slammed in his face as he campaigned.
Heibe’s campaign and others like it failed in part because immigrants just don’t have the resources to compete with candidates who are already well established, says community activist Michael Neguse. Neguse is the Crime Prevention Organizer for the Seattle Neighborhood group and does outreach work in partnership with the Seattle Police Department. He has dedicated much of his time to educating east African communities about the how-tos and importance of the political process.
The issue at the root of it all, he said, is a lack of education and awareness about politics.
“Most of us, coming from East Africa…they never voted,” Neguse said.
Still mired in civil war, Somalia hasn’t had a centralized government for about 26 years — so many Somalis have never had the chance to participate in politics.
“When you have people coming from refugee camps…they come here and their first priority is to survive”
Amal Yusuf spoke to this issue as well. Yusuf is a registered nurse and a recent graduate of Seattle University who came to the United States in 2003 when she was 15-years-old. Soon after her arrival she began working two jobs to support her family in Somalia. She is passionate about women’s rights and uses social media to engage her community in conversations about gender equity.
While she sees a strong Somali presence in social media activism, Yusuf doesn’t see many people showing interest in elections or campaigning.
Like Neguse, she said this is in part because of the political climate back in Somalia.
“When you have people coming from refugee camps…they come here and their first priority is to survive and to really make ends meet,” Yusuf said. “So a lot of [Somali refugees] don’t really pursue an education in general here… A lot of people don’t vote because they don’t have that information.”
To address the lack of awareness surrounding political engagement Neguse and Director of Somali Community Services of Seattle, Sahra Farah, held a workshop in September to teach the community about voting and elections.
“This is about us. This is about our future,” Neguse said. He hopes that workshops will get people to understand that. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to engage an entire community.
According to Neguse, instead of talking to people on the ground who are experiencing hardships and will be affected by policies, oftentimes local government officials only talk to a select few community representatives, who can’t competently speak to the all nuanced issues the Somali community faces.
“They need to come and listen to the people who are affected, and in order to reach out to these underserved communities they need to dig and find real people who can do these kinds of jobs in government and the communities. That is what is lacking,” Neguse said.
For Washington to eventually boast a win like Omar’s in Minnesota — where there is a larger and better-established population of Somali Americans — it’s going to require the cooperation of both the community and the government.
“[Minnesotan Somalis] have more political status, more civil servants. But in Seattle we don’t see that. There’s a lot of barriers to serve in the police department and law enforcement, and to work with local government,” Neguse said.
Omar’s win, while heartening, was also “a wake up call,” for Somali Americans in Washington.
Omar and her campaign team were pure forces of nature. Hundreds of volunteers worked to spread her social justice agenda, including Shela Usabi, a current student at the University of Minnesota.
“There were Somali volunteers knocking and speaking to them in their language and asking ‘what matters to you?'”
After learning about Omar through Facebook, Usabi headed over to the campaign headquarters two blocks away from her apartment and began door knocking to promote the candidate’s message.
The win seemed “very, very easy,” to Usabi, because the amount of information and access available to the Somali community.
“The places to vote were everywhere — just a few block away from houses,” she said. “But I think people got really involved for the first time because…there were Somali volunteers knocking and speaking to them in their language and asking ‘what matters to you?’”
And if the voters couldn’t find transportation to submit their ballots?
“We even provided transportation for them,” Usabi said.
Omar’s impressive campaign tactics bear strong similarities to Indian American politician Pramila Jayapal’s race for Congress in Washington’s 7th District. Her current lead is in-part credited to her “aggressive ground game that sent hundreds of volunteers door-to-door,” as first reported by Crosscut.
“During the last two-and-a-half weeks of the primary, we had a group of Somalis who were going out and knocking on doors of other Somalis in West Seattle…They are out there voting and engaging in a way they wouldn’t have before,” said Jayapal’s campaign manager, Aaron Bly told Crosscut.
Washington and the rest of the country could learn a thing or two from Jayapal and Omar. Addressing language barriers and engaging in face-to-face communication are essential to tackle the issues that new immigrant communities experience.
But despite challenges, activists like Neguse say they will continue to push back against underrepresentation.
“We will never give up,” Neguse said.