COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – It’s a busy Friday afternoon at a Somali restaurant on the northeast side of Columbus, home to the second-largest Somali population in the United States. The smell of spices is as strong as the loud conversation, and the East African restaurant is packed after afternoon prayers at the nearby mosque.
The crowd grows when a familiar face is thrown in — Ismail Mohamed, a young Somali lawyer and candidate for the Ohio Legislature. Old and young alike clamor to greet each other. The excitement that someone from their community could represent them in the legislature is palpable.
“It’s humbling, you know, to be in this position, but it puts a lot of pressure on you where people have really high expectations,” he said.
The 30-year-old Democrat is one of a small but growing number of immigrants who fled Somalia’s civil war and famine, ready to lend their voice 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 are also elected to city councils, school boards, and, in Minnesota, to legislative seats and Congress.
Increasing political influence corresponds with increasing numbers. There was an influx of Somalis arriving in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their numbers now exceed 300,000.
“We have only just begun. I hope there will be more,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
They are part of a century-long trend of new immigrants testing the waters of the political process after settling in the United States. Many Somali American candidates say they want to make their voices heard, ensure their communities have a seat at the table and offer solutions to the problems plaguing their communities.
“Our driving force is to see betterment for everyone who lives here. Running for office is our way of showing that we’re here and 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, as she knocked on doors and visited residents outside the Children’s Aid community on a recent afternoon.
The 26-year-old Democrat, who came to America as a child, graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington and works at Bates College, is unopposed because her Republican opponent dropped out after he shared a social media post saying Muslims should not hold an office.
She could be joined by another Somali-American, South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac, who is running for another Maine legislative district.
Dhalac, a 54-year-old social worker and Democrat, said part of the reason she was inspired to run was Republican former President Donald Trump, who made vulgar comments about immigrants from Haiti and Africa and banned travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.
“If we’re not running for office, we can’t blame other people for making policies and laws and complain about it. You have to be at the table if you want to make good decisions for your community,” she said.
Newcomers share many of the same concerns as the US-born. The candidates are focused on affordable housing, public safety and increased school funding – issues that directly affect their communities.
“People ask ‘are you American?’ just because your last name is, you know, Mohamed or, you know, Abdi,” Mohamed said, noting that fellow immigrants prove they are 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 almost guaranteed to be the first Somali woman and the first Muslim woman to serve in the Ohio Legislature because she is also unopposed. Abdullahi, who is running as a Democrat, was born in a refugee camp after her parents fled Somalia. Decades later, she is the youth director for the Muslim American Society and a graduate of Ohio State University.
“I know a lot of young women look up to me and see themselves in me and realize they could do this too,” she said. “I really want young women and young women of color in particular to look at me and say, like, if I really want this, I can do it.”
Immigrants bring different perspectives and experiences and contribute to the economy by starting businesses and bringing new energy to communities, said Molly Herman, manager of citizenship and civic engagement at the Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland, Maine.
“Getting new individuals, new perspectives, new or different backgrounds, people coming from all kinds of places, I think is really important to continuing a successful democracy,” she said.
The inspiration for some of the candidates is US Representative 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 is eager to see more Somali-Americans join her in Washington.
“Somali Americans are Americans just like everyone 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 public service and I can’t wait to see even more of us in the halls of Congress,” she said.
Sharp reported from Lewiston, Maine. Hendrickson is a staff 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 hidden issues.
Follow Samantha Hendrickson on Twitter @samanthajhendr and David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP.