Wednesday August 1, 2018
Abdi Nor Iftin is coming home to share the story of his American dream, one he hopes will help “make America great again.”The stop comes during Iftin’s national book tour, which has taken him from Maine to Washington, D.C., and back again since “Call Me American” was published in June.
But he’s not headed home to the war-torn streets of Somali, where he was born and from where he fled. Nor is he going back to Kenya, where he was smuggled in the back of an oil tanker to seek refuge with his brother, Hassan.
On Aug. 4, Iftin will be at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth at 3 p.m. to share his journey, as detailed in his autobiography, “Call Me American,” and to discuss the importance of accepting immigrants in Maine.
His story, documented by National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” became one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world and has even received interest from producers who’d like to turn “Call Me American” into a movie.
“‘Call Me American’ can be many things. It’s an obsession with America. It’s a way of escape from war. It’s a story of determination and risk,” Iftin said July 27.
Iftin grew up in the impoverished streets of the Somali capital Mogadishu, where many young men were faced with the choice of joining a terrorist group, like al-Shabab, or fighting terrorists. He wanted neither.
“I had enough of war,” Iftin said. “I knew my life deserved better.”
He developed a fascination with Western culture that got him banned from his ex-girlfriend’s home and kicked out of his own – a fascination that he once was told by an Islamic terrorist could cost him his life.
But not even the threats were enough to kill Iftin’s dream.
“I wanted to be someone and go somewhere,” he said.
So, Iftin taught himself English by watching American movies like “The Terminator” – sometimes three a day – and listening to American music, with the hope that one day he’d make it to the United States. He wore American clothing, practiced American dance moves and soon became known around Mogadishu as “Abdi American.”
For six years, he lived under Sharia law imposed by al-Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda. He said it was long enough to become accustomed to having guns held to his head. He was also once hung by his wrists for watching a World Cup match.
To escape the oppression, Iftin fled to nearby Kenya, only to realize the streets were just as dangerous as Somalia’s, if not more. In 2013, he entered the U.S. visa lottery.
Having twice been denied a student visa, Iftin knew his chances were slim and even considered joining others who planned to flee by boat across the Mediterranean Sea.
But he was selected.
“About 15 million people apply and 125,000 people were selected and I was part of that,” Iftin said.
It was only one of several obstacles Iftin had to overcome to get to America.
At the time, Iftin was communicating every night with a BBC reporter, Leo Hornack, who was telling his story. “This American Life” also documented Iftin’s story in a 2015 segment, “Abdi and the Golden Ticket.”
Shortly after Abdi received news of his “golden ticket,” Kenyan police began raiding homes in search of Somalis. Although Iftin avoided being deported – once bribing police to release him and Hassan – he still had to apply and pay for a visa and interview at the U.S. embassy.
Sharon McDonnell, of North Yarmouth, heard Iftin’s story on the BBC and wired him the $320 fee for the interview, which Iftin said went well. However, his application was rejected because it was missing a signature on his transcript from his university in Nairobi, Kenya.
After hearing this, Hornak made a call to the embassy, saying on “This American Life” that it probably helped move Iftin’s application to the top of the pile.
In 2014, Iftin made the journey to Maine to live with McDonnell and her family. He recalled kissing the ground and saying aloud, “Thank you. I’m in America,” when he landed in Boston.
Four years later he has moved back in with the McDonnells after living in Portland for a short time, but plans on moving in with his girlfriend, who lives in Freeport.
“I can’t imagine going back now. I get to eat what I want to eat and go where I want to go,” Iftin said. “It’s been the greatest gift in the world that I came to Maine.”
Still, Iftin said, his journey isn’t over.
“Everything that I am, a Somalian, an immigrant, a Muslim, a refugee, these are the things you hear on the news every day,” he said. “I don’t want what I’m made of to be on the radio every day.”
He said he worries that racist, anti-immigrant and Islamaphobic rhetoric, fueled by the administration of President Donald Trump, is getting worse.
“I have seen enough” he said. “In America, this whole thing is going in the wrong direction. … Americans are taking everything for granted. The privilege they have is what we are dying to find.”
When America puts travel bans on countries like Somalia and Syria, Iftin said, it leaves young boys with no choice but to join militias because their “American dream has died.”
“They realize America doesn’t like them and this is a golden opportunity for Islamists to say … ‘To fight them, you have to join us and we’re going to do this together,'” he said. “It weakens the American image.”
This is why Iftin said he feels it’s his duty to continue sharing his story.
“I will tell my story on any platform that I can, to explain who (I) am. I can’t give up,” he said. “I hope my story will open up eyes and minds. … I’m an American and I will be for the rest of my life.”