Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the first Somali-American elected to Congress who is a frequent target of President Donald Trump, speaks as she introduces the Zero Waste Act that creates a federal grant program to help local governments invest in waste reduction initiatives, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 25, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on her journey, her resilience and her hopes for our future

(RNS) — Representative Ilhan Omar has been breaking ground and blazing trails her entire life. She was born and raised in war-torn Somalia before escaping with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya. She eventually came to the United States of America as a refugee — and these experiences have helped shape how she views and understands the world.

Representative Omar began serving as a U.S. representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in 2019, and she immediately became the first to walk the halls of Congress in a number of senses — the first Somali-American, the first naturalized citizen from Africa, the first non-white woman elected from Minnesota, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress and the first to don religious headwear while in office.

These various aspects of her identity, as well as her progressive politics, have made her a target for politicians on the right. Donald Trump has openly attacked her, as have other political figures, and this attention has catapulted Congresswoman Ilhan Omar into the international spotlight.

Simran Jeet Singh and his daughter meet Rep. Ilhan Omar. Photo courtesy of Simran Jeet Singh

I had the privilege of sitting down with Rep. Omar to learn more about her personal journey, where she draws her strength and inspiration and what she envisions for our future. The following is an excerpt from our conversation that has been slightly edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview on my new podcast, "Spirited." Listen on any of the major podcast apps: Apple PodcastsSpotify and Stitcher.

Tell us a little bit about who you are at your core and what it is that drives you.

I think I'm driven by finding a space to create a world in the world I was born in. I think that there is a challenge in our society where people seem to be complacent to the current realities of injustice, of suffering, of pain, of terror. I feel very alert to it all. And I'm pained by it. So I'm driven to heal the ills of the world.

At some point, I used to believe that it was okay to resign to the reality of what we've got. Then I had kids. And I feel quite urgent and driven into action.

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar, center, celebrates after her congressional 5th District primary victory on Aug. 14, 2018, in Minneapolis. (Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via AP)


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From where do you derive these feelings? Does it relate to your own experiences growing up and finding a place in this world just to live?

Yes. I went from a childhood of security and safety and abundance one day to a childhood of statelessness, of pain, of war. I know we're just one step away from losing everything if we're not fighting hard to not just maintain it, but progress it. The decaying of the soul often leads to decaying of societies, of countries, of nations, of the world. I think it's important to make sure that there's enough movement to create healthy spaces so that we could all be better.

How do you deal with difficult times personally? Is there a well from which you draw?

At the core of it, spiritually, I believe our time on earth is limited and there is a purpose for our existence. I was raised to believe it is important for you to use your blessings to their full potential.

I think of my youthfulness as a blessing, and I want to utilize it. I want to be able to use my voice because I know that it’s not guaranteed, that it won’t forever be accessible to me. And we’re also told that you don’t waste your wealth and everything that you have. I know there is societal thinking that wealth often means particular amounts of money, but wealth for you can just mean that you have enough. And when you have enough, you should think about how to use it wisely. So I’m constantly thinking about what my existence means and how I use it the best ways possible.

From left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., respond to remarks by President Donald Trump after his call for the four Democratic congresswomen to go back to their "broken" countries, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019. All are American citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


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How does fear factor into all this for you? There are constant and serious attacks on you and threats against you. You have the safety of your own kids to think about, too. How is it that you're able to be so open and vulnerable and take these sorts of public risks?

Fear isn't a word that I often allow to penetrate my spirit or psyche. Fear makes it hard for a person to fully function. Fear doesn't have the ability to multiply. It shunts growth. And fear leads to the kind of decaying I was talking about that I am weary of and feel frustrated with.

I'm much more the kind of person who really is focused on hope and joy and words that give life.           

What's your hope for the future? Where would you like to see the world go?

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, right, speaks about the party's legislative priorities when Democrats assume the majority in the 116th Congress in January, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I've seen what bright days could look like and I've seen what complete gloom could look like. I know that having people who feel connected to other humans allows for those two things not to take away the smile on their face. A bright day doesn't really determine whether you are going to have a smile on your face, nor does a gloomy day. It's about your connection to humanity.

So I want to help create a world where we are more connected, a world where we see each other's wins and losses as our own, each other's pain and joy as our own, a world where we are allowing people to lead a dignified life, where there's a limit to suffering and a limit to a senseless loss of life, and a world where there’s a limit to oppression, inequality and injustice. I know it sounds like I’m looking for a utopic world, but it’s about truly finding a space where everyone can thrive and not just survive. That’s my hope.

This is a selection of an interview from "Spirited," a new podcast hosted by Simran Jeet Singh, about how spirituality leads to social action. You can listen to "Spirited" on all major podcasting apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher