ILHAN OMAR: From Refugee camp to US Congress

When I think of a Boss in 2020, I think of Ilhan Omar. Omar echoes Lupita Nyongo’s Oscar speech when she said

“No matter where you come from your dreams are valid”.

Ilhan Omar took this to heart as she began her campaign to the House of Representatives in the US Congress. She is now known as Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, but her journey to Congress has been something of a dream.

Omar is a Somali native, who was a refugee in Kenya before she relocated to the United States. She was recently elected to the US Congress in a historic fashion.

She is the first East African (Somali) woman as well as the first of two Muslim women elected to the House. The US House of Representatives today is comprised of Boss Ladies who have worked their way to the top.

Ilhan Omar’s story stands out because of her resilience and compassion as she introduces new bills on the US House floor.


Ilhan Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1982. She grew up in Somalia until the civil war when she and her family were forced to flee the ongoing civil unrest.

Omar spent four years living in extreme poverty at the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa, Kenya. She and her family overcame obstacles and were able to relocate to the US after securing asylum in 1995.

She was raised in the United States from the age of 12. Her upbringing in the United States sparked her interest in politics. Omar shares stories of her youth when she went to political meetings with her father and saw the lack of female leaders in the political sphere.

She went on to study political science at North Dakota State University. Her studies of politics gave her the tools needed to embark on the journey to becoming a political pioneer in 2019.


If you have been following Ilhan Omar’s story, you will quickly realize that she is an outspoken politician.

Her journey to the US Congress is a buildup of courage in the face of opposition to anything that goes against the status quo.

Omar’s political stance on many issues, especially immigration comes from her experience as an immigrant. She once said in an interview…

“For me as an immigrant, who didn’t speak the language, when I had struggled as a kid, my dad would say: Once you are able to communicate with people, they are able to connect with you beyond your otherness…”

Omar’s ability to connect with the fellow immigrant who may be struggling with their new environment struck me as a compassionate quality. She understands the immigration issues and can give a voice to the concerns of the immigrant population in the national conversations happening in the US Congress.


She was the Director of Policy Initiatives for the Women Organizing Women Network, based in Minnesota USA, where she was advocating for East African women to take initiative in civic and political leadership roles.

According to the WOWN website, the purpose of the organization is to “Empower all women, particularly first and second-generation immigrants to become engaged citizens and community leaders regardless of political affiliation”.

The WOW Network seeks to encourage Diaspora women to engage in civic conversations that bring light to the issues that immigrants face in the United States. From the role as director of this network, she was able to gain the confidence to launch her campaign for office in the United States Congress.

The boss lady emerged as she fought hard to win a seat in the House of Representatives. She was elected to the US Congress in 2018 and re-elected in 2020 .

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Young women, you can have it all – Amb. Kema Chikwe

71 years old Ambassador Kema Chikwe is a woman whose drive for inclusion and results earned her notable career opportunities in Nigeria. She has successfully held positions as the Minister for Transport, for Aviation and Chairman of Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB).

Amb. Chikwe gracefully held the office of the National Woman Leader where she created opportunities for other young women to achieve career and political ambitions.

In all of this, she remains optimistic about the future of women in leadership and is the founder and chairperson for Women in Leadership Institute (WLI).

Talking with Amb Kema has no dull moment. Añuli Ola-Olaniyi, an SLA contributor, sat through an interview with this remarkable woman and shares with all the deets with us.

 How did you begin your career?

I finished my secondary education at age of 17 and I got a job at the Pay Section, Ministry of Education, Nigeria.

How did you become an Ambassador?


I challenged myself to take the position. It was an appointment actually which I believe was given to me based on merit and results from my previous appointments.

I served as the Minister for Transport and Aviation. Later I became the Chairman of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB). Also, I contested for the office of the Governor, Imo State.

Hard work, commitment to public service, and my result-oriented attitude have always propelled me.

What would you say is your proudest achievement today


I am very grateful for all my accomplishments to date, some of which are my exposure to many years of public service and strong legacies.

A notable accomplishment was the reformation of the Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport -MM2. As the Minister for Transport and Aviation, the reform projects spoke for themselves. As Transport Minister, we achieved 48 hours turnaround and 24 hours of port operations.

While I was the Chairman of JAMB we embarked on the automation of the system and some of the results from this are the use of scratch cards for examinations.

However, as a  National Woman Leader, the adoption of the bill to mainstream disability in political parties was achieved. The office of the National Woman Leader was institutionalized, a Gender audit was conducted and we developed programmes for women running for office.

We created and ran the E-Women Network for young women and we have to date, women who have benefitted and done well.

What’s the boldest thing you’ve done?


My boldest move was to contest for Governor of Imo State, Nigeria. I was the only woman campaigning in an era where the mindsets weren’t particularly ready for a female Governor.

Did you encounter any setbacks, and how did you get past it?


My biggest setback was not winning my governorship and Senate elections. When you invest a lot in something and it doesn’t end up the way you envisioned, it can be difficult to comprehend sometimes.

I overcame it by understanding that failure is a challenge, you rise and fall. My dad (who was also my mentor) had a rhyme he used to encourage us and it says

If at first, you don’t succeed, always try and try again

After losing the election, I had tremendous support from people like President Yaradua and Baba Kingibe with the Ambassadorial posting.

Please understand that when you work very hard, people support you and anything you do will eventually go well because people will recognize your efforts based on the legacies and results you have shown.

Once you focus on your career, work, job or assignments and perform well, the recognition comes.

I must add that there must be a virtue of hard work in Nigeria amongst young men and women. A person qualified for a role or position should get that role/position. No shortcuts.

I stay inspired by watching people succeed- Amb Kema Chikwe Click To Tweet

One piece of advice to your 20-year-old self would be…


Be more adventurous and courageous. I was nervous about stepping out of my comfort zone.

Moving forward, I realized that life outside my comfort zone wasn’t as scary as I thought. With focus, determination and positive support. I was able to achieve my goals. Look at me now; many young women can be me or even greater.

What would you advise people starting a career or going into politics?


My best advice is this – convince yourself that it is what you want to do. Let it also be that you are meeting or creating solutions for the needs of people.

I also encourage young women to know that you can have it all. Career, marriage, children, business, all of it. Raising a family is possible with a thriving career.

There are many benefits of marriage. I understand that not every woman is lucky, but note that it is an important institution.

I want to encourage young women to know that you can have it all. - Amb. Kema Chikwe Click To Tweet

How are you keeping up with the new trends


The future excites me because the rate at which innovative ideas are quickly changing our lifestyles and the way we view the world gets me really excited to see what next is in store.

Imagine some people who do not speak a word of English, operating a mobile phone with such dexterity. The internet culture has made this world a smaller place by bringing a better understanding of life.


What are your future plans for the Women in Leadership Institute?


I founded the Women in Leadership Institute and this is positioned to give a new orientation to women in Nigeria and Africa.

It will change narratives, give women the opportunities to study and be experts in Women and Leadership Studies.

The future is very exciting for women.

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Rinsola Abiola – Intellectual Capacity is key to career impact in politics for young women

Ms. ‘Rinsola Abiola is the SA (New Media) to the Speaker House of Representatives in Nigeria, President APC Young Women Forum (APC-YWF), Board Member – Young Women in Politics Forum (YWiPF) and a Youth Representative for the APC Board of Trustees

Her career journey in politics is one that has taken precision and determination and an example worthy for young women looking to make a change from a political platform to emulate.

The representation of women in politics and governance is dismal - @Bint_Moshood Click To Tweet

What is your career role? 

I’m a Public Relations consultant and a young woman in politics. I currently head the All Progressives Congress (APC) young women forum, a support, mentorship, and capacity building group for young women aged 18-35, who are members or supporters of the APC.

I am currently the youngest person appointed to the APC board of trustees, and one of the three youth representatives.


When did your career in politics begin?

My full-fledged political participation began in late 2013. Before then, I was a member of civil society, through a number of youth-focused NGO’s.

The decision to join mainstream politics was informed by a desire to be part of the process, as opposed to sitting outside of it and offering criticism. I came to the realization that a political office would enable me to do so much more, and for a larger number of people than I could as an individual.


What impact can women in politics bring to a nation? 

The involvement of young women through mentoring and capacity building would ensure the grooming of a new generation of women who are prepared to hold both elective and appointive positions and have a clear strategy for engagement.


Are there special qualifications you need to have a head start in politics?

For basic political involvement, no. But when it comes to the elective office, there are minimum requirements established by law, e.g – completing a secondary education.

For appointive positions, one would require certain skills or qualifications in order to be deemed worthy of such a position. Intellectual capacity is key and formal education provides a level of refinement which helps a great deal.

It is also important to have good communication skills – this entails knowing the right way to engage a particular type of audience, from the highly educated to the not so educated.


What can young women do to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field?

Same as anyone needs to do if they want to be taken seriously, have something to offer, add value, develop a good number of skills required and seize good opportunities to prove your mettle.

Be loyal, dedicated and committed to the ideals of your environment. Take a professional approach to everything and distinguish yourself.

Do not leave room for doubt, and know how to be firm without being forceful or harsh Click To Tweet


What roles have you held in the past and how did that help in getting you to where you are now?

I served as the founding PRO of the APYF in 2014, and some months later, as the PRO/Secretary, when the APC Young Women Forum was formed, I also served 

These roles increased my knowledge of what young people actually desire from the government. I learned communication skills and how to view time as one of my most valuable resources. Most importantly, I learned how to have a strong work ethic.

I’ve worked with a magazine brand, in a bank, I got the required certification in public relations, a profession I had always admired and set up a firm

Politics is expensive and you need resources - @Bint_Moshood Click To Tweet


As one of the executives of the Young Women in Politics Forum (YWIPF), how will this help in empowering other young women to pursue a career in politics?

I’m set to begin a peer mentoring programme with young women both here in Abuja and other states of the federation, which will be aligned with the objectives of YWIPF. 

Also, knowing that a Forum exists for young women with similar interests will encourage many to join, as one thing I have noticed is that some are interested but are just at a loss as to how to begin.