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Refugee resettlement

Refugee resettlement: A conversation with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar

The Minnesota Congresswoman on how to improve the refugee experience in America.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Twenty-three years ago, Ilhan Omar arrived at a Washington, DC, airport after spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. Born in Somalia, eight-year-old Omar fled civil war with her family and was eventually resettled in the United States. Even for an affluent family well positioned to navigate their new surroundings, there were many challenges and frustrations: Omar remembers sitting outside her new middle school in the cold, unsure if she was allowed to enter the building before classes began and unable to communicate with her new teachers.

Last month, Omar arrived at that same Washington airport to be sworn in as the Democratic Representative from Minnesota—the first Somali-American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. This week on Displaced, Omar shares her resettlement story, reflects on the conditions that contributed to her success, and calls for greater support for and inclusion of refugees in American society.

For Omar, improving refugee resettlement programs in the United States means acknowledging that refugees arrive with a wide range of experiences and resources. Recognizing “that everyone who is a refugee is not monolithic in their experiences allows us to not be blinded to the specific needs that people might have,” Omar says. “And I think it will inform how prepared resettlement agencies are once the refugee arrives in the United States, it informs how others interact with them.” She emphasizes the need to enhance initial services offered to refugees during their arrival period, particularly for those who need to move across states, “so that we have people taking full advantage of the American life and the American dream.”

Ilhan Omar

The United States has long been the world’s leader in refugee resettlement, taking in 3 million of the world’s 4 million resettled refugees since 1980. But the number of refugees admitted to the United States dropped by more than half in 2017, and the Trump administration has capped resettlements at 30,000—an historic low—for 2019. Omar notes that other countries around the world absorb huge numbers of refugees despite limited infrastructure. “We sort of are having the opposite problem,” Omar says. “We have the infrastructures and we are now closing the door because we have people who no longer have a big warm heart.”

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the United States. The current polarization surrounding resettlement is the product of politicians’ efforts to “manipulate societies with fear,” Omar argues, rather than “genuine resentment or xenophobia” within the American public. She worries that we are “going back to a dark place in our history, in our human history, where we understood that the best way to control and move an agenda was to steer fear and inflame hate.”

“We [refugees] are humans who who deserve opportunity and who — when given that opportunity — will live to our fullest potential. And I am an example of that and, I think, a reminder for a lot of people here in Congress who have lost their way.”

Still, Omar affirms that we can achieve a just society for all Americans, including refugees. “My hope,” she says, “is that we get a little bit closer to to what we used to be and what we should be and what we deserve to be.”

Related Resources

On World Refugee Day Let’s Figure Out What Really Makes America Great — Ilhan Omar, The Hill

Coming to America: The Reality of Resettlement — International Rescue Committee

By the Numbers: The United States of Refugees — Smithsonian Magazine

Somalis Finding their Place in Minnesota — CNN

Refugees in Minnesota: Quick Facts —  Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.