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Somali memoir tells remarkable story of survival

Tuesday June 26, 2018

If Abdi Nor Iftin had only won the U.S. diversity visa lottery, that would have been enough to tell his story. However, it is just one chapter in the life of the young man who grew up during the civil war in Somalia.

He survived famine, drought and life under al-Shabab extremists. Now Iftin has written a memoir. He says his book, "Call me American," tries to fill a gap he sees in U.S. media — in-depth stories about Somalia.

"The only things that you see coming from Somalia are the images that you can see on the television which are Islamists running over things or an explosion and people killed, and that's it," he said. Yes, he says, that was part of life, a big part of life, during the civil war. But he wants to tell the story of the struggles of ordinary Somalis.

His parents were nomads, who he says didn't understand the idea of geographic boundaries. They saw themselves as well off, with all their camels and goats. But that ended when a drought killed their animals and they had to move to Mogadishu.

It was there life took a strange twist, when someone saw his father leap over a fence. It was just something he did as a nomad, but that someone was a basketball scout. Soon afterward, Iftin's dad was one of the nation's top players. Life was good again — until the civil war hit, when he was about 6. Suddenly the streets were filled with militia fighters.

"What shocks me, first, is to see my favorite guy, the man who owns the snack bar on the corner, they kill him and he's face down on the ground," Iftin remembered. "And we are out there watching this happen. And I am like, 'Is this real? Is he gone?'"

His father had to flee. Very quickly food ran short.

"I would say that somehow we survived, mostly because of the nomadic skills of my mother," he said.

She knew how to stretch food. She also knew the medicinal powers of plants she could find growing nearby. The war went on and on.

"So it was a life full of violence, death and destruction. And somehow it becomes a game to us," Iftin said.

He and his brother Hassan would take the family water canister to fill each evening, knowing they were going to have to dodge snipers along the way. They took pride in the way they always escaped. They could not, however, escape hunger.

"You could eat grass, you could eat the leaves of the trees. We'd call it, 'You could eat anything that's out there that does not eat you.' Eat it! We had wild dogs eating dead bodies, that was not a surprise," he said.

During this time Iftin began falling in love with American culture. A local woman set up a video kiosk where they showed Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies, in English, without subtitles. The films were violent, but the streets around him were worse.

"That gave me some peace of mind, just watching the movies and seeing life out there, other than what we have," he said. "And it was beautiful."

He eventually used these movies to learn English, which came in handy when U.S. troops moved in to chase away the warlords. But when the Americans left, al-Shabab fighters moved in, and the terror began again. Years later, by chance, he met a U.S. journalist who risked his life to come and see what life was now like in Mogadishu. Iftin, then 22, knew he was a prime candidate for recruitment into the Islamist ranks.

"And I thought, 'Why don't I tell my story before I disappear?'"

Despite a fear of execution if caught, he began secretly recording first-person accounts of life from Mogadishu and sending them to the United States. Many appeared on public radio. The stories so moved some listeners, a group calling itself Team Abdi formed to try to get him out.

It took years. First he got to Kenya, and then much to everyone's amazement he won the visa lottery. That became the story "Abdi and the Golden Ticket" on This American Life.

He lives in Maine now, and is working toward citizenship. He's excited to be in Minnesota to read at Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis at 7 Monday night. In Mogadishu, he was always hearing about how Somali relatives were sending back money from Minnesota, and he hoped to be one of those one day.

Now he is here with "Call Me American," just days before the Supreme Court is due to rule on the Trump administration's travel ban. He sees the ban as un-American for blocking people simply because they come from certain countries, including Somalia.

"I look at myself now. Am I making America great?" he asked. "Yes, I am." And in the next year, he hopes he'll be a citizen.


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