November 7, 2018 / 5:13 PM / 13 days ago

Ex-Somali refugee's U.S. Congress win sparks debate in former home Kenya

NAIROBI, Nov 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The historic win of a former Somali refugee as one of the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress sparked celebration and debate in her one-time home of Kenya on Wednesday, with some criticising the east Africa nation’s treatment of refugees.

Somali-American Ilhan Omar, about 36, won a seat for the Democrats in Minnesota on Tuesday - one of the first two Muslim women ever to sit in the House of Representatives.

Rashida Tlaib, 42, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, won for the Democrats in Michigan state.

Omar’s story - fleeing war in Somalia to live in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp before moving to the United States at the age of 12 - drew Kenyans to social media hours after her win, with “Ilhan Omar” and “Dadaab” among the top Twitter trends.

“An absolutely remarkable achievement. She is the epitome of sheer grit, tenacity, perseverance & courage. She has braved incredible odds to get here,” said Siddharth Chatterjee, the United Nations head of delegation in Kenya on Twitter.

Seen as a safe haven in a volatile region, Kenya hosts around half a million people fleeing conflict, drought and persecution from countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Burundi.

More than half of the refugees - over 250,000 people - are from neighbouring Somalia where conflict has raged since 1991 and most live in the remote Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya.

“CONGRATULATIONS frm Kenya’s #Dadaab @Refugees camp!” tweeted Somali journalist Moulid Hujale.

“Your victory & journey is a SPECIAL ONE for the hundreds of thousands still trapped in ths camp. They are talking about your story. U really INSPIRE them.”

Yet while many Kenyans celebrated Omar’s victory - saying it helped dispel negative stereotypes about refugees and gave encouragement to millions forced to flee their homes, others pointed to Kenya’s restrictive refugee policy.

“I’m so happy for Ilhan Omar. I wish that Kenya, where she lived for so many years, could have given her the opportunities she clearly deserved. We need to do better by our refugees,” said political analyst Nanjala Nyabola on Twitter.

Refugees must live in one of the country’s two northern camps, Kakuma or Dadaab, which offer basic accommodation, clean water, some food rations and access to healthcare and education.

It can take more than four years to be granted refugee status in Kenya, during which time asylum seekers cannot work. And even after gaining refugee status, refugees often find it difficult to find a job due to discrimination.

Mohamed Abdi Affey, the U.N. refugee agency’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, home to more than 1.5 million refugees, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that host nations such as Kenya have been generous, but could do more for refugees.

“Even as we thank the host governments for their generosity over such a long period of time, I think it is necessary for them to include refugees more in their national plans so that refugees can grow, progress and have opportunities,” said Affey.

"Ilhan's case shows that if you invest in a refugee, you are investing in the future of your own country." (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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