Winter in Minnesota is like the seventh circle of hell — or more like when hell freezes over. The snow is so deep in places, it is as tall as cabins in woods, and when it gets really cold, -30 degrees Celsius and below, the snow literally squeaks under your feet.

Unless you’ve experienced such cold — I have, for many years living in Canada — it’s hard to fathom. That’s why, some years back, we began a report for Gulf News on Islamophobia in the United States with the following documented example from a Muslim-peer group in Washington: “In the middle of a Minnesota winter, Muslim schoolchildren are routinely left to freeze on the roadside by a bus driver. When the pupils do make it to school, their teacher hands out an air freshener, telling the class to spray as the Muslim children walk in.”

No doubt, for those children, Minnesota certainly seemed like a place where hell had indeed frozen over.

But now, after Tuesday’s midterm elections where Democrats regained control of the US House of Representatives and can offer a real check and balance for the cold extremes of rampant Republicanism in the US Senate and the White House, Minnesota seems positively balmy — almost Dubai-like.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News

Ilhan Omar from Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have become the first Muslim women leaders elected to Congress after both Democrats won their congressional midterm races.

Omar, who faced Republican Jennifer Zielinki, won in Minnesota’s fifth Congressional District, while Tlaib who ran unopposed after securing the Democratic party’s nomination in August, won in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.

Omar was also previously the first Somali-American Muslim to ever become a lawmaker when elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives in 2016, and she replaces Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives, after winning the Democratic primary for his seat in August.

After moving to the US at the of 12 as a Somali refugee, Omar told the media that she grew a love for politics that was inspired by her grandfather, who loved the idea of democratic governments. Following her win in 2016, Omar said her political involvement had become more than “about me or the win or the loss. It became about changing the narrative” surrounding immigrants and women of colour who run for office.

“Regardless of whether we win or lose, this gets to shift the narrative of what is possible,” she said.

Tlaib, a Democrat from Detroit who is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, ran unopposed in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District to become one of the first Muslim women in Congress as well. Like Omar, Tlaib championed progressive policies, including a Medicare for All, a $15 (Dh55) minimum wage and immigration reform.

Tlaib, a single mother who was born to Palestinian parents, first made history in 2008 when she became the first Muslim woman to be elected State Representative. From 2009 to 2014, she served in the Michigan House of Representatives, where she helped secure millions of dollars for free health clinics, Meals on Wheels programmes for seniors and before-and-after-school education funding, according to her campaign website. She is a strong critic of US President Donald Trump and was once kicked out of a ticketed luncheon in Detroit in 2016 after heckling the then-presidential nominee about his policies and past treatment of women. Her parents were shocked to see the incident live on television, but she won them over by explaining how it was essential to face down the policies and the politics being advanced by Trump and the Republican party.

After securing her primary win in August, she campaigned to “fight back against every racist and oppressive structure that needs to be dismantled”, and went on to criticise the president for his harsh treatment and demonisation of immigrants and refugees.

Ahead of the midterm race, Tlaib told CBS: “The first thing I think about when somebody says ‘you’re going to be the first Muslim’ is celebrate this moment. We changed the course of history at a time we thought it was impossible. And that if you just believe, believe in the possibility of someone like me.”

She added: “I think people don’t realise just how much of a roller-coaster it is and its happy chaos right now.”

Back in August, Tlaib told about a time during her campaign when a young Muslim woman came up to her, saying she had to win to prove that Muslims belong to the US.

“That’s when I felt the pressure,” Tlaib said. “That ‘you have to win’ because if you win, our children will know that being themselves, being who they are, that they can succeed in America. That whatever the president is saying, that whatever the people that support the president are saying, everything that’s happening against Muslims in our country, it is all not going to be this complete darkness. That there is light. And I think for me to win, the success of this campaign ... it brought a light in a moment of darkness for many of us.”

Last Tuesday, hell indeed must have frozen over for that bus driver and schoolteacher. And how heart-warming is that.

— With inputs from agencies