An “awesome” hug with the vice president, seeing the president at Nationals Park, attending a Champions of Change event at the White House — it was all packed into a Senate internship this summer and came just a few months after Mohy Omer, a refugee from Sudan, had become a U.S. citizen.
Now 27, Omer never dreamed about living in America, let alone the nation’s capital. He was placed in Fargo, N.D., in 2009, after fleeing his war-torn country. He didn’t know a soul or speak a lick of English. Within five years he was fluent in his adopted country's mother tongue, had earned a college degree and begun interning with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., in her Fargo office. In the months that followed, he would become a citizen, continue a study of the integration of the growing New American community in Fargo and move to D.C. for an internship in Heitkamp’s Capitol Hill office.
“Once she mentioned to me the possibility of the internship, I was shocked,” Omer said with a glowing smile in an interview this month in the senator’s office. “But soon I learned fast that that’s just what the U.S. is. It’s a place where if you work hard, if you try hard, you will be able to find your way.”
Omer grew up in western Sudan, where the Darfur region has been ravaged by conflict and residents displaced for over a decade, including nearly half a million displaced in 2014, according to a United Nations report earlier this year. Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2008 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
Omer’s parents are among those in Sudan who were forced to leave their hometown, but he has been in contact with them in their new city. He has a sister and two brothers, one of whom he said died in war.
After attacks on some 800 villages, Omer said, he fled to the capital city and joined other young Sudanese “to protest, to pressure the Sudanese government to stop its random killing of innocent people. But the government responded and killed a lot of young people in Khartoum city. So we had to flee, otherwise we would have been killed.”
Omer fled to South Sudan before ending up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where he would stay for nearly two years. He was then resettled to Fargo, becoming one of 683 Sudanese refugees admitted to the United States between October 2008 and September 2009, and one of more than 3 million refugees from across the globe that resettled in the United States since 1975, according to the State Department.
“He has a positive effect no matter where he goes, he’s just one of the most positive people, especially when you understand his history. Just that smile,” Heitkamp said in a phone interview from her home state. “Answering phones at the front and doing the issues he’s interested in, he’s just a very talented young man. I know that whatever he decides to do, he’s going to be extraordinarily good at.”
Omer lived with a host family in Fargo for the first year and a half. He attended an English learning class for six months before signing up for a two-year stint at community college. He transferred his credits to North Dakota State University and graduated in 2014 with a degree in political science.
In D.C. briefly in 2013 as part of a U.N. program, Omer met with Heitkamp on Capitol Hill to discuss issues pertinent to North Dakota and its community of New Americans, generally defined as immigrants and refugees who have recently become citizens or are in the process of doing so. At the end of the meeting, Heitkamp mentioned to Omer the internship opportunities at her office, something he’d never realistically considered.
“I was a refugee, I came to the U.S. without any basic skills, I couldn’t speak the language, I didn’t know a person,” Omer said. “And now a U.S. senator is letting me know there is a possibility I could intern in her office. That was a big 'wow' to me.”
After graduating from college in May 2014, Omer started what was supposed to be just a summer internship in Heitkamp’s Fargo office, but he was asked to stay on until December thanks to his performance and personality. In March, three months after his internship ended, the entire staff from that office attended his naturalization ceremony in Fargo.
“Sometimes when you’re just by yourself, no family members, you feel sometimes isolated,” Omer said. “But the senator’s office, all of them, including the state director, came to the event and they attended the whole ceremony. At the end of the event they hugged me and took pictures with me. That was really moving.”
Omer’s presence in both Heitkamp offices over the past year has been mutually beneficial. The day before the interview this month, Omer took several New Americans on a tour of the Capitol, one of the myriad duties he and the hundreds of other interns are often tasked with — though he delivered the tour in Arabic, his native language.
“What was really nice in Fargo was as New Americans come with issues they have, to walk into an office and see someone who, No. 1, speaks the language, but is also so welcoming and inviting, it was really the right opportunity for both of us,” Heitkamp said. “We were just thrilled that he wanted to come to D.C., because as a future leader among those New Americans, having him have this experience, for us, was just so positive.”
Last November, President Barack Obama created a White House Task Force on New Americans, which delivered a report to him in April loaded with recommendations for helping the country’s newest citizens become fully ingrained in society. Heitkamp’s office has been working on that since she entered the Senate in 2013, as have others, including from neighboring Minnesota.
“They come from places you can’t trust the government, you can’t come and express grievances,” Heitkamp said of New Americans. “We think by having the kind of outreach we do — but also having someone within our shop who is in fact from that community — hopefully makes government less scary, helps educate in terms of what the culture of our government is.”
Now in his last week on Capitol Hill, Omer hopes to work in U.S. foreign policy one day, perhaps at the State Department. Before that, he’ll be looking for a job and soon applying for graduate school. He's willing to move anywhere.
“I believe this country is great, and it has a lot to offer,” Omer said. “New Americans, people like us, have something to offer as well. Yeah, I look into the future, and hopefully things work well.”