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Ayan Omar: Transforming Hate Into Harmony

Understanding, acceptance, and empathy are values that Ayan Omar lives and breathes. She is on the forefront of social change in St. Cloud, Minnesota — a city infamous for its vocal, often violent network of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant residents.

But when you ask Ayan about the best moment of her work, she’ll tell you about a question that epitomized those exact ideologies.

“Do you want to kill me?”

It came from an older, fragile-looking white woman, probably someone’s grandmother, Ayan remembers. Although the asker may have surprised her, the question did not.

In 2006, when Ayan moved to St. Cloud and enrolled at St. Cloud State University, she was often the only person of color in her classes. “I remember being asked where I’m from very frequently. I quickly learned that the question was not a matter of where I grew up,” she says.

“It was a matter of: where were you born? What religion do you practice? How are you beneficial or a threat to me?”

Those questions represented a major departure from other contexts and other cultures that form Ayan’s personal history. She was born in Somali and lived with her family in a refugee camp by the Kenyan border until they relocated to Clarkston, Georgia — a predominantly Black community.

Ayan says, “In school, we had about 40 different nations represented. It consisted of the refugee narrative, the immigrant narrative, along with the African American narrative.”

Growing up in Clarkston “shielded me from a lot of the ideologies that are present in St. Cloud — Islamophobia, racism, and the anti-refugee rhetoric that’s so prevalent,” she says. “I have to say it was one of the best areas to grow up with my narrative.”

In Clarkston, Ayan was never asked where she’s from. And in the Somali culture, which values lineage and family lines, the question that’s asked is “Whom are you from?”

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Finding herself in a new city, with a new culture and new questions, Ayan needed to figure out for the first time how to answer. How to articulate her identities.

“I had to study and learn a lot about myself and my religion because I took so much for granted down in Georgia,” she says.

She started by studying the Hadith, the record of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and visiting the Sterns County Museum. She taught herself the history and the current demographics of her new city, becoming familiar with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant stereotypes that many St. Cloud residents are invested in.

One of Ayan’s neighbors may believe, for example, that Somali immigrants are innately less intelligent or more predisposed to violence than white Minnesotans. Another might think that Muslims are settling in St. Cloud to institute an extremist, anti-Christian Sharia law. Yet another may buy into the concept of “white replacement” — a racist conspiracy theory predicated on the fear of deliberate extermination of white people around the world.

Soon, Ayan was prepared to defend herself and her identities when presented with an accusatory question from a particularly bold resident. But she realized in her research that many of her neighbors who hold misconceptions about Muslims, Somalis, or immigrants have never interacted with one. They simply have no other narrative.

So, Ayan offered her up own story, in her own words.

“I felt like I had a record that I would not mind sharing with people if that's what they're looking for,” she says.

She started participating in interfaith groups. She started joining campus clubs. She started putting herself out there.

In the spring of 2006, Ayan joined a small group of priests, nuns, and Christian laypeople to form what would eventually become known as the St. Cloud Interfaith Dialogue Group. This group, which would expand to include a Jewish man and five other Muslims, was founded by the late Sister Toni Rausch, a Franciscan nun and a role model to Ayan, who lives by Sister Toni’s motto: “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Alongside Sister Toni and their neighbors of diverse faiths, Ayan organized community gatherings, wrote letters to local editors, and encouraged faith-based dialogue wherever she went. As her introduction to interfaith work, “St. Cloud Interfaith Dialogue molded me,” she says. Her professional, personal, and advocacy life was permanently transformed by this group and particularly by Sister Toni, who always led by example.

More recently, Ayan joined UniteCloud, a group that provides education and actionable steps to resolve tension and restore dignity to all people in Central Minnesota. As a member of the UniteCloud speaking team, she travels to nearby towns — many whose populations fall well under 10,000 — to lead trainings or workshops and lend her voice.

One of the materials that Ayan uses for this work is a course titled “My Neighbor is Muslim,” developed by Lutheran Social Services. It provides an introduction to the basic tenants of Islam, with comparisons to Christianity.

But Ayan knows that although ignorance plays a role in Islamophobia, at its core is fear. Certainly that was the case for the woman who wondered whether Ayan wanted to kill her.

“You can’t argue with fear. You can’t argue with a person’s feeling,” she says. “It’s a matter of getting to the heart of why people feel the way they feel.”

So Ayan reassured the woman gently, answering her question sincerely and honestly. By the end of the evening, that woman approached Ayan and offered a hug.

Ayan believes in “practicing and celebrating dialogue with our Muslim neighbors.” And she believes that this faith-based dialogue is the way to bring about permanent, sustainable social change — as she strives for in St. Cloud.

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“The goal is to humanize those Muslim neighbors, who look like me. To see the humanity of Muslims as professionals, as parents, as community members — as people.”

In sharing her story, openly and bravely, Ayan is transforming fear into harmony and community. With patience and persistence, she’s changing minds and hearts. She’s not only living out her values — she’s also encouraging others to do the same.

Ayan is a role model to many — and an inspiration to us. Her courage, her compassion, and so much more make Ayan our Shero.