I spent Thursday morning at the offices of two new Members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The scenes at both were delightful.
Throngs of Palestinian Americans jammed into Tlaib’s offices, spilling out into the hall.
It was much the same at Omar’s, but there the crowds were largely Somali Americans and Yemeni Americans.
Many had travelled hundreds, even thousands, of miles to witness history being made.
Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis are among the most beleaguered communities in America. Many are the descendants of those who came as economic or political refugees from deeply troubled regions plagued by war and hardship.
Once in the US they were disproportionately hounded by law enforcement, spied upon, profiled and victimised by discrimination.
Nevertheless, all of these immigrant communities have worked hard to make their way in the US. Many Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis began at the bottom rung of the economic ladder and, within less than a generation, began to climb upward.
Forty years ago, Yemenis were labourers and farmworkers. Today they count among their ranks thousands of successful small businessmen, with their children having become lawyers, doctors and engineers.
Palestinians, who have been there longer, have a similar story to tell.
The children of Palestinian grocers, with whom I worked 40 years ago, are now successful entrepreneurs or college educated professionals.
Somalis, the newest of the groups with most of their community having arrived in the last three decades, are already on the same path of upward mobility. They are starting small businesses and seeing their children fulfil the hopes that drew them to start a new life in America.
Congresswoman Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and has a grandmother still living in the West Bank.
Always proud of her Palestinian heritage, she made a point of wearing traditional Palestinian clothing to her swearing-in ceremony.
The impact of her decision was amazing.
Many of the Palestinian women who came to her office wore the same and men sported keffiyehs.
#Tweetyourthobe trended on Twitter, as Palestinian American women proudly displayed their cultural heritage.
Congresswoman Omar’s story is a fascinating and important American tale. She was born in Somalia. Her father is Somali, but her mother Yemeni. At age nine, she and her father became refugees and she moved to the US when she was 12. It’s worth noting that Omar, who wears a hijab, has already made one change.
In deference to her, a rule in place since 1837 banning any head attire on the floor of Congress was scrapped. I was struck by comments of the Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis who filled the offices of the new congresswomen. “This means everything to us,” said one woman. “It means that we can get into politics and make it to the highest level.”
I couldn’t help but think of the larger message that was unfolding. Somalis and Yemenis face a discriminatory policy banning their entry into the US, affecting their families and reflecting general hostility to refugees and immigrants from the Middle East.
Palestinians face hostility from an Administration and a Congress that not only refuses to recognise the rights and humanity of their people, but have taken punitive measures against them.
Add to this the nativism, xenophobia and Islamophobia fuelled by the president.
In spite of all this, two women who embody the endangered ideals of America will now be serving in Congress. More than that, they are progressive champions committed to fighting to raise the minimum wage, ensure universal healthcare and college education, as well as environmental and economic justice.
Both are savvy legislators who understand their roles and they will make a mark in Congress. It was a historic day of firsts: the first Muslim women, the first immigrant, the first African and the first Palestinian American woman took their oath of office.
For three communities, it was a day when the promise of America became real.