COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s a busy Friday afternoon at a Somali restaurant on the northeast side of Columbus, home to second-largest Somali population in the United States. The smell of spices is just as robust as the loud conversation, and the East African restaurant is crowded after afternoon prayers at the nearby mosque.
The hubbub grows when a familiar face swaggers in — Ismail Mohamed, a young Somali lawyer and candidate for the Ohio Legislature. Elders and youth alike clamor to say hello. The excitement that someone from their community could represent them in the legislature is palpable.
“It’s humbling to, you know, to be in this position, but it puts a lot of pressure on you to where folks have really high expectations,” he said.
The 30-year-old Democrat is one of a small but growing number of immigrants who fled civil war and famine in Somalia, ready to add their voices to the political process in the places they now call home.
Across the country, 11 Somali Americans are running for legislative seats in Maine, Minnesota, Ohio and Washington state. Somali Americans have also been elected to city councils, school boards and, in Minnesota, legislative seats and Congress.
The growing political clout corresponds with growing numbers. There was an influx of Somalians arriving in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their numbers now top 300,000.
“We’re just getting started. I hope there are more to come,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
They are part of an age-old trend of new immigrants testing the waters of the political process once they have settled in the United States. Many Somali American candidates say they want to lend their voices, ensure their communities have a seat at the table, and offer up solutions to the problems plaguing their communities.
“Our driving force is to see betterment for everybody that lives here. Running for office is our way of showing we’re here and we’re willing to contribute,” said Mana Abdi, who is expected to win her race and make history as the first Somali American in the Maine legislature.
Abdi wears a headscarf because of her Muslim faith, like most people from Somalia, while knocking on doors and visiting with residents outside assisted living community on a recent afternoon.
The 26-year-old Democrat came to America as a child, graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington and works at Bates College, and is unopposed because her Republican opponent dropped out after sharing a social media post saying that Muslims shouldn't hold office.
She could be joined by another Somali American, South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac, who’s running for another legislative district in Maine.
Dhalac, a 54-year-old social worker and a Democrat, said part of the reason she was inspired to run was Republican former President Donald Trump, who made a vulgar comment about immigrants from Haiti and Africa and banned travel from several Muslim countries, including Somalia.
“If we do not run for office, we cannot blame other people for making policy and legislation, and complain about it. You have to be at the table if you want to make good decisions for your community,” she said.
The newcomers share many of the same concerns as those born in the U.S. The candidates are focused on affordable housing, public safety and increased funding for schools — issues that directly impact their communities.
“People do ask ‘are you an American?’ just because your last name is, you know, Mohamed or, you know, Abdi,” Mohamed said, noting that fellow immigrants are proving they’re just as American as others by serving in the armed forces and becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers and more.
Like Abdi, 26-year-old Munira Abdullahi is all but guaranteed to be the first Somali woman and first Muslim woman to serve in the Ohio Legislature because she, too, is unopposed. Abdullahi, who is running as a Democrat, was born in a refugee camp after her parents fled Somalia. A couple decades later, she’s youth director for the Muslim American Society and a graduate of Ohio State University.
“I know a lot of young women are looking up to me and seeing themselves in me and they’re realizing, like, they could also do this,” she said. “I really want young women and young women of color, especially, to look at me and say, like, if I really want to do this, I can.”
The immigrants are bringing diverse views and experiences, and are contributing to the economy by starting businesses and bringing new energy to communities, said Molly Herman, citizenship and civic engagement manager for the Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland, Maine.
“Getting new individuals, new perspectives, new or different backgrounds, people coming from all types of places, I think is really important, in continuing a successful democracy,” she said.
The inspiration for some of the candidates is U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who grew up in a refugee camp and became the first Somali American member of Congress. She and several other young Democratic women of color were collectively nicknamed “the squad.”
She said she's eager to see more Somali Americans joining her in Washington.
“Somali Americans are as American as anyone else, and we don’t need an invitation to show up or serve our communities. I am incredibly proud of all the Somali Americans who are entering into public service and can’t wait to see more of us in the halls of Congress,” she said.
Sharp reported from Lewiston, Maine. Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Follow Samantha Hendrickson on Twitter @samanthajhendr and David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP.