Book notes: This Is What America Looks Like by Ilhan Omar

This Is What America Looks Like by Ilhan Omar book summary review and key ideas.

This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman by Ilhan Omar

Synopsis:

“lhan Omar was only eight years old when war broke out in Somalia. The youngest of seven children, her mother had died while Ilhan was still a little girl. She was being raised by her father and grandfather when armed gunmen attacked their compound and the family decided to flee Mogadishu. They ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where Ilhan says she came to understand the deep meaning of hunger and death. Four years later, after a painstaking vetting process, her family achieved refugee status and arrived in Arlington, Virginia.

Aged 12, penniless, speaking only Somali, and having missed out on years of schooling, Ilhan rolled up her sleeves, determined to find her American dream. Faced with the many challenges of being an immigrant and a refugee, she questioned stereotypes and built bridges with her classmates and in her community. In less than two decades, she became a grassroots organizer, graduated from college, and was elected to congress with a record-breaking turnout by the people of Minnesota – ready to keep pushing boundaries and restore moral clarity in Washington, DC.

A beacon of positivity in dark times, Congresswoman Omar has weathered many political storms and yet maintained her signature grace, wit, and love of country – all the while speaking up for her beliefs. Similarly, in chronicling her remarkable personal journey, Ilhan is both lyrical and unsentimental, and her irrepressible spirit, patriotism, friendship, and faith are audible in every minute. As a result, This Is What America Looks Like is both the inspiring coming of age story of a refugee and a multidimensional tale of the hopes and aspirations, disappointments and failures, successes, sacrifices, and surprises of a devoted public servant with unshakable faith in the promise of America.”


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Opening thoughts:

I found this book through Audible because I was looking for an autobiography for this month. Since this is a new section of politics in America and empathy and compassion and diversity, I thought this would be a good book for this month as appears into the perspective of a congresswoman facing today’s challenges in American politics


Key notes:

Chapter 1: fighter

  • In her culture, you’re always supposed to respect your mother and do whatever she wishes
  • For whatever the reason, even though she didn’t have one and couldn’t remember hers, mothers were a big deal to her and disrespecting them really got to her
  • Do you know she was the smallest and the baby of the family, she was the toughest and always a fighter, and sticking up for yourself
    • Her dad would laugh when people would come by and complain that she was fighting other children
  • She felt like an only child because she was never treated or patronized like the youngest in her family
  • They were unlike a traditional Somali family that followed hierarchy, but instead everyone was brought into the discussion
  • Her maternal grandfather’s philosophy on life was if you don’t fit in anyway, you might as well do what you want

Chapter 2: war

Chapter 3: when the mouth of the shark is safer than home 

  • When her aunt, her mother-figure, died, she felt angry at the realization that there is no escape and nothing is permanent
    • All you can hope for is you die surrounded by the comfort of the people you love

Chapter 4: refugee

  • Seeing one of the babies who grew up into a woman and survived the refugee camp gave her hope that while morning is permanent, the universe does sometimes take care of people

Chapter 5: American dream

  • Her first impressions and what she initially saw in America wasn’t what she felt like she was promised from all of the orientation videos
    • There was trash and garbage everywhere

Chapter 6: hello and shut up

  • During middle school in America, she got a reputation for always getting into fights
    • She learned as a refugee to stand up for herself and survive by making sure no one messes with her

Chapter 7: Minnesota nice

  • Her father raised her with a strict morality, not strict rules

Chapter 8: settling down

  • After her daughter was born and learning how to walk, that was when the invasion of Iraq started
    • War doesn’t restore, it’s just robs. It takes everything

Chapter 9: blessings

  • After visiting her relatives in Europe, they opened her mind to a radically different concept of what it meant to be devout
  • She discovered a solidly internal definition that rested on the care of ones own spiritual well being and nothing else
    • Commenting that someone else didn’t practice the way you do or wasn’t following your guidelines is born out of insecurity
    • A healthy religious practice is for you and you alone
  • She is a Muslim but also a humanist in which she believes we are all connected no matter our faith, belief in science, race, or country of origin
  • We all have an ability to enrich one another, not in spite of our differences but because of them

Chapter 10: Early Midlife Crisis

Chapter 11: Education

  • Aside from her grandfather whose love felt unconditional, she broke away from the rest of her family and disconnected from anything culturally familiar in order to find herself 
  • Breaking away was her way of finding her core strength
    • She walked away from the experience of freedom and self-reliance understanding her full capacity and the source of her true happiness

Chapter 12: Return

  • She went back to her family’s homeland with her father for a trip
  • Forgiveness is about unloading the anger and sadness we carry
    • She learned from Oprah that the greatest burden is on the grudge holder

Chapter 13: politics

  • Requiring an ID is a voter suppression tactic that mainly affects the poor
    • She felt passionately that if you are a citizen, you have the right to vote
  • Tailoring a centralized directive to each community is the task of those on the ground in a huge grassroots effort

Chapter 14: City Hall

  • You can’t decide you’re not going to engage in an issue because it’s too controversial
    • In fact often, the most contentious and difficult problems need the most attention and discussion
  • It’s her belief that in public service, if you’re not making someone uncomfortable, you’re not doing your job
  • Since she was old enough to go to school, she never shied away from any conflict
  • Your success and the successes of others can heal your wounds

Chapter 15: running

Chapter 16: you get what you organize for

  • She realized during her campaign that there was no way for her and her team to control her image
    • All she could do was build a familiarity with people so that when they saw these lies in the media, they wouldn’t believe it

Chapter 17: America’s hope and the president’s nightmare

  • All of the bullying and attacking from her political opponents actually helped her
    • Influence and enemies go hand-in-hand
    • Nancy Pelosi, one of her heroes, told her that it is a badge of honor to have this many people invested in one’s failure
      • If they weren’t afraid of your power, they wouldn’t work so hard to erode it
  • She started to gain international attention after being on the cover of time in September 2017 and also appearing on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah
    • She also got a lot of hate, especially after the Trump rally with 8000 people chanting send her back
    • She felt worse for her staff who had to deal with death threats, and the people who weren’t members of Congress but who simply looked like her and faced public rejection of their identity

Chapter 18: walking in like a white man

  • Her colleague noted that she walked in like a white man
    • She said she didn’t feel inferior to anyone in the state house because she was elected by the people and had just as much right has anyone else to be there and be in a leadership role
  • Her brand of optimism is based on denying herself any sense of victimization and taking comfort in the fact that whatever difficulties present themselves today, they will not exist tomorrow
    • She believes that by pushing hard enough, you will eventually end up somewhere better
    • People say she has an iron spine, but she sees it as a process of trying to figure out how to turn every challenge into an opportunity
  • Ultimately, the people who have the problem have the best solutions to it if they are given the space, time, and opportunity to work it out

Chapter 19: running again

  • When she first started her campaign for a US House of Representatives seat, she learned that headwear had been banned inside the house floor since 1837
    • This was a problem she worried about but couldn’t figure it out if the rules would change since it was way too early
  • When it comes to discrimination, living authentically is the best form of resistance

Chapter 20: the world belongs to those who show up

  • Being a first is all about contradictions
    • There has never been a member of Congress who looks or sounds anything like her
      • It was a fascinating contradiction for her to both completely stand out and completely fade into the background at the same time
    • Firsts are more than just iconic, they are totems for groups they represent
      • This is why the Somali community was often her harshest critics when she stumbled because they saw their fate intertwined with hers
      • In return, she inherited their collective failures
  • To her, the American dream is standing up for the little people, giving a voice to the voiceless
  • The essence of community organizing is finding common goals among varied individuals and using the collective numbers to advocate from a place of strength
  • The myth of scarcity is what keeps us obsessed with who has more, and depressed about all that we like
    • It pits minority groups against one another in a fight for scraps
    • Those propping up the status quo are happy to see us distracted
  • Empathy is very important as a public official. We can’t eradicate problems unless we put ourselves in the shoes of those impacted by the solutions we implement
    • Government representatives must be fluent in the day-to-day struggles of those they serve
  • Waking up to darkness doesn’t happen overnight. There’s always a process of corruption and abuse that erodes the system we depend on
    • But it can only happen when nobody is paying attention, or people stop caring. That is how we regress

Main ideas / Themes:

  • We all have an ability to enrich one another, not in spite of our differences but because of them
  • Forgiveness is about unloading the anger and sadness we carry
  • Her brand of optimism is based on denying herself any sense of victimization
    • Figure out how to turn every challenge into an opportunity
  • Firsts are more than just iconic, they are totems for groups they represent
  • The American dream is standing up for the little people, giving a voice to the voiceless
  • Myth of scarcity is what keeps us obsessed with who has more, pits minorities against each other, and helps those in power maintain the status quo

Being a Public Official

  • The most contentious and difficult problems need the most attention and discussion
  • In public service, if you’re not making someone uncomfortable, you’re not doing your job
    • In regards to reputation, build your familiarity with those you serve
  • Influence and enemies go hand-in-hand
  • People who have the problem have the best solutions to it if they are given the space, time, and opportunity to work it out
  • Empathy is very important as a public official. We can’t eradicate problems unless we put ourselves in the shoes of those impacted by the solutions we implement

Closing thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book and I’m glad to have heard about her story. I think she has such an important perspective especially in terms of our society and American politics. I think in a society that’s concerned with our uninformed perspectives, I think it’s important to also hear from outsiders, or people with a larger perspective like Ilhan.

Not only is her story incredible, but the way she devotes her energy to public service is admirable and inspirational. I think if more people in office took on the mindset she has, we’d be much further along.

Like many of my favorite books, I like when the reader can enjoy a narrative along with actionable insights. I think as a public servant, she gives good insight into the challenges she faces and challenges someone like her has to face. It makes me realize that politics is tough and I have great respect for those who do it thanklessly and yet still do it for the greater good.

I highly recommend this read, and it’s very timely in this period of American politics.


One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

This book had a couple of good insights I had trouble deciding between. However, my choice for my one takeaway is:

  • Figure out how to turn every challenge into an opportunity

I think this is important for me to remember. This year is definitely going to have its challenges. How do I know? Because every year has its challenges, duh! And every year after that (lol). I have to remind myself that with every challenge, there is an opportunity as long as I am willing to find it.


Nutshell:

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tells her story and shares insights on her journey from being a refugee growing up in Somalia to working in public office.


Similar books:


Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

4/5


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