'She's made us proud': Ilhan Omar's journey from Kenyan refugee camp to US Congress

Jason Burke in Johannesburg and Abdalle Ahmed Mumin in Nairobi
Ilhan Omar, elected to Congress for the Democrats, arrives for her victory party in Minneapolis on 6 November. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Fadumo Kuusow remembers a thin and shy girl who lived next door. Her memory is hazy as the girl left more than 20 years ago.

Last week Kuusow organised a small celebration with friends in Ifo camp, one of a vast complex of refugee settlements on dry, scrubby plains around the remote Kenyan town of Dadaab. Eight thousand miles away that thin, shy girl – now 37 – had just become the member elect of the US House of Representatives for Minnesota’s fifth district.

Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, will assume office in January, sharing the historic distinction with Rashida Tlaib of being the first Muslim women elected to the US Congress.

“The women here talked about her. I remember in the hot weather afternoon, Ilhan and I used to play jumping rope near our homes. My family lived in a tent and Ilhan’s family lived in a makeshift structure made of sticks and cloth,” she said when reached by telephone by the Guardian.

Omar was born in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, but was raised in the inland town of Baidoa. She fled Somalia’s civil war with her parents at the age of eight and spent four years at what became known as the Dadaab camp in neighbouring Kenya.

Now a vast, impoverished city with an estimated population of at least 250,000 people, conditions were rudimentary when Omar was a resident. Many refugees had arrived from Somalia with nothing more than they could carry.

“We were neighbours in Ifo camp within Dadaab complex,” Kuusow, 40, said. “Life was very tough those days. That was soon after the civil war in Somalia and many people were coming to the camp. I remember in the beginning we did not get school here.

The Ifo refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, where Ilhan Omar lived for four years after fleeing Somalia’s civil war. Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

“Camp security was a disaster. Girls and women were raped and we always feared about men. I can remember when it was evening; my mother could not allow me to go outside because of the risk.”

In 1995, Omar arrived in the US as a refugee, settling first in Arlington, Virginia, before moving to Minneapolis in 1997. She won a seat in the state’s legislature in 2016, becoming the first Somali-American lawmaker in the country. She had previously worked as a community organiser, a policy wonk for city leaders in Minneapolis, and as a leader in her local chapter of the African-American civil rights group the NAACP.

“I saw her on the television last night when her election victory was projected. Well done I can say. She tried her best. Thank God she has won now,” said Kuusow.

Abdullahi Osman Haji Adam came to Dadaab with his family in 1991 and he too remembers Omar in the refugee camp.

“In early 1991, I was [a] young man when I arrived Dadaab camp. Soon after that Ilhan’s family came as there was intense fighting in Somalia. I remember she was always alone and sat near their makeshift home. I thought that life was hopeless but today I am sure that it was not,” he said.

“What I can tell about her is only her smile and how shy she was. She was eight years old. She did not talk much.

“The camp had no hospital and no emergency service available. The only ambulance service we could find was one wheelbarrow which we used to carry sick people to a far away hospital. We had no school for two years.”

Conditions at the Ifo refugee camp are harsh, with inadequate food supplies after cuts in funding to international agencies. Here, Somali men jostle outside a food distribution centre. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

On Friday, Adam, 46, attended morning prayers at the camp’s mosque where elders prayed for the new congresswoman.

“We are glad that she won. She made us proud as refugees and Somalis. This shows that even if you are a refugee, you can still succeed. We pray for her and hope she will support the refugees. She must know that we are here in Dadaab,” he said.

Two years ago Kenya’s government said it would close Dabaab. It has been unable to do so, but the threat of a new closure effort hangs over residents. Food rations are inadequate after cuts in funding to international agencies.

Omar Sheikh Ahmed, 48, a cousin of Omar’s father, said the politician was “our star”.

“Her voice in Congress represents the minorities and refugees are minorities. She knows that we in Dadaab have no good schools. We are facing a food ration shortage. We do not have freedom of movement. Our future is shattered.”

Ilhan Omar celebrates with supporters after becoming one of two Muslim women elected to Congress in the US midterm elections. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

For many in Dadaab, the US refugee resettlement programme was their principal hope of a better future. Since its creation in 1980, the programme has led to hundreds of thousands of people from around the world being admitted to the US.

Last year, hundreds of Somali refugees in Kenya who were days from travelling to the US to start new lives under the programme were told they could not travel, after Donald Trump’s executive order banned migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months.

Since then, more stringent vetting and a review of procedures has led to a dramatic drop in refugees reaching the US.

As of 10 September, 251 Somali refugees have been resettled this year, a 97% drop from the 8,300 admitted by the same point in 2016, according to Reuters.

“Ilhan is a very special woman for refugees in Dadaab. She won at a time when refugees are facing challenges. Everyone says refugees are bad but she proved them wrong,” Adam, who is the current leader of Ifo camp, said.

Kuusow had one urgent request for Omar: “I want to appeal to Ilhan: please come and visit us here in Dadaab. We’ll welcome you as our daughter.”