A Former Refugee, a Muslim, and an Arab: Women Who Made It to Congress

Tuesday 6th November 2018 marked the day when American states, Minnesota and Michigan elected the first Muslim women to serve in the US Congress, including a former refugee who fled Somalia’s civil war and a Palestinian American from Detroit.

The two Muslim democrats are Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, whose victories came on an election night when candidates from ethnic minorities were given the opportunity to score electoral firsts. Lebanese American Donna Shalala from Florida, would now be starting her third career with her election after having served Bill Clinton’s cabinet and running major universities.

Ilhan Omar

Minnesota’s 36 year old Ilhan Omar is an American Citizen and a state representative who follows another groundbreaking candidate, US Congressman Keith Ellison who became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress in 2006, and is now stepping down to run for state attorney general.

Omar campaigns on policies that are championed by the Democratic Party’s most liberal wing, including ideas like universal health care, free college tuitions and public housing. In an interview last month, Omar said, “I did not expect to come to the United States and go to school with kids who were worried about food as much as I was worried about it in a refugee camp.”

Not only is Ilhan the first Congress member to wear a hijab, she was also the first Somali-American woman to win a seat in a state council, on the same night Donald Trump won the presidency, following a campaign in which he called for a ban on Muslims entering America.

Rashida Tlaib

Another groundbreaking Muslim woman to make congress is Rashida Tlaib. The 42 year old Palestinian American was the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature in 2008. The oldest of 14 children, Tlaib is a former state representative who also campaigned for the liberals, backing Medicare for All, immigration reform and a call to overturn Trump’s executive order banning most people from five Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.

Linking her campaign to the emergence of more women taking up political activism in America following Trump’s White House residency, Tlaib said on Twitter, “Today, women across the country are on the ballot. Yes, we marched outside the Capitol, but now we get to march into the Capitol. We are coming!”

Donna Shalala

In Miami, 77 year old Shalala won a democratic seat that had long been in republican hands. Donna Shalala previously served as Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services throughout his presidency and has put healthcare at the forefront of her agenda. In a recent interview, she was asked why she chose to take on this career path following such a long career in politics, and Donna Shalala replied, “What I decided in my mind was that I wasn’t finished with public service. I wanted to take a shot.” Shalala, who is of Lebanese descent, has lived in Miami since 2001, is originally from Cleveland, and has a twin sister.

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