Rising Democrat Ismail Mohamed represents the changing face of Somali politics

Zahir Janmohamed

Ismail Mohamed is, by his own admission, an unusual emerging voice in Ohio politics and in the Somali community of Columbus. First, there is his age. The 26-year-old, Somalia-born Mohamed graduated from Ohio State University Law School last year and often hears pushback from Somalis in Columbus that he is not ready for politics. According to Mohamed, electoral politics is usually the domain of older people among Somalis, something he says has to do with the fact that the minimum age to be president of Somalia is 40.

But the other, more unlikely reason for Mohamed's political rise is that he just lost an election. In May, Mohamed ran in the Democratic primary against the incumbent, Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent, to represent the 25th district in the Ohio Statehouse. It was his first time contesting an election, and many expected him to be soundly defeated, given his lack of experience and name recognition. To the surprise of many, including himself, he ended up losing only by 658 votes to the incumbent, who received 45.71 percent of the vote compared with Mohamed's 39.68 percent. If he had won, Mohamed would have been the first Somali elected official in Ohio.

As a result of his strong showing in the polls, Mohamed was made an official consultant to the Democratic Party of Columbus, helping Democrats reach out to immigrants who have recently acquired U.S. citizenship. It's a huge shift from a year ago, when Mohamed could not convince anyone in the Democratic Party to take him seriously, let alone return his phone calls.

He achieved this, Mohamed believes, because he employed an electoral strategy that no one thought possible: by mobilizing voters, and funds, entirely from the Somali community. Mohamed estimates that he raised about $35,000 for his campaign, all of it from the Somali community in Columbus. Somali-owned businesses made up the bulk of his donations, with contributions around $500 or $1,000. He spent most of the money on mailers and advertisements, some in English, others in Somali.

“My campaign and the way I ran it got a lot of Democrats to wake up and say, ‘We need to take this Somali community seriously,'” Mohamed said. “I mean, it's not like we are a small community.”

It's hard to find exact, or reliable, figures on the number of Somalis in Columbus. Mohamed estimates the community to be around 40,000 to 50,000 members, making this city the second-most-populous home for Somalis in the U.S. (Minnesota, in contrast, has around 100,000 Somalis, mostly in Minneapolis.)

Likewise, no data really exists for the number of registered Somali voters in Columbus, but Mohamed says that there are “at least 10,000 Somali voters, and around 60 percent of them vote, maybe even higher during a presidential year.” Of those registered Somali-American voters, he noted that “all vote Democratic, except for a super tiny number of Republican Somali voters.”

Voter turnout is a challenge for any group, especially during a midterm year. In the last midterms in 2014, only 37 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, the lowest number since 1942. In comparison, the 60 percent voter turnout among registered Somali American is actually quite high. But for Mohamed, it's still too low, and he has now made it his mission to change this fact.

“You can reach some Somalis in the mosques or at the coffee shops, but a lot of people want you to sit in their living room, speak to them in Somali, and explain why their vote counts,” Mohamed said.

It can be a difficult sell, though, as there are widespread misperceptions within the community about just who can vote. In fact, Mohamed has heard many excuses for not voting, including one registered Somali-American voter who told him he cannot vote because he has bad credit.

“‘Bro,' I told him,” Mohamed said. “‘Nah, people died for this right to vote. We can't take it for granted.'”

For Mohamed, getting Somalis to vote is not about passing out forms. It is about making a case for why — and how — Somalis can benefit from the U.S. political system. In order to do this, he often has to challenge what he calls “outdated ideas” in the Somali community. For example, when Mohamed went door knocking for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016, a few Somalis — both males and females — told him they did not feel comfortable voting for a female candidate.

Other reasons he has heard about not voting include: I can't take time off work; I don't know how to vote or reach the polling station; I am not sure if it is Islamically permissible to vote; I don't think any of the candidates actually care about us.

“Some of the reasons why Somalis don't vote are frustrating,” Mohamed said. “But I need to be patient and not condescending. I am proud to be Somali. We are all learning and growing together. Besides, I relate to that feeling some Somalis have, that elected officials don't care about us. That was my experience for years. But it's changing. Slowly.”

Mohamed was born in the southern portion of Somalia in 1992, a year after the civil war broke out that resulted in the deaths of 350,000 and the displacement of around 1 million Somalis. In 1997, the civil war spread to the south of Somalia, forcing Mohamed and his family to flee as refugees, first to Ethiopia and later to Kenya.

While in Kenya, Mohamed and his family briefly stayed in a refugee camp before moving into an apartment building in the capital city of Nairobi. They were able to settle into a decent life, Mohamed believes, because his family was not poor.

In the early 1990s, Mohamed's father began working in the trucking business in the United Arab Emirates and then in the U.S., which enabled him to send money back to his family. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mohamed's father spent two years stationed with U.S. armed forces working as an Arabic translator.

As a result of his service to U.S. troops, Mohamed's father was granted American citizenship. In 2005, he sponsored Mohamed, Mohamed's mother, and Mohamed's six siblings to settle in Columbus, where he was living at the time, on a refugee visa. But the transition to life in Ohio was difficult for Mohamed, who was 13 when he arrived in Columbus.

“I had some rough times,” Mohamed said, taking a long pause to collect his thoughts. “I mean, it was the first time I realized, ‘OK, I am not like the others.' In Kenya, we were all black, so we never really noticed or talked about skin color. Here, I was told I am black almost right away. But I didn't really know the history, or the meaning, of that word, or have an appreciation for it.”

What complicated matters, Mohamed said, was that elders in the Somali community kept telling him, “No, Ismail, you are not black. You are Somali.” At school, Mohamed was also teased about his “funny sounding name.” Things were, he added, “infinitely worse” for his sisters, all of whom wear the Islamic headscarf known as the hijab.

“As a guy, I have it much easier than my sisters. I am decent looking. I can speak English. I can sort of blend in. But I don't know a single Muslim woman in Columbus who wears the hijab who hasn't faced harassment,” Mohamed said.

A few years later, at the age of 16, Mohamed volunteered for the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign. He credits his mother for instilling in him a passion for politics, as well as for encouraging him to improve conditions for Somalis in Columbus.

While an undergraduate and law student, Mohamed was active in the Somali students' association at Ohio State and was instrumental in helping Somali students cope with the backlash some experienced after a knife attack by a Somali student on campus in 2016. According to Mohamed, the OSU administration was supportive of Somali students in the wake of the attack, and he realized he could play a role connecting university officials with the Somali community.

It was also around this time, in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidential win, that Mohamed set his eyes on a career in politics. But given his unmistakably Muslim name, Mohamed assumed his role would have to be off to the side, away from the spotlight. That changed, though, when he began noticing Somali-Americans making waves in Minnesota politics.

In 2010, Hussein Samatar became the first Somali-American ever elected to office when he joined the Minneapolis school board. In 2013, Abdi Warsame was the first Somali-American elected to the Minneapolis City Council. This August, Ilhan Omar — a Somali-American woman who wears the hijab — won the Congressional Democratic primary in Minneapolis, which will, in all likelihood, make her the first Somali-American to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Last year, Mohamed decided to visit Minneapolis to understand why Somalis were politically succeeding there but not so much in Columbus. He returned with two sobering conclusions: The first is that Somalis have been absorbed and embraced by the Democratic Party of Minnesota in ways they haven't been by the Democratic Party in Columbus; and the second is that Minneapolis has the ward system for electing candidates, compared with Columbus' at-large electoral system, which tends to disfavor communities of color.

“That's the biggest challenge, if I am being honest,” Mohamed said. “The way we elect candidates here.”

Stefanie Chambers is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and author of the bookSomalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus. She completed her doctoral work at Ohio State and believes that affordable housing, low-skilled warehouse jobs, as well as a tradition of welcoming refugees, is partly to explain why Somalis settled in Minneapolis and Columbus in such large numbers in the 1990s.

She pointed out that, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers, there are 12,227 Somalis in Columbus, compared with the actual total of around 45,000. She attributes the discrepancy to “general U.S. Census undercounts, secondary migration, and reluctance among some Somalis to respond to requests for household information.” She also concurs with Mohamed that structural barriers make it difficult for Somalis, and other communities of color, to excel in Columbus politics.

“If you have somebody who's Somali-American running for office, they have to convince the entire city to vote for them, which is costly and challenging, compared to in Minneapolis where a ward with a heavy Somali population can elect a Somali-American from that ward to represent them,” Chambers said.

There are other factors, she added. In Minneapolis, there are more foundations that support Somalis, as well as powerful labor unions where Somalis can meet and organize, such as the taxi driver associations. It also helps that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, has taken an interest in mentoring Somalis, something the Democratic Party has not really done in Ohio. And then, of course, there is the obvious fact that Minnesota is a blue-ish state whereas Ohio tends to lean red.

And yet, while Minneapolis has a sizable number of Somali-American elected officials, Chambers noted that the Somali community there suffers from the same problems as the one in Columbus: high unemployment, lack of literacy, school dropout, fears of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, as well as an alarming rise in Somali-on-Somali gang violence.

Chambers, who is now working on a documentary film called “Dreaming in Somali,” says it is “almost unbearable” to think of what many Somalis endure in the U.S. right now.

“They are black, they are refugees, and they are Muslim,” she said. “It's hard enough to be one of those things, let alone all three.”

In June 2017, a brawl broke out in Columbus between a white couple and at least two Somali-American Muslims,BuzzFeed reported. One of the women,Rahma Warsame, who wears the Islamic headscarf, was beaten so badly that she lost four teeth and suffered facial fractures. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) believes the incident was a hate crime because it said the woman who was beaten was taunted by racist language from the white male assailant. Columbus police said there was no evidence of a hate crime occurring.

According to CAIR, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. occurred on average almost one per day in 2017, up 15 percent from the previous year. In comparison, there were 93 attacks in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to the Pew Research Center.

On top of this, Somalis are often tied to extremist Muslim groups abroad. Chambers noted that “since 9/11, Somalis have also faced accusations that they are terrorists and have experienced hostility stemming from suspicions about their ties to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and ISIS.”

For the 500 or so Somali-owned businesses in the Columbus area, as well as countless other Somalis here, that means being extra cautious when sending money to their loved ones in Somalia, something that has created a culture of secrecy within the Somali community here.

Indeed, Chambers' experience of interviewing Somalis in Columbus mirrored my own: Most Somalis did not want to speak with her, even anonymously on background. However, after she published her book and they knew their quotes would not be used in it, some came forward with “heartbreaking stories of how fearful they are,” Chambers said.

This past June, I began visiting a predominantly Somali mosque in Columbus, a massive place about the size of a Best Buy. It was the height of the World Cup tournament, and most of my conversations with the Somali men gathered in the parking lot after Friday prayers were about soccer, even though I tried, after a few trips to the mosque, to steer the conversation to current events. Finally, one young Somali man, who asked that I do not mention his name, told me that since I am also a Muslim, he would be “straight up honest” with me.

“Just don't write about Somalis in Columbus,” he said. “Attention on us has always caused us harm.”

It's an eerie comment that reveals a sentiment all too common in the Somali community: That they are a community who is welcome in America so long as they do not make themselves, or their concerns, known.

Mohamed does not share this view. For him, greater exposure, as well as an awareness of what Somalis experience, is key to helping Somalis advance. In fact, for the past 10 years, he has tried on numerous occasions to reach out to elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, so that they can learn about the conditions of Somalis in Columbus. Almost all refused.

Chambers is not surprised by this tepid response.

“The electoral system is sort of set up in Columbus where entire communities can be ignored,” she said. “It's why I am so excited that Ismail almost won. Elected officials need to be informed about the Somali community because, let's face it, unless Ismail or someone like him is in office, they won't really reach out on their own.”

When Mohamed and I first met in early July, his mood was a bit somber. It was soon after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Trump's travel ban, which targets seven mostly Muslim majority nations, including Somalia. Mohamed's second cousin, who lives in the U.S., was struggling to figure out how, or if, she could ever see her husband again, given that he lives in Somalia.

Mohamed's legal specialization is actually in personal injury law, not immigration, and he was scrambling to figure out how to help. He was also struggling to keep up with the flood of requests from Somalis across Ohio asking him for advice about Trump's travel ban.

Although he can't really prove this fact, he figures he is the only Somali bar certified lawyer in Ohio, or at least the only Somali speaking lawyer in the state. Herein might be his biggest challenge: figuring out what to take on and what to decline. He hates that he has to make this choice, but he realizes this is the responsibility of being, in his words, “the first Somali this or that.”

In early October, Mohamed and I spoke again and the shift in his mood was palpable. These days, he exudes a giddy, infectious optimism. He sounds, at times, like a cross between a hype-man for the Democratic Party and a commercial on the importance of voting.

At the moment, he is helping Democratic candidate Rich Cordray's gubernatorial campaign. Cordray recently attended an event put on for him in Columbus by the Somali community in which Cordray name-dropped Mohamed in his speech. Mohamed has also been contacted by federal, state and city candidates who all want his help in the upcoming midterm elections. On Oct. 12, he organized a meet-and-greet event for U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey with the Somali community of Columbus at a Somali-owned cafe.

“I am really pleased,” Mohamed said. “Democrats are really stepping up their outreach to Somalis.”

I asked Mohamed if Republicans were making similar overtures to the Somali community and Mohamed said he was “not aware of anything.”

He would not be opposed to it, though, as Mohamed's game is not so much ideological as it is about getting Somalis in the room and seen and heard by elected officials.

So far, his efforts are already paying dividends. Much to his delight, some of Mohamed's Somali friends in Columbus have decided to run for office, perhaps as early as 2020. He also recently learned that there is a Somali-American college student in Cleveland who might be starting law school soon.

What, I asked him, would he tell this Somali-American student, if he could find her?

“Do it,” he said. “We need your voice. And also, I don't want to be the only one.”

Zahir Janmohamed is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. He lived in Columbus from 2017 to 2018.