Somali immigrant wants to help bring Democratic majority to Minnesota senate

Somali immigrant wants to help bring Democratic majority to Minnesota senate
Zaynab Mohamed is a 25-year-old who immigrated with her family to the US from Somalia as a child. She is on track to become a Minnesota state senator.
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
08 November, 2022
Zaynab Mohamed, who is on track to win a seat in the Minnesota state senate, would be the first Muslim woman and the first Black woman to hold this position. [Photo courtesy of Zaynab Mohamed's campaign]

Zaynab Mohamed came to the United States from Somalia with her family at the age of nine. Although she grew up with more opportunities than her parents and grandparents, their struggles made an impression on her at an early age and made her want to help those less fortunate, including those in her own family.

Her mother's work at a factory job and her determination to take care of her family instilled in her the importance of union jobs with living wages. When she was a student at the University of Minnesota, she took time off from her studies to take care of her ill grandfather; an experience that opened her eyes to healthcare inequities for immigrants, the working class and the elderly. 

However, she says, "What got me involved in depth was the death of George Floyd."

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"I remember watching the video. I shared the video with some of my friends after I saw it on somebody's Facebook. It happened close to where I live. I went to one of the first protests.  It was hot. I had been fasting. (His death on 25 May, caused by the excessive police force, occurred days after the end of Ramadan 2020). Thousands of people were angry and upset and confused about what was going on," she recalls. 

At the time, in the spring and summer of 2020, she was working at a corporate job in human resources. 

"I was just living my own life. I ended up going to more protests and getting involved in mutual aid work," she says. 

"It's hard to describe. How do you explain to somebody? And then knowing that the individual who's murdering someone is fully protected. How do you find that morally right? You can't. There are so many people who have been harmed by the police. It took a while to do something about it. It took a teenager to record it, who thought it was morally correct. This individual felt so comfortable doing this because he felt unaccountable. What are other people doing when the world isn't watching?"

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"It was a time you couldn't sit at home. I don't think a lot of Minnesotans slept a lot during that time," she says.

She left her corporate job to work as a community advocacy director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Now 25, she has spent around a year working as a policy aide for the city of Minneapolis.

She announced her candidacy last year after the state senator in current state senator for District 63, Patricia Torres Ray, announced she would no longer seek re-election.

In addition to police reform, a major issue currently facing Minnesota is a rise in hate incidents, including attacks on Muslims and their institutions. Mohamed, herself, has been subject to attacks, something that has made her determined to help turn the state's senate blue.

"I've had my own attacks," says Mohamed, who wears a hijab. "It's hard to feel protected if you're seen and visible."

"One of the things I want to work on is a hate crime bill to bring together all faith communities," she says. 

She believes that having a Democratic majority in the state senate will enable the passage of a stronger hate crimes law.

"There are people of all faiths in both parties. It's a big issue I really want to work on," she says.

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Mohamed's communications director, Luke Bishop, acknowledges that it's been a tough time to be on the campaign trail with the country's polarised politics and increase in hate crime.

"The reason I joined the campaign is because I believe in Zaynab's strong vision," he tells TNA. 

"It's tough. It hasn't been easy on the campaign trail," he says. "This campaign has given me a lot of hope. Instead of focusing on what's wrong, she's trying to make things better. That makes people want to get involved."

Even though they've gotten past the primary, the main hurdle in this blue district, they're not taking anything for granted. 

"We've been working like crazy," he says. "Sometimes Democrats in a safe district will just coast through. If anything, we've put on the gas. The Republicans currently control the state senate. Zaynab is also trying to help other candidates. We're also supporting [Democratic incumbent state attorney general candidate] Keith Ellison."

The campaign is also taking to heart the adage "every vote counts" as they take the time to listen to the questions of individual constituents."

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One voter who stands out for Mohamed is a senior citizen who was determined to do her research before choosing between her and her Republican opponent.

"There was a woman who hadn't supported me from the beginning, a senior who had recently retired and was living in a senior co-op. I had visited her co-op," she recalls. 

"Ultimately, I'm a Black Muslim young person running for office. I'm running in a predominantly white area.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if I was ready enough, old enough," says Mohamed, who was 24 when she started her campaign.

"Eventually, one day, the day before the primary, she comes back to our office. She asks, 'Do you remember me?' She said, 'I went to meet your opponent. I thought about it. We need more people like you. I believe in you.' She made a cheque out to me and Keith. It made me realise that she just wanted to take her time and not be told what to do. She did her research. Most people are sceptical in the beginning, but then they see you work hard show up."

Mohamed says, "So many people feel so connected to us. We're organising and talking to people. It's important that we build communities that show up for each other."