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Why Is This Happening? Going from refugee to congresswoman with Ilhan Omar


Chris Hayes speaks with Rep. Ilhan Omar about her path to becoming the highest-elected Somali-American public official in the U.S.

Representative Ilhan Omar was just eight years old when her life turned upside down. After an armed compound attack, her family fled Mogadishu, and ultimately ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya. It was there that she experienced the reality that hundreds of millions of refugees worldwide endure. After an intense vetting and interview process, her family was eventually granted asylum in the U.S. and emigrated to Arlington, Virginia. In 2016, she was elected as a Minnesota House Representative, making her the highest-elected Somali-American public official in the U.S. and the first Somali-American State legislator. Omar joins to discuss her new book, “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman,” how she got into politics, her response to accusations of anti-Semitism and what’s needed to ensure more productivity and less combativeness among members of Congress.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Representative Ilhan Omar: We ended up leaving shortly after our home was invaded by militia who had come to harm us. Many of them were young childhood friends of my sisters and aunts. And they eventually talked them out of harming us. And once we were able to survive that night, my grandfather eventually came to the realization that his dream of living this thing through wasn't going to happen and that if we were going to be safe, we actually had to leave (MUSIC) Mogadishu.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me, your host, Chris Hayes. There's a very strange situation happening in the border between Belarus and Poland, which is also the border between Belarus and the E.U. Poland's in the E.U. Belarus, of course, the last dictatorship in Europe under a man named Lukashenko, who has been incredibly pugilistic against the E.U.

He's aligned with Vladimir Putin, although has a very complicated, fraught relationship with Putin, and has recently devised this unbelievably sort of dehumanizing but sort of brilliant troll of the E.U. in which he has been opening up visa-less flights from the Middle East, Iraq among a number of other countries, into Belarus.

And then the folks who are refugees, they're fleeing circumstances in the Middle East, are then brought to the border with Poland with, you know, Belarus saying, "Hey, go to Poland," and Poland saying, "No, no, no, we don't want you." And at one level, is trying to sort of, like, highlight the hypocrisy of E.U. policy on refugees, which is in fact quite restrictive.

There's lots of high minded rhetoric and a lot of countries that do not want refugees to come into their land, or asylum seekers, as these would be. Or specifically, there's also something just so morbidly disgusting morally about sort of using these folks as a kind of weapon.

A kind of human weapon. I was reading articles about this just because I found it sort of a fascinating situation, a kind of new frontier almost in a sort of, kind of, you know, hybrid war, almost, of, you know, using people fleeing terrible situations as a kind of weapon.

And it just made me think about how much of the rhetoric around refugees and asylum seekers treats them as objects, not as human. As a great mass of people. As a political problem for the regime in power. As a political problem for Joe Biden or Angela Merkel, or a disruptive element in the E.U.

And so little of it has to do with the actual human experience of the people themselves who are traveling from places, who are fleeing places of peril, of persecution in desperation. And centering that human perspective (LAUGH) is pretty important morally, I think.

And also intellectually because it gives you a better sense of, like, what exactly we're talking about. And particularly because I think the 21st century will be the century of even more mass migration. There will probably be more migration of populations this century than any other previous century.

And I think climate will exacerbate that. And I think it will produce all sorts of political effects. And so I wanted to talk to someone who has experienced this, the experience of being a refugee, of having to leave your home, of going to refugee camp and then of getting asylum in a new country and coming to that country.

This person I wanted to talk to also has a public profile, a public career, and she's a member of Congress. (MUSIC) And her name is Ilhan Omar. And I think she's one of the most fascinating members of the United States Congress, both for her life story, what brought her to the U.S., what produced her politics, and the role she plays in American public life right now. So Ilhan Omar, Congresswoman, thank you for joining us.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Thank you for having me, Chris.

Chris Hayes: So Congresswoman, tell me, where were you born?

Representative Ilhan Omar: I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, 1982.

Chris Hayes: What was the conditions of your family and the life world you were born into in 1982 in Mogadishu?

Representative Ilhan Omar: It was wonderful. I was born into a family that was quite vibrant and pretty loud and connected. There was a lot of us. I was born in my mother's father's home, in a home that had her siblings and my siblings. And so we were quite a large family.

My grandfather was a lover of history and the arts and culture. And so I was raised in a really amazing environment. And I think of the Somalia that I was born in, which was a lot different than the one we all know today. Obviously as a kid I was oblivious (LAUGH) to, you know, the fact that people were living under a dictatorship and things were challenging. But from my perspective and point of view, things are really great. I was able to go to school and be happy and play in the streets. And it was quite a happy life.

Chris Hayes: It sounds like you, I mean, you write about this in the book, too. Like, you had a sort of vibrant, happy, secure family life in a country that in the 1980s or early 1980s is under dictatorship but has a stable, present, and functioning government and stable civil society. What happens to change that, and what does that mean for your family and your life?

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think when you're a child in those kind of environments, you really don't know, you know, the underbelly of everything that is taking place. You're just experiencing your surroundings as it comes. And for me, my surroundings were pretty great.

And, you know, I think towards the late '80s, '88, '89, things had started shifting. There was obviously a lot of different groups that were being formed to challenge the dictatorship that existed at the time. And the country was devolving into a really dire situation.

I think my, you know, grandfather, again, was very optimistic. He thought, you know, the kind of changes we were experiencing were going to be temporary. And even as the civil war began, I think he expected it to lead to some sort of a transition. He was pretty optimistic when the dictator was chased out of the country and thought that, you know, things will stabilize. It didn't. And things got pretty scary for everyone.

Chris Hayes: Do you have a memory of your realization as a child that there had been a change, right? I mean, obviously you're not digesting all (LAUGH) this the way that adult does. But children are very attuned to changes and disruptions. And I wonder if you have a memory of having some sense of like, "Okay, something is happening here that means something different and profound for us."

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. I mean, I think the first realization was the fact that we couldn't go to school anymore. The second realization was, you know, obviously the situation devolved where it kind of became, like, a clan cleansing situation. And we were actively being told that we couldn't tell people what clan we were because we would be at risk of getting killed. And that actually was the beginning of me realizing that there was such thing, that there were clans. And--

Chris Hayes: Huh. That's interesting--

Representative Ilhan Omar: You know. (LAUGH) And that this was something that we had to be made aware of. You know, my family was sort of currently blended, which I didn't know until then. I came to realize that my mother was different, and my father, and that in order for us to survive, we had to assume the clan of my great-great-grandmother.

And that was, like, a neutral clan that nobody was interested in harming. And, you know, it was the beginning of realizing the kind of divisions that have existed since colonial times. And it was the beginning of understanding that we were living under a dictatorship.

It was the beginning of understanding that our, you know, beautiful existence wasn't really as beautiful as we'd experienced it. And it was the beginning of realizing that we might not be able to have the childhood and the futures we dreamed we would.

Chris Hayes: When did you have to leave Mogadishu?

Representative Ilhan Omar: We ended up leaving shortly after our home was invaded by militia who'd come to harm us. Many of them were young childhood friends of my sister's and aunts. And they eventually talked them out of harming us. And once we were able to survive that night, my grandfather eventually came to the realization that his dream (LAUGH) of living this thing through wasn't going to happen, and that if we were going to be safe, we actually had to leave Mogadishu.

And so we began the journey of getting out of Mogadishu and transitioning into another region of Somalia, more of the southern tip towards the border of Somali Kenya where there were more people of my clan. And it possibly meant that we could have some sort of survival there.

And it was a brutal trip to get there. And we eventually made our way to a town called Baraawe and spent a few days there sleeping on the outskirts of the ocean, 'cause there weren't really spaces or homes available for us to stay in.

And so I spent couple of nights sleeping out there. And then my father, who'd left before us, we separated from each other, came back and found us and helped us get to Kismayo. And from Kismayo, couple of more other conflicts happened and so it wasn't safe. And we eventually all again separated and made it away into the border in Kenya, which is where I eventually entered a refugee camp and lived in for four years.

Chris Hayes: What was the camp like?

Representative Ilhan Omar: So the camp was newly formed when I got there. We were one of the first people to enter. It was in Mombasa, Kenya, so in-- you know, in a s-- sort of coastal region-- a little bit different than-- the refugee camp that most people know, that a lot of Somalis are in, which is in the northern part of-- of Kenya.

And it's more desert-like. And, you know, it w-- it was empty. We got a tent when we registered. And-- a plot of land to put our tent in. And we, you know, got registered and got a card so that we can get in line to get food. And it was really no functioning facilities when we got there.

It would eventually develop. And there was no running water. Like, you know, sort of an empty space. And it was, you know, pretty scary. A lot of the locals weren't interested in having people in their backyard who were, you know, being offered things, right? Because they themselves were living in poverty, in severe poverty--

Chris Hayes: Ah. So there was, like, resentment.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yes. Lots of tension. And the camp would get burned quite often so that the locals would be able to one, it was, like, just to make their opposition be known. And two, then they can get resources to help rebuild it. So it sort of became an economic thing for them to subject these refugees to that sort of trauma.

And it was. It was quite traumatizing to constantly being worried about, you know, whether you can sleep peacefully at night and not have to run and lose, you know, the little things that you have, because we eventually left everything that we owned. And so we got lucky. Our tent never was in the area that the fires would begin. And so a lot of people did lose a lot of things, but my family's tents never really got burned.

Chris Hayes: Can I ask you, I mean, this is a remarkable story. And I think there's not really a lot of members of the U.S. Congress who have lived through this. People have different experiences. But just as you describe that, I mean, I think you have a very unique perspective, right? On (LAUGH) this country, and about American society.

And, you know, sometimes I think we get so caught in our parochial conversations in the U.S. along lines of race and class and difference that we lose sight of the fact that these kinds of conflicts exist everywhere and are in some ways the universal ailment of human society. (LAUGH)

So overcoming them, and just to hear you talk a little bit about that, I mean, you've already mentioned, like, clan as a dividing line that created, like, violent conflict to the point of armed men showing up at your door because you were the wrong clan.

And then, you know, xenophobia, essentially, or just, you know, resentment of these sort of foreign refugees. And in all these cases, like, not really a racial story here. It's other lines of difference. And just, like, how you think about that now in your role and as you think about American society and the fights that we have, about how universal this is, a thing that you've experienced firsthand in these very different contexts than the way that we think about it in the U.S.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. I mean, you know, in so many ways, we say race is a social construct, right? And so is clan. And, you know, a lot of the things that sort of force communities to express xenophobia are things that are fermented in society by others that are doing the dividing and conquering.

And a lot of the ways in which communities devolve is not recognizing that, that there is somebody benefiting (LAUGH) from the fact that these divisions exist and should remain. As I think about, you know, the things that we're going through here, the things that I've even experienced as an immigrant, as a refugee many years ago and still do to this day, is that there is a political benefit that some are getting from the ways in which they prop up these divisions. I think humans naturally live in and thrive in sort of that in community--

Chris Hayes: Totally.

Representative Ilhan Omar: --solidarity, right? Obviously (LAUGH) when you think about a family, we're closer than we are with our neighbors. And then, you know, you're closer to your neighbors than you are to the people that are living farther from you. And so that is the way in which we are socialized to act as human beings.

And it is easy for people to sort of manipulate that and to create an environment where they can thrive and you don't. And there is a lot of danger when a society isn't really awakened to what is taking place and isn't able to take stock of the kind of political climate that is being created for the benefit of the political class.

And, you know, our divisions here, whether it is around the xenophobia that exists with new immigrants that are coming into our border, or if it is-- whether it is, you know, around religious divisions, all of these things are essentially political.

No one is looking at, you know, someone who escaping tragic situations in a neighboring country and thinking, "Oh, I should not have empathy for this person." We naturally have empathy for people who are going through hardships. And that only changes when people tell us we shouldn't. And they make them the enemy. And, you know, work to turn us against them.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting to hear you articulate that theory, 'cause I think there's different ways people think about this, right? I mean, what I hear from you is that, like, and correct me, I'm wrong, but I just find it really fascinating to hear you talk about this because of how close this is to your experience.

And how unique your experience is. Just that people naturally sort of associate and cluster with their in group. There's in group out group dynamics just naturally as part of human socialization. But then there are people who use division as a kind of predatory tool to gain power.

And we have a kind of natural empathy and then people, demagogues, essentially, or cynics, or people that view their path to power through division, cultivate that. And that's, like, one way of looking at it. The other way is that, like, this is actually really, like, a natural urge in humans to be, you know, (LAUGH) skeptical, (UNINTEL).

You know, bigoted towards out groups. And then actually, like, we have to affirmatively overcome that. And I think there's a little bit of a conservative liberal divide on that. But it sounds like having experienced what you've experienced, your theory of humanity is the first one. That, like, the empathy is the natural thing and the division and the bigotry is the tool of people who are cynically trying to manipulate.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yes. Yes. And, you know, my story of survival (LAUGH) teaches me that humans are capable of tremendous compassion. And I'll just say this. When you're in school, when you're a little kid, you see, you know-- a kid who is disabled or, you know, is in need of something.

Unless some kid is trying to make fun of them, your natural desire is to try to help them out. Your natural desire is to try to make sure you're sharing your things. That is how we are as human beings, right? Like, when you're driving down the road, you see a car on the side of the highway, you take a second look to see if there is somebody in need.

Even if you're not-- if you might not be willing to stop, (LAUGH) 'cause, you know, there might be other things going on with you, but you naturally, your body attracts you to that and your first thought is, like, what is happening? Are they okay?

And so naturally, I think we are caring. And that is either nourished or nurtured in us, or it is beaten out of us. Nobody, I don't believe, and I've seen, you know, humans in different environments. I don't think people are inherently evil.

I don't believe people are inherently mean. I don't believe people are inherently against other human beings having things or existing. Our experiences, the environment we're raised in, who our parents are, all of those things eventually inform who we become, whether we become mean spirited people or we become people who are generous and joyful.

Chris Hayes: How old were you when you arrived in the U.S.?

Representative Ilhan Omar: Twelve.

Chris Hayes: And describe to me what that arrival was like and you were in Arlington and then I know you moved to Minnesota afterwards. But just your impression of the U.S., arriving (LAUGH) in the U.S. from Kenya.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Well, you know, when I was in the refugee camp and we eventually got, you know, sort of our golden ticket to come to the United States, there was a little process that you have to go through-- which is called orientation. They have to orient you into the way of life where you're going.

And as part of orientation-- there's a video that they show you. And these videos are still available online, so you can take a look at it for yourself. But it is an orientation video that is sort of, like, I don't know if you've ever seen one of those videos of "America the Beautiful."

Chris Hayes: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Representative Ilhan Omar: And it's like, everything that is beautiful about this country, right? You get to see a family that is having a feast for dinner, which I would eventually learn that that is Thanksgiving meal. That is not something (LAUGHTER) that takes place every night.

Chris Hayes: That's an every night situation. (LAUGH)

Representative Ilhan Omar: Right? It's, like, this beautiful gathering (LAUGHTER) with a big bird in the middle of the dining room. And, you know--

Chris Hayes: That's very funny.

Representative Ilhan Omar: It's images of kids smiling walking down the street with their parents to get on this beautiful yellow bus. It's, you know, beautiful homes with white picket fences. It is, you know, malls and elevators and escalators. It is, you know, beautiful airports.

It is just the beauty of America that is exported to a refugee (LAUGH) that is sitting there consuming and absorbing all of it. And so you have an image of America that is prestige. You have an image of America that is prosperous. You have an image of America that is, you know, one that will have you full (LAUGH) for the rest of your life.

And I remember when we landed, we landed in New York. And we got on a bus to go to our hotel and we were staying somewhere in the middle of New York. And as we're driving through New York City, I remember seeing piles of trash (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE) lining the streets. (LAUGHTER) You know, I'm, like, tiny. So I'm just holding onto the window just, like, taking it all in. (LAUGHTER) And--

Chris Hayes: Oh my god. It's the weirdest thing about New York, that we put, like, I grew up in New York City. So I was used to trash on the streets. That was normal to me. Then I moved to Chicago where they have alleys. The alley exists so that your trash isn't out in the street, and the sanitation code (?).

And then when I would come back to New York, I would be like, "What are we doing here? Why is there trash everywhere all the time?" (LAUGH) And it's amazing to hear you coming from a refugee camp to be like, "Hey, could we, what's, really? We have the garbage out everywhere"--

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. Yeah. It's like Coming to America. You know, the movie Coming to America where they're just, like, dropped in the middle of Queens and people just, like, pick up their stuff. (LAUGHTER) And they're just like, "Oh. Okay." And so, you know, and then there's, like, all the graffiti that is, like, on the walls. And I turned to my father, who was sitting next to me. And I said, "This doesn't look like the America you promised." (LAUGHTER) And yeah. He was like--

Chris Hayes: "Sorry, kid."

Representative Ilhan Omar: "Hush, child." You know, this is not our America. We're gonna get to our America. So I think even in his own way of absorbing it, it was like, "No, we're, like, somewhere in between. This isn't it," right? And it continued. I mean, we, you know, the next morning caught a flight to come to D.C.

And we're driving through D.C. and there's people sleeping on the sides of the streets. There's more trash. There's more graffiti. You know, we ended up going to Arlington, Virginia. We're in, you know, in an apartment in an area that is now very developed but wasn't at the time. And nothing of what I have experienced really came even maybe 10% close to the image that was, you know, I think they might have actually had images of, like, Beverly Hills or something (LAUGH) like that.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. See, I'm sure. I mean-- (LAUGH)

Representative Ilhan Omar: In this video. And it's very unfair, I think, to be sharing those images with a refugee that is probably even living--

Chris Hayes: Oh my God--

Representative Ilhan Omar: --in the United States is not going to see anything like that for at least a decade or two.

Chris Hayes: Well, I mean, the other thing about that that's so, I mean, it's sort of funny in retrospect is also that, like, I think it works in the reverse, too, which is that, you know, human life in any society anywhere is extremely complex and variegated and depends a huge amount on, like, where you are in the class structure.

And so, you know, I think we have that in reverse, right? Like, people in America I think of think of, you know, sub-Saharan Africa as soon as this sort of, like, undifferentiated mass of misery. (LAUGH) You know? And, like, it's not. You know, there's all kinds of different lives and worlds and people live in.

And you could go out in Lagos and be in, like, the ritziest, you know, houses and clubs. And, like, you tend to get a very simplified (LAUGH) version of other places that does not appreciate how complex and prismatic, you know, an actual society is. (LAUGH) And it's very funny to hear the U.S. like a dating profile. Like, putting their best, you know, picture (LAUGH) on, like, the nice lighting showing up at the date and being like, "I don't know."

Representative Ilhan Omar: Like, I was, like, in complete shock. I mean, you know, I had the images of that and then, you know, my grandfather was into western movies. And so, like, I watched a lot of movies with cowboys. (LAUGH) And so that, you know, those were the only images I had of the United States.

And nothing like that existed in Arlington, Virginia, when I got there. And, you know, I didn't speak English. The only words I knew were, "Hello," and "Shut up." And so that made a very interesting, you know, first few weeks of middle school for me.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. So you end up enrolling in high school in Minnesota, right? And your family kind of acclimates. I think your father gets a job. He's driving a taxi, I think, at one point, if I'm not mistaken. I mean, how quickly did that process of if not assimilation, like, habituation to your new life, to being an American in an American high school, like, how quickly did that happen?

Representative Ilhan Omar: It happened pretty quickly. When I came, you know, I started in sixth grade. So I did middle school in Arlington, Virginia. When I left Somalia, I was just entering fourth grade, so I'd missed basically, like, four years of school in those years that I was in the refugee camp.

Representative Ilhan Omar: But I was raised by educators. And so, you know, there was always some sort of, like, education that was being carried out throughout those years. And when we came to the United States, the focus for my father and my siblings, I was the baby in the family, was to make sure that I would get the best educational outcome that could be available.

And that I wouldn't really miss much. And so they worked really hard to try to make sure I learned English pretty quickly. Obviously (LAUGH) the bullying and the challenges of being in middle school and not being able to communicate with anyone didn't help. So I was pretty fluent, I would say, in English in three months.

Chris Hayes: What?

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Wow, that's very fast. I mean, I guess it's also kind of a sink or swim situation. Like--

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah, it was. It was--

Chris Hayes: Literally survival--

Representative Ilhan Omar: --like, survival-- (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. I mean, I was, like, getting in fights all the time just because I didn't know what people were saying and doing with me. And, you know, it was very challenging. And my father was like, "You have to learn how to communicate. You can't get in physical altercations all the time. That's not gonna be helpful"--

Chris Hayes: Oh, you were getting in, like, physical fights with people.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. Yeah. A lot. I spent majority of middle school in school detention because, I mean, you know, if you can't communicate, I mean, and you're a kid and people are, like, pulling your head scarf, you know, like, you're gonna fight back.

So, and I think because I was so tiny, people underestimated (LAUGHTER) what I was capable of. And I was pretty, I mean, I grew up with brothers and siblings and aunties and uncles who were all older than me. And so I got picked on a lot. And I learned how to fight pretty well pretty young.

Chris Hayes: So I wanna skip ahead. You went to high school. You went to college. You ended up getting married, if I'm not mistaken, fairly young. When do you decide that you wanna run for office?

Representative Ilhan Omar: So, you know, when I was teaching, like, you know, I was doing nutrition education. And I was educating people on, you know, what vitamins and nutrients they need in their bodies and what foods were good for them and what were bad for them.

And majority of the people that I was teaching, whether they were seniors or new Americans or young to-be moms in high schools, all of them were having, you know, some serious life challenges, right? They couldn't find housing. They couldn't find a job.

They couldn't acclimate to American life. And I would have a lot of conversations with them that were very political because the challenges they were having had political solutions. And so I got a lot of people interested in participating in voting because of that.

And, you know, eventually we realized that we were being represented by a woman who was there for four decades and really wasn't living up to the idea of living in a representative democracy, and wasn't actually representing us. She didn't have the fluency in our day to day struggles.

And so I ran candidates against her to unseat her and it didn't work. And so I eventually was talked into running myself in 2015. And I ended up challenging her for the Minnesota House and was able to win that race against the 44 year incumbent, the longest serving female elected politician in the history of the United States.

Chris Hayes: Why did you win?

Representative Ilhan Omar: I won I think because people were able to have someone come to their door who really cared, was willing to listen, and wanted to talk about ideas and not have them just beholden to keeping up with the status quo.

Chris Hayes: Then there was an open seat in your congressional district. Your-- you ran for that, you were elected.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. Yeah. My predecessor, Keith Ellison, was the first Muslim elected. He decided to run for attorney general the day before filing deadline. And so I had couple of hours to decide whether I was gonna run for Congress or not. And-- I didn't even get to talk to my kids about it. Their teachers told them when I registered to run in their classrooms.

Chris Hayes: I think you're probably, you were elected in 2018, right? So you're in your second term. You know, I think in another media age, a second term member of Congress, people wouldn't, like, know them. (LAUGH) In, like, a safe seat. You know, there's a term back bencher for these.

You know, and our media environment's very different. You've become, you know, a very targeted figure in right-wing media that portray you as really kind of in pretty gross, bigoted terms as a kind of fifth column agent working at cross purposes (LAUGH) to the United States.

And then I think you're widely known to my audience and our audience on the left. I do wonder, like, how you think perception of you does or doesn't line up with who you are. Like, I know that I have had the experience sometimes of encountering public perceptions of you that feel so foreign or alienating.

And I would imagine that for all of the words that have been written about you, and all the coverage that you've received, that you must have that feeling, too. And I'm curious, like, you know, what would you say (LAUGH) about the conceptions people have of you or where they're awry?

Representative Ilhan Omar: I mean, I think in some ways, I kind of look at the ways in which, you know, the right-wing media, and maybe even mainstream media sort of reacts to my existence in politics. I think there were, you know, eight years of Obama and everybody talked about how he was this, like, Muslim from Kenya. And they actually got a Muslim from Kenya. (LAUGHTER) Or, like, east Africa--

Chris Hayes: Right, yes. That's true. That's true--

Representative Ilhan Omar: You know, they kind of spoke me into existence and here I am. And now they don't know (LAUGHTER) what to do with it.

Chris Hayes: It'd be really, really funny if it turned out you were actually (LAUGHTER) born in Hawaii and that your birth certificate was from Hawaii and, like, the great Ilhan Omar scandal was, like, the entire refugee story had been fabricated-- (LAUGH)

Representative Ilhan Omar: Right. Right. I think, you know, there is a perception that people have of who I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be. And that's informed, right, by what they know about Muslims, what they know about refugees, what they know about, you know, immigrants like myself who come from the country that I came from and the area of the world.

Or on the continent that I came from. And I don't fault them for that, right? Because, you know, your perspectives are born out of what you know and what you have experienced. And so, you know, part of my job is to try to make sure that they do actually pay attention to the variations and the variety that exists in people who come from where I come from.

And people who are in this country who are not that much different than their neighbors. And to me, I think that there is a lot of space for people to go beyond the headlines that are written about me and to challenge their assumptions about me.

And one of the reasons I wrote my book was that people can actually hear my story from me. (LAUGH) And not the ways in which others have told it. I mean, to this day, even though I wrote a whole book on my refugee experience, people in the media will still write a full article and say I was in the Dadaab (?) refugee camp, even though, (LAUGH) right, like, I actually tell them which refugee camp I lived in. And so there is I think a need to--

Chris Hayes: Wow. Yeah.

Representative Ilhan Omar: --like, have me fit into an existing idea that they already have. I remember running into a Washington Post reporter in Minnesota who was doing a story on me. And he, you know, was talking about how he'd already written the story. And he was coming to get, like, a few quotes.

And it was, like, a profile on me. And it, you know, is this idea that you can write a full profile on me without actually talking to me is where, right, like, these assumptions take hold. And you have people continuing to read about me, stories that actually aren't true or don't really fit into the (LAUGH) reality of who I am and what I believe in. And how I make my decisions and how I was raised and who raised me.

Chris Hayes: We'll be back after this quick break. One axis of criticism that you've received is around things you said about either Israeli policy, the Israeli government. People have accused you of anti-Semitism in remarks that you've made or in Twitter about Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wonder what your relationship is like with, you know, obviously you have a lot of Jewish folks in your district. You have a lot of synagogues. It's a very vibrant Jewish world in the Twin Cities. What those relationships are like, what those conversations have been like.

Because I do know people that have pretty progressive politics that I do think have been offended or have questioned your heart on these matters. And I know that's happened in your district. I'm curious what those conversations have been like.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. I mean, I think communities are not monolithic. You know, there's different ideologies people have. There's different perspectives in different places where people come from. And there are different relationships people have with me that sort of inform a positive reaction to anything I say or a negative reaction to anything that I say.

And I think my relationships in that community and in every community is along those lines. I mean, I'm Somali. (LAUGH) And, you know, the Somali community in Minnesota in my first two races, 95% of them didn't vote for me. And so I do know that the relationship that people have of you--

Chris Hayes: That's wild.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Yeah. I know. (LAUGHTER) And, you know, the perspectives people have are informed on who they think you will be and, you know, what they expect for you to follow through with. I think people will have an idea of the kind of policies they want you to advocate for.

And if you are not for those policies, everything you say will be seen only through that lens. And everything you do will be seen through that lens. And I see it within my own community as a member of the Somali diaspora. And so I don't really take offense to it. I just know that, you know, we continue to have dialogues.

We continue to have conversations. I am who I am. I believe in the things that I believe in. And I will continue to push for a world that is more just, where people are not being oppressed and where everybody can live in a life that's dignified.

Chris Hayes: Why did you get rinsed with the Somali voters in your district?

Representative Ilhan Omar: (LAUGHTER) Because they were, in both of my first two races, one when I challenged the incumbent, there was a Somali male candidate--

Chris Hayes: All right, gotcha--

Representative Ilhan Omar: --for the Minnesota house. And when I ran for Congress, it was a six-way race and there was a Somali male candidate.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Representative Ilhan Omar: And to them, they believed that somehow, it was more appropriate that their first elected in their community should be a male candidate. And they didn't think that it was a good example (LAUGH) in the community to have, you know, the first legislator, Somali legislator in the country, be a woman.

And they didn't think the first member of Congress of Somali descent should be a woman. So now they vote for me with 95% of their votes. (LAUGH) So it turned out that, you know, it was actually a good thing that they sent a first that was a woman.

Chris Hayes: Gimme a little bit of a snapshot of what life is like in Capitol Hill right now. It always seems to me post-January 6 like a really toxic environment in many ways. And very dysfunctional. I also wonder how much, like, social media and Twitter and the fact that everyone is sort of expounding publicly, how that affects in-caucus negotiations and relationships.

Like, you know, I live a life where, like, I'm in the public eye. And, you know, it's like, I feel like some things you wanna settle behind closed doors (LAUGH) and some things you wanna address publicly. And it does feel to me a bit like the way the caucus functions now is, like, everybody's out in public all the time. And I just wonder, like, what that's like and if that is having a deleterious effect on, you know, getting to yes on, for instance, the package that's being negotiated now.

Representative Ilhan Omar: I mean, I don't know if, you know, the conversations we have publicly for the ones that it does actually matter, that it has an impact on the work that we're able to do. Obviously there are people who do have, you know, public conversations that, they're not part of the negotiations.

They're not part of leadership. They're not part of the work that needs to get done. And so there is really no impact in that regard. And they are able to do and say whatever it is that they want to say. And they might inform the way the media is seeing that conversation or looking at how, you know, they're being impactful. But I don't think can influence the conversation or the negotiations on a piece of policy.

Chris Hayes: You're saying it doesn't matter publicly.

Representative Ilhan Omar: No. No. It--

Chris Hayes: Those pronouncements--

Representative Ilhan Omar: It doesn't.

Chris Hayes: They just go out into the ether. They're not, like, affecting things.

Representative Ilhan Omar: No. And I think there are sometimes, like, public spats that, you know, different members might have--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, you guys have a lot of beefs in public. And I always keep, (LAUGH) I guess let me be more direct. It feels like you guys fight a lot in public, and I sometimes wonder, like, is this the best way for everyone (LAUGH) to go about this?

Representative Ilhan Omar: It might not be. And I think, you know, we all obviously pick our battles. You know, it makes a difference who you have a public spat with or not. But there are a lot of members, I will say, you know, that I might not, like, publicly agree with or publicly have a spat with. (LAUGH)

And, you know, we remain cordial and are able to have conversations and do things. And there are some that, like, the relationship is tarnished forever, right? Because we're all human. And that is just the reality. I think relationships only work if you're willing to work at them.

And sometimes the public spats themselves can bring people closer. I've certainly experienced that. I think almost most of the members I have close relationships with have been people who have publicly denounced me. So, you know, that (LAUGHTER) has been my experience--

Chris Hayes: It's the first step. That's the first step to closeness is--

Representative Ilhan Omar: I don't know. Sometimes it works, right? Sometimes, you know, in order for people to have a conversation that they want to have with you, they have to do that. And, you know, sometimes people don't have the guts to come and yell at you in person so that you can, you know, move from then.

I do. I probably say the things in person to someone before I say something to them publicly. And then there's the Republican side, which is, like, it's all game for them, right? Like, they, you know, don't say anything to you in person. They're very cordial.

They wave. They say hi and all of these things. And then they get on national TV and they spew their garbage. (LAUGHTER) You know, they live a life of, like, a wrestler, you know, where you're, like, getting ready to go in the ring. And you say--

Chris Hayes: Totally--

Representative Ilhan Omar: --all of these personal garbage. But, like, behind closed doors, they're just like, "Oh, how are the kids, Ilhan?" And, you know? And it's like, unh-uh (NEGATIVE). Like, don't worry about my kids. Don't talk to me. (LAUGH) And so, like, there's that a little bit, that, you know, happens.

But it is. It's very different. I will say, I have even personally noticed that things are extremely different after January 6. You know, there's a lot of mistrust. There's a lot of weirdness. I mean, we obviously have members who are, like, harassing and stalking other members.

We've had members move their offices away from certain members. We truly do have some sociopaths in the caucus across the aisle. And, you know, it's a little scary to know that this is what, like, Congress has become. That, you know, this place that you're supposed to have reverence for, and you're supposed to honor, and it's supposed to have such history and tradition.

It's the place where, you know, our constitution is upheld. It's the place where we're supposed to take our oath of office seriously. It's a place where we are supposed to show the country and the world how we conduct ourselves. And we constantly have people who interrupt meetings.

We can't have, you know, security briefings without, you know, Republican members shouting people down and shouting at leadership and the witnesses that come to brief us. I mean, it does in some ways make the place feel cheaper. And it sort of makes it a little high school-ish.

'Cause the stuff that happens online I don't really care for. You know, Twitter is a small community. It's not the real world. (MUSIC) But we do have a lot of them taking what's happening on Twitter and other spaces inside the Capitol. And that is gross.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Ilhan Omar-- is a member of Congress in her second term from Minnesota. She's a progressive caucus whip, authority of, This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. It was really great to get to spend a little time and just talk about your story, Congresswoman. Thanks a lot.

Representative Ilhan Omar: Oh, thank you.

Chris Hayes: Once again, my great thanks to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Her book is called This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things that we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.