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Book Review: Ilhan Omar following ‘the American Dream’

28th Aug 2020
Book Review: Ilhan Omar following ‘the American Dream’

This is what America Looks Like. My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. By Ilhan Omar with Rebecca Paley. 320pp. Hurst Publishers. HB. £20

Ilhan Omar is feisty. You can see it on the first page and that same fire powers the book through to the very end. She is a survivor and refuses to be a victim.

The book begins with her fighting a bully in her classroom who is a lot than her. She ends up in the school backyard pummelling the boy. Standing up to those that are unjust seems to fuel this woman, ‘My strength doesn’t come from a lack of fear but from an overpowering sense of moral outrage.’ (p260).

In a full circle, towards the end of the book sees her taking on another big bully who just happens to be the President of the United States. Bullies don’t seem to daunt Omar.

Her journey goes from running through the streets of Mogadishu, fleeing the civil war in Somalia to the Utange refugee camp (on the border with Kenya) and her first impressions of America are sadly utopic from a child’s perspective. As a Congresswoman she is still trying to create an America that she wished to see when she first stepped into the country.

Talking about the American dream, she says, ‘We are not living up to the ideals we export to the rest of the world. In our country, we’ve normalized inequalities and hardships to the point that we don’t even recognize them as such.’(p262)

Omar is a marked woman because of her hijab. In the US Congress, which is dominated by white men, she addresses her decision to wear a headscarf by writing, ‘I need to cover pieces of myself to preserve who I am and feel whole. I’m centred by the hijab, because it connects me to a whole set of internally held beliefs.’ (p 119)

The downside of having a very visual display of faith is that every action she takes is attributed to her faith, and so she writes, ‘And yet, I also rail against having every action I take reduced to a social construct stemming from my religion, stripping me of the complexities of multidimensional thought.’ (p245)
I enjoyed the book.

The whole process of getting to a place of power and retaining power is a fascinating story. How businessmen are movers and shakers within a community, how the mother of her campaign manager allows Omar to see how she would be viewed in a district that might not view her as her own were all fascinating anecdotes in this biography.

In a true survivor fashion, she dwells on the steps that she took after all the low points (that she chooses to mention) in her life.

When her marriage broke down, she applied for a four-year university degree and with indomitable determination completed it while raising two small kids.

Changing her degree from nutrition to political science, she discovered a passion for community organizing and the journeys to the House of Representatives and on to the US Senate seem to be a relentless roller coaster journey that doesn’t seem to faze this protagonist.

Her driving force is ‘to help all those who feel small feel large; to make loud those who think they are voiceless. To me, that is the American dream.’ (p261)

We sure could use more dream makers in our current world set up.

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