Nur Omar Mohamed, the father of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, died Monday from complications related to COVID-19. Credit: Photo courtesy of Ilhan Omar

Nur Omar Mohamed was an esteemed senior officer in the Somali National Army well before the country plunged into anarchy following the fall of the Siad Barre regime in the early 1990s.

A few years after that, he ended up in Minnesota with his family. Most Americans knew nothing about his prestigious career as a colonel who led a successful regiment in the Somali-Ethiopian war during the late 1970s. To them, he was just another faceless Somali refugee.

He picked up jobs as a cab driver and postal worker to make ends meet. But more than two decades later, he regained some of his lost status through his daughters Ilhan Omar, who became the first Muslim lawmaker to wear a hijab in the United States Congress, and Sahra Noor, a health care executive.

Nur died Monday from COVID-19 complications at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was 67.

Those who knew Nur described him as a humble, kind and caring person. Yusuf Ismail Faraton, also a former Somali colonel and currently a delivery driver for U.S. Bank, had known Nur since the early 1970s. “He was always smiling and treated everyone with respect,” Faraton said

Osman Ali Ahmed, director of community partnerships at Great MN Schools, first met Nur in 2013 at a political rally in Minneapolis. His smile, Osman said, was the first thing he noticed about Nur. “He was just this smiling guy,” he said.

Bill Emory, who served as the political director for Ilhan when she ran for a seat in the state House in 2016, remembered his interactions with Nur at one tense moment during the campaign. “I can’t recall exactly what he said that day, but I will never forget how I felt after he said it,” Emory said of Nur in a Facebook post. “He was reassuring, calm, smiling.”

News stories about Nur’s death have for the most part obscured his legacy, painting him as little more than Rep. Ilhan Omar’s father. But Nur was a leader in his own right, and those who knew him well hailed him as a national treasure for Somalis at home and in the diaspora.

Life in Somalia

Nur was born in Bandarbeyla, a coastal town in northeastern Somalia, and grew up in Mogadishu, where he completed his middle and high school education, relatives said.

He joined the Somali National Army after obtaining a military education in Russia, Faraton said. Thousands of Somali students in that decade received scholarships from the Soviet Union to train as medical doctors, technicians and military specialists.

When he returned to Somalia, Nur began his climb in the military hierarchy, eventually becoming a colonel. During the 1977-1978 Somali-Ethiopian war, he led a regiment, Faraton said. “Nur played a significant role in the war,” he added. “He was one of the officers who were recognized for their work.”

Nur wasn’t bothered by the pressure to conform to certain aspects of the Somali culture. When Nur fell in love with the woman who would become Ilhan’s mother, for instance, he did something traditional Somali men don’t ever do: He moved in with his wife and her family.

“There was nothing typical about my family,” Ilhan wrote in her new memoir, This is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. “To this day, I don’t know a family quite like ours.”   

The Nur family led a middle-class life in a Mogadishu compound, where members of the household had equal say in family matters. “We were unlike a traditional hierarchical Somali family, where when the father or mother spoke no one else dared utter a word,” Ilhan wrote. “Instead, everyone, even the youngest child, me, was brought into every decision.”

Nur’s prestigious career in the military ended in 1991 after the Barre regime was ousted, and the country sank into civil war. The family escaped to Utange refugee camp in Kenya.

Life in Minnesota

Four years later, in 1995, Nur and his family arrived in the U.S. as refugees. The family spent the first two years in Arlington, Virginia, before moving to Minneapolis and establishing a permanent home in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Here, Nur was no longer the affluent colonel he was in Mogadishu.

But this loss of status wasn’t unique. In The New Immigration: An Interdisciplinary Reader, Carola Suárez-Orozco wrote that new immigrants and refugees from middle-class backgrounds “frequently find employment in positions far below their training and qualifications because of language difficulties, lack of connections, or lack of certification in certain professions.” 

When Faraton, Nur’s former army comrade, arrived in the U.S. in 1993, the only place he could find a job was at the rental car company Hertz in Minneapolis. “Guess who was in my team?” he asked laughing. A former lieutenant colonel and a doctor he had known in Somalia.

Two of Nur’s seven children are among the most successful women in the immigrant communities in the state. Ilhan grew to become the first Muslim hijabi to serve in Congress and Sahra was until recently the CEO of People’s Center Health Services in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Ilhan said in her book that her father encouraged her to do well in school. “Every quarter he reviewed my report cards,” she wrote. “If I got all As, I received three hundred dollars. For As and Bs, I’d get two hundred. If there was a single C, the amount went down to one hundred.”

Nur stood by his daughter both in political campaigns and victory celebrations. When Ilhan was elected to Congress in 2018, Nur told a reporter that he was elated to see his child earn a significant spot in U.S. politics. “Our efforts bore fruit,” he said in Somali. “I hope she will serve well those who elected her, Somalis and non-Somalis.”  

‘He was loved by everyone’

When the news of his death emerged on the night of June 15, Faraton said he was shocked. “I wasn’t aware of him having a serious illness,” he added. “I called 10 people just to make sure what I was hearing was true. I could not believe it.”

The two last spoke a few months earlier, Faraton said, when he invited Nur to catch up over tea at home. “We can’t visit; we can’t visit,” Nur responded, mindful of the social distancing guidelines.

Throughout the decades Faraton knew Nur, he said, he had never seen him grumpy. “He was always happy, smiling,” Faraton recalled. “He was loved by everyone.”

Emory said that after Ilhan didn’t secure the endorsement at that 2016 convention, he was “crushed, exhausted, frustrated, disappointed, and consumed with the idea that I had failed the team.”

Then he saw Nur. “This wasn’t the end of the road, he reminded me. There were so many big things ahead of us,” Emory said. “He was grateful to me for all the work I was doing for his daughter and her campaign. He felt confident that once we had all had a rest, that we were well-prepared for the next step.”

It wasn’t just his daughter for whom Nur cheered. In 2018, when Osman ran for a seat in the state Legislature, Nur messaged him from Somalia, where he was visiting. “I wish you all the best with the campaign,” he wrote to him. “I’m in Somalia at the moment but I spoke with people to support you.”

In addition to his commitment to help young people fulfill their political ambitions, Nur was involved in efforts to rebuild and strengthen the security forces of Puntland, an autonomous state in northeastern Somalia.

“His death is a loss for all Somali people,” Faraton said. “Not just one family.”

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...