Ilhan Omar, who lived in a Somali refugee camp when she was a girl and was elected to the US Congress last week, has said she hopes her victory would give hope to those whose childhoods resembled hers.
Omar fled the civil war in Somalia with her family in 1991 and spent four years in the Utango camp, near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, before arriving in the US with her six brothers and sisters under a resettlement programme.
“I would have loved to have heard a story like mine. I could have used it as an inspiration to get by. The lesson is to be hopeful, to dream and to aspire for more,” said the 36-year-old member-elect of the US House of Representatives for Minnesota’s fifth district.
Omar, a Democrat, will assume office in January, sharing with Rashida Tlaib the historic distinction of being the first Muslim women elected to the US Congress.
Multiple media outlets, including the Guardian, have reported that Omar lived in the vast Dadaab camp, which opened to receive civil war refugees around the same time as the Utango facility.
The report in the Guardian, describing the celebrations and prayers for Omar in Dadaab after her victory, also included interviews with residents of the camp, who said they remembered her living there almost 30 years ago.
The Democrat politician takes a selfie with supporters. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images
The interviews were conducted by telephone by an experienced local journalist who is a native Somali speaker, and, while the Guardian is confident the interviewees were speaking in good faith, it is now clear these memories were erroneous.
The politician has previously spoken of her flight from Somalia, describing how militiamen prepared to attack their home in Mogadishu at midnight and had to be convinced by older female relatives to leave the family in peace.
Omar left with her family shortly after, and remembered walking through streets strewn with debris and corpses.
The Utango camp was isolated and rudimentary with limited sanitation. Omar collected firewood and water for the family, and has described how she enviously watched similar-aged children going to school in uniforms, and asking her father if she could resume her education.
They were among the first to reach the Utango camp, which had just opened. Arrivals were housed in tents or makeshift huts before the facility was closed, in about 1996.
Omar, a former community organiser and policy analyst, remembered the rough conditions. “It was isolated … in a jungle setting. There were deaths from malaria,” she said.
When Omar was 12, she and her family travelled to the US.
The Dadaab camp remains open and has grown into a sprawling complex with more than 250,000 inhabitants. Life there can be harsh, precarious and chaotic, with arrivals and departures every year.
Omar, who visited Dadaab in 2011 to help with humanitarian assistance for victims of famine in her homeland, has become a hero to many in the camp. They have adopted the politician as one of their own and insist she was once a resident. One interviewee called Omar a “daughter of Dadaab”.
The Kenyan government has made repeated attempts to close the camp. For many residents, the US refugee resettlement programme was their principal hope of a better future.
Newly arrived Somali men jostle to queue outside a food distribution centre at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border. Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Since its creation in 1980, the scheme 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 massive drop from the 8,300 admitted by the same point in 2016, according to Reuters.
“I talk all the time about the eight-year-old me and all the eight-year-olds who are living in their camps,” Omar said. “I hope my victory gives them hope.”