“If you are destined to die, it doesn’t matter how far you travel—you will die. Nothing is permanent, and that fact made me really angry,” Ilhan Omar writes in the opening chapters of her memoir This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. In this particular passage, Omar is describing the death of her aunt while she and her family were living in the Utange Refugee Camp in Kenya, after fleeing civil war in Somalia. This realization—reached before she was even a teenager—captures the essence of Omar’s memoir. No matter how much hope or promise or safety a place offers, death is inevitable. Anger is acceptable. But it’s still worth it to strive for something greater. For Omar, that something greater is the vision of an America she was promised when she immigrated from Utange, an America where anyone can become an American and have a say in their government. An America where every voice counts, no matter one’s birthplace or religious affiliation.
Omar’s memoir doesn’t just revel in her triumph as one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress; it’s also a vivid retelling of her life as a young refugee and depicts her attempts to take the promise of America and bring it to fruition by confronting the country’s shortcomings head-on. Omar’s account of escaping civil war in Somalia as a girl is a visceral and vital testimonial. “We’ll get to our America,” Omar’s father told her. While he meant the statement geographically, the sentiment remains with Omar as she continues her work to deconstruct an America that has not lived up to its promise.
Omar was eight years old when war broke out in Somalia. “One day everything was okay, and the next, there were bullets piercing not only buildings but people,” she recounts. Her father’s clan, the Majerteen, became a target of violence in the power struggle after dictator Mohammed Siad Barre’s ousting in 1991. To keep his family safe, Omar’s father gathered their extended family in their Mogadishu home, and Omar was instructed to lie about her ethnicity to move about safely. “Although the Benadiris (my mother’s side of the family) were not caught up in this clan-based conflict, the Hawiye systematically targeted my father’s northern-based clan, the Majerteen.” But that wasn’t enough to protect them.
One day, when Omar and her brother were sent outside on an errand, they were stopped by armed men demanding to know their clan. Omar delivered a rehearsed lie, claiming her great grandmother’s clan. Unsatisfied with her answer, the men asked her to specify her lineage; “I wasn’t about to adlib a sub-clan only to have men with guns realize I was a liar,” she writes. The men ultimately allowed Omar and her brother to pass, but told the children, “Don’t expect to come back another time without being able to tell us who you are.” It was the last time Omar was allowed to leave her home. The encounter made it clear that even at eight years old, Omar wasn’t safe: “My grandfather’s notion that being children would protect us from harm had been destroyed along with every other system and institution we had thought permanent,” she writes. “There was no more news, no school, no mosque, no hospitals.”
Initially, Omar and her family fled to Kismayo, a town that was supposed to be safer, after their home in Mogadishu was infiltrated and shot at by two of her classmates. “My family had split up and loaded ourselves as human cargo into several cattle trucks that left at different times. [My father] had left first, accompanying my two eldest siblings, who were most vulnerable to the vicissitudes of war,” she recounts. Omar and her family spent months in Kismayo until it was no longer safe, and they were forced to flee again, this time to the Utange Refugee Camp in Kenya.
It was in the camp that Omar accepted the inevitability of death. Her aunt, who was pregnant at the time, grew sicker the longer they stayed. “I don’t think I’ve known greater devastation and sorrow than when [my aunt] died,” Omar writes. “The experience was profoundly difficult not only because she was the first person I watched die and because she was pregnant. It wasn’t just that she was a mother figure to me. My aunt’s death meant in very real terms that there was no such thing as escape in this life.”
She sums it up simply: “Pain and death. Laughter and love. This is what it is. You just move on.”
Not long after the death of her aunt and several fires that destroyed lodgings in the camp, Omar’s family began planning to leave the camp. Omar describes hearing the elders of her family bicker over where to seek refuge before choosing America: “The United States is different,’ Baba interrupted. ‘Only in America can you ultimately become an American. Everywhere else we will always feel like a guest.” It took a year for Omar’s family to get approval from the United States High Commission for Refugees to travel to America. After a health screening, they were sent to Nairobi for a mandatory orientation. This required crawling through a thicket of contradictory rules: “In a classic bureaucratic catch-22, we had to come to Nairobi to get papers so we could go to America, but we didn’t have the documentation we needed to travel outside the camp. Had we been arrested in Nairobi because of our lack of papers, then we couldn’t go to America.” After the interviews, tests, and trips between Nairobi and the Utange Camp, Omar and her family were given the “golden ticket” to fly to New York.
Omar’s journey from Mogadishu to a refugee camp to New York spans several chapters, her story so vivid that it’s hard to turn the page knowing that there will only be more pain to follow. “I felt like I witnessed more death in the refugee camp than I did during the war. You could see the calculus visibly malnourished parents made to feed their children first. Kids were constantly being orphaned,” she writes. But traveling through this part of Omar’s life with her is necessary, not just to understand her as a person, but to understand her message: There is no monolithic America.
Omar’s idea of America was formed mainly by the orientation class video which showed, “amber waves of grain...and rows of beautiful homes lined with white picket fences.” She writes of seeing the famous Norman Rockwell painting of a happy family gathering around a giant turkey for Thanksgiving: “I wanted that turkey,” she recalls. But landing in New York, she was met with something entirely different. “I was appalled by what I saw. Trash everywhere. To be promised a utopia only to be brought to a city or town that might have a little less trash and crime and a few more buildings than where you came from is disorienting and disappointing.” After taking in the sounds and smells of New York, Omar and her family went on to Arlington, Virginia, where Omar continued to search for signs of the utopia she was expecting. Unable to find it, she told her father, “This isn’t America.”
Omar’s father shushed her and said that eventually, they would get to “our America,” meaning their new permanent home in Arlington. Omar writes about that response from her father: “At the time, to me, it meant we had arrived in the wrong America. We were eventually going to get to the right America, though, the one that matched the image in my head. That is still what it means to me today, and I’m still on the journey to find our America.”
Omar could have told her story in a number of ways that would make a reader comfortable, for instance, beginning with the inspiring grassroots campaign that got her elected. But instead, she went with chronology and with the brutal truth. Omar rejects the upbeat narrative so standard in the memoirs of successful people. She is rightfully angry about her past, and she is scarred by it in ways big and small: “To this day, I hate plain rice. It brings back that time when everyone smelled like a bag of rice. It seeped into people’s pores like we had drowned in it,” she writes, describing her lingering memories of the widespread starvation during the war.
Although Omar does not luxuriate in the concept of hope, it still plays a part in her story; this is, after all, the woman who said, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.” She talks about the hope of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, helping to lift her from her own state of hopelessness. She spoke of the hope that came from receiving the right to vote and encouraging other “new Americans” to do the same: “My mission in my canvassing work was to help people understand that it should be an honor to cast your ballot.”
But Omar’s memoir strikes a delicate balance between optimism and reality. As much grounded hope as she pours into her book, she isn’t quiet about the trials and the racism and religious discrimination, particularly at the hands of other American politicians. It’s not a palatable story where America gets to be the savior—Ilhan Omar is her own savior. It is a brief history of overcoming and using the unfulfilled promise of America, a place where everyone is supposed to be equal, to correct the system from inside.