Review: America through Ilhan Omar’s eyes

In this memoir, the first Somali-American woman elected to the US Congress describes how she got there

This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman by Ilhan Omar (Dey Street, 2020)

This is What America Looks Like is Ilhan Omar’s answer to a question that the United States has grappled with since its inception: Who is an American?

America is said to be a nation of immigrants. It is said to be a melting point, an amalgamation of cultures into one distinctly American. This, however, is not entirely true. America has not wanted all of the world’s “poor, tired and hungry.” 

It has always been very selective in who it allows within its borders. And more importantly, who it allows to be a part of that distinctly American identity, endowed with all of its privileges. 

For a long time, this did not include people who looked like Ilhan Omar: a hijab-wearing black Muslim woman from Somalia. 

Through the waves of immigration, American attitudes towards immigration have oscillated between exclusionary and welcoming, granting some passage, while denying others. And one persistent determining factor has always been race. 

It’s no secret that America has always struggled with race, even today with the global protests against the killing of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, killing him. 

It took the 14th Amendment, which was ratified on July 9 1868, for African Americans, descendants of enslaved people who have been in America for 400 years, and other people born on American soil to even be considered citizens of the US. 

Against the backdrop of America’s racial history, here comes Ilhan Omar, her jagged edges forcing their way through, compelling the US to live up to its promise of being a nation of immigrants.

But that has not been realised without a good fight. Don’t be fooled by her tiny frame. She is a force to be reckoned with. We are immediately introduced to Ilhan’s fighter spirit as she tells a bully to meet her in the school courtyard to settle a dispute. She even fights her patriarchal Somali society who is unaccepting and unaccustomed to female leadership.

In This is What America Looks Like we journey with Omar from her idyllic life in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, where she lived as the child of her single father among her six siblings, her grandfather Baba, and other relatives. 

My heart flutters as I read about Mogadishu pre-civil war. Although I was born in Mogadishu myself, I was raised by a nomadic family very far from the capital and did not know a bustling city life in my early days. 

We see her through the heartbreak of the first shots of civil war, the disintegration of civil society, the violence committed against neighbours and friends, and her finally escaping all that and finding refuge in Utange camp in Kenya, and finally arriving in the US.

In America, like all refugees, Ilhan and her family start over. But even this isn’t without a fight. She fights her way through middle school, high school, early marriage, complicated family relationships, parenthood, college and a political career — all the way to Congress, where she is still fighting for fellow immigrants, women of all races, and fighting the President of the US Donald Trump to save the soul of America, as she boldly claims.

Omar is not just a politician. She is a daughter of her late father, a wife and a mother of three children. She is human, and thus shares in all of our humanly struggles of raising children, of trying to forge an identity of her own while trying not to disappoint her parents, of navigating relationship dynamics, domestic life and unifying two perspectives under a single roof. 

As far as memoirs go, This is What America Looks Like is brutally honest and definitively relatable. Omar speaks of her dark depressing days when she decides to leave her husband, taking her two children to North Dakota with her to study at college. She also details the crossroads she faced with her family, within her marriage and questioning her own identity.

We also witness her coming back to Minnesota, making amendments with her family, throwing herself into community work and setting the foundation for the political activism that she has become known for.

As a Somali-American woman who also came to the United States at the age of 12, and  also grew up without a mother, I share a certain kinship with Omar. As I read about her navigating a third culture, not being Somali enough and not American enough, I kept thinking: I have been there.

As I read about her struggles in a patriarchal society which isn’t accustomed to women leadership, women demanding to be heard and having a seat at the table, I was reminded of all the times I had to prove myself in my community, even having to prove that I was part of my community.
In This is What America Looks Like, you find a woman boldly telling her story and reclaiming her narrative. It is filled with lessons for all ages and reminds us to always fight for the life we deserve, and the world we all deserve.

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Ifrah Udgoon
Ifrah Udgoon is a high school science teacher based in Columbus, Ohio in the United States. Originally from Somalia, but raised in the US since age 12, she navigates the duality of being both an American and a perpetual foreigner while raising a teenage son in what is not a post-racial America. She’s passionate about arts and education and uses both in the practice of freedom by continuously advocating for higher education within her immigrant community, as well as educating the American public on immigration and multiculturalism

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