Saturday December 14, 2019
BY STEVE COLLINS
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, left, a Minnesota Democrat, and Safiya Khalid, a newly elected Lewiston City Council member, meet Friday following a political rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. Steve Collins/Sun Journal
Controversial U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, talked Friday with incoming Lewiston City Council member Safiya Khalid after a political rally in New Hampshire.
MANCHESTER, N.H. – Newly elected Lewiston City Council member Safiya Khalid stood beside one of her idols after a political rally Friday.
“Oh, my God, you’re so small!” Khalid squealed as she eyed U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. The Minnesota Democrat and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, in 2018 became the first two Muslim woman elected to Congress.
Hugging the congresswoman, Khalid told her, “I love you. You’re amazing. I can’t believe you’re in my presence.”
Omar appeared equally thrilled.
She told Khalid, a 23-year-old who won a council seat after a race that included many online racist taunts, that she’s not sure she could have dealt with “so much hate” at such a young age.
Omar, 37, told her young Lewiston admirer that she had shown wisdom and courage far beyond her years and that by sticking it out, she helped ensure that neither of them would be the last Somalis to move ahead in American politics.
Omar came to New Hampshire Friday to promote Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, at a rally at Southern New Hampshire University.
“Politics,” Omar said, “can be a vehicle for bringing joy into our lives.”
Sanders praised Omar for showing “what America is supposed to be” and standing up against “some of the most ugly racism ever thrown” at a member of Congress.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks Friday during a New Hampshire rally about his admiration for U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, who has endorsed him. Steve Collins/Sun Journal
Afterwards, at a nearby hotel, Omar met with a reporter and Khalid.
Omar said she first heard about Lewiston back in 2002 when its mayor, Laurier Raymond Jr., wrote an open letter to the Somali community after more than 1,000 refugees from Somalia moved to the city.
“Please pass the word: We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly. Now we need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally,” Raymond wrote.
Omar recalled the “really horrible, sinful” views of refugees that Raymond had expressed and “feeling completely saddened” for the immigrants involved “who were just looking for an opportunity to find a new home and they were being treated in such a negative way.”
But, she said, she also remembered how wonderful it felt “that members of the community rallied around them” and that the Somalis have successfully found a way to become part of the fabric of the place where they settled.
Omar said U.S. Rep Jared Golden, a first-term Democrat from Lewiston, has spoken with her fondly about “how much they are an exceptional part of the larger community.”
Still, though, there are some who echo Raymond’s comments and worry about too many immigrants coming to town. Some may simply be racists — including those who unleashed venom at Khalid during the campaign.
Omar said she doesn’t know if she would have the courage “to run at the tender age of 23 and take on the kind of challenge that she’s faced in carving her own path” and inspiring the community “that there is a better tomorrow.”
Omar said she doesn’t mind the slurs directed at her, which didn’t start until she first won a state legislative race in Minnesota, because “I understand my purpose and create my own worth in every space that I’m in.”
But, she said, she worries how all those mean comments impact others.
“The intent ultimately is to silence me and to help silence anyone else who feels inspired to have their voice be heard because of me,” the congresswoman said. “We win when we disregard it and continue to push forward. That’s part of being an American.”
Omar added that “I don’t know, really, truly, if, as courageous as I have been, I don’t know if all of that had come while I was still running if I would have been able to continue.”
To see Khalid “endure so much and triumph really was a testament to the fact that what’s happening to me is not a deterrent for people to run and get involved and continue and win, that it is actually creating more resolve in people.”
Her victory in Lewiston showed that critics are not going to stymie “our ability to be full participants of our communities and to have the opportunity to be the voice of our communities,” Omar said.
She said Khalid’s win left her feeling better.
“The fact that there is a Safiya means there are going to be many more,” Omar said. “If there’s no more Ilhans or Safiyas, then (the racists) win.”
“The hope is for us not to be the last,” Khalid added.
“The fact that it’s not feels good,” Omar said.
Omar said that she tries to push back against the fake narratives of her foes and embraces the chance to be “a walking billboard” for the many communities of which both she and Khalid are a part.
“We are Somali. We are women. We are Muslim. We are immigrants. We are refugees. We are black,” Omar said.
She said she can’t represent all of the people whose identities overlap with hers, but each group of which she’s a part has informed her experiences and made her realize she carries with her some of the hopes and dreams of many Americans.
Before heading out to another campaign event with Sanders, Omar asked Khalid if she’d be willing to do a short video interview that the congresswoman could post on social media.
“Oh, my God, are you serious?” Khalid asked.
With Omar’s camera capturing all of it, the two laughed and talked, each saying how much the other inspired them.
Then they talked about a possible visit by the congresswoman to Lewiston in the coming months.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, records a video Friday as she talks with Safiya Khalid, a newly elected Lewiston City Council member, for a future social media post. Steve Collins/Sun Journal