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Refugee Dream Center founder launches congressional campaign

‘As someone who has fought and stood up to a dictator,’ Omar Bah said, ‘I am better positioned to fight and defend democracy. Democracy is more under threat today in this country than ever before.’

Omar Bah, founder of the Refugee Dream Center, kicks off his campaign for Rhode Island's 2nd Congressional District seat.Edward Fitzpatrick

CRANSTON, R.I. — As a child, he walked to school barefoot and watched people taken to the hospital in donkey carts.

As a young man, he was beaten and tortured for standing up to a dictator and reporting the truth.

And after he was forced to flee his home in West Africa, he made Rhode Island his home, founding the Refugee Dream Center while earning a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate in leadership psychology.

Those were some of the points Omar Bah made in outlining his life story on Thursday, saying those experience set him apart from the field in the 2nd Congressional District race to replace US Representative James R. Langevin.

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Bah is facing a variety of better-funded candidates in the Democratic primary, including General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who has raised more than $1.3 million while Bah has raised $9,624.

But during a campaign kickoff event at the Cranston Portuguese Club, Bah said he offers a clear alternative to “establishment politicians” such as Magaziner and former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, a Republican candidate for the congressional seat.

“How am I different from them?” Bah said. “The difference is you are talking about a candidate who came here 15 years ago — from refugee to doctor, from somebody fleeing persecution to somebody living freely and happily and comfortably in a state founded by a refugee.”

He said many of the candidates can claim to be progressive, talking about the US Supreme Court and climate change, as he did during the event.

“The difference is between big money and small money, between establishment politicians and people who are represented that often do not have a voice,” Bah said. “This election is a referendum between the establishment politicians and people who are connected versus us the people. And by the way, we should be tired of being spoken for.”

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He said he is not motivated to run for Congress “because I have a father who is a billionaire” or because “I know I am going to raise millions like them.” He said he is motivated because he thinks he can inspire a younger generation of Americans.

Bah, 42, grew up in one of the poorest parts of The Gambia, a country of 2.1 million people in West Africa. He worked at a newspaper, covering the courts, and when he tried to report on a secret trial at a military barracks in 2001, soldiers beat him until he lost consciousness and stuffed him into a closet-sized cell. Public pressure resulted in his release.

Bah resorted to writing for an online publication using a pseudonym. But the president’s intelligence agents hacked into the website, discovering he was behind hard-hitting stories, and he narrowly escaped the country alive.

After arriving in the United States in 2007, he became a US citizen in 2012, and in 2015 he founded the Refugee Dream Center, a nonprofit post-resettlement refugee organization based on Broad Street in Providence. Recently, the center has been helping to welcome Afghan evacuees to Rhode Island following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August.

Bah said he wants to run for Congress in part because he wants to help defend democracy.

“As someone who has fought and stood up to a dictator who was killing people and destroying freedom, I think I am better positioned to fight and defend democracy,” Bah said. “And by the way, democracy is more under threat today in this country than ever before.”

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He said the defending democracy includes holding former President Donald J. Trump “and his accomplices” responsible for the attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“If the Republicans win the House, you know what will happen,” he said. “Potentially, they can steal the next election and they will do that with impunity. That will mean the democracy that has endured for over 250 years, that has been a model for the entire world, would be essentially over. We cannot let that happen.”

Democrats such as US Representative David N. Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, are calling for adding four justices to the US Supreme Court in the wake of news that a draft high court opinion would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Bah said he supports the idea of adding even more justices so the Supreme Court has as many as 15 or 20 judges. “It should be expanded and it should be more diverse,” he said.

Among those speaking in support of Bah was Aminullah Faqiry, a front-line Afghan interpreter who worked with the US military and State Department for nearly 12 years before fleeing Afghanistan ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing US troops.

Faqiry recalled that Bah greeted him and his family when they arrived at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport on Oct. 30. “As soon as I met Omar, he gave me a feeling of being my own family,” he said.

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Faqiry said Bah came to his house and told him “Amin, you are not alone, I am always with you and all the Rhode Island people are behind the Afghan people in Rhode Island.”

He said, “Omar is a positive and an amazing person to be a congressman for the Rhode Island people.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.