October 18, 2018
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Somali refugee turned author: ‘I’m here to make America great again’

Don Eno | Fiddlehead Focus
Don Eno | Fiddlehead Focus
Abdi Iftin, a Somali immigrant, was the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Scholars’ Symposium at the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus, April 20, 2017. After an improbable cross-cultural journey that landed him in Maine, Iftin has written a memoir that comes out this week.

PORTLAND, Maine — Abdi Nor Iftin was 7 or 8 years old in 1992 when the U.S. Marines landed in Mogadishu in an attempt at restoring order in Somalia, his war-torn native country.

He remembers sitting across a table from the Americans, face to face, he said.

“They were so close to me, I could see their eyes and we could smell them, and they could smell us,” Iftin said Thursday. “But we could not communicate. We could not thank them.”

Courtesy of Abdi Nor Iftin
Courtesy of Abdi Nor Iftin

He decided then that should the Americans return, he would not miss his opportunity to talk to them, and thank them. After an improbable cross-cultural journey that landed him in Maine, Iftin is not only talking to Americans, he’s written about them. His memoir, “Call Me American: A Memoir,” will be released Tuesday.

[Somalia-born author Abdi Nor Iftin to share his immigrant journey at Dirigo Speaks August 9]

Iftin began to learn English, watching Michael Jackson videos and movies on television, and soon became known as “Abdi American.”

In 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek arrived — he would go on to write about Iftin in The Atlantic. Ifkin practiced English with Salopek, he said.

“I was so amazed,” Iftin said. “He said, ‘Abdi, you are my friend.’ I said, ‘Yes, we’re friends.’”

But his pro-American sentiment — at times he would take to the streets speaking on then-U.S. President George W. Bush — threatened to make him a target for the fundamentalist rebels al-Shabab. Ifti fled to Kenya as a refugee, and through a lottery, won a visa to the United States.

Iftin’s story, “ Abdi and the Golden Ticket,” was featured on National Public Radio’s “This American Life” in 2015.

On Thursday, he said his book is an attempt to answer the questions from thousands of people who heard that NPR interview and wondered what had happened to him.

Iftin described on Thursday arriving in Maine and being driven, at night, by his adoptive family to their home in Yarmouth, a farm with a barn, a horse, chickens and guinea hens.

“The first time I saw sunlight on American land, I came down from my room and they said, ‘Abdi, make yourself at home,’” he said, laughing. “I remember opening the ‘fridge and there is food everywhere. In drawers, food everywhere. Granolas and oatmeal, all these different things. I said, ‘What do I need to eat?’ I’d never had cereal or oatmeal in my entire life. Everyone was extremely helpful. They said, ‘Let’s just get you some eggs and toast.’ So that’s where we started.”

Shortly after he arrived, his adopted sister, Natalya — mindful of the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting by police of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, subsequent shootings and protests — took Iftin by the hand to meet their neighbors on the rural Yarmouth road.

“She said, ‘Please don’t call 911. He’s my brother,’” he said. “They knew the family, and they said, ‘Great, good to know.’ They welcomed me in.”

Iftin also remembers the day his green card arrived. He walked across the street to greet the mailman, who had left mail in the mailbox.

“I said, ‘Do you have any mail for me?’” he said. “[The mailman] said, ‘Well, you can check it.’”

There, in the mailbox, was his green card, a federal permit that allows immigrants to live and work in the United States.

“I remember my greatest gift in the entire world, my green card, had just arrived into the street and someone could just steal it,” he said. But his family reassured him that, on that country road, it was unlikely.

Iftin said he began writing his book long before President Donald Trump was elected, but still had time to add his feelings about the 2016 presidential election before publication.

He said he was confident Americans would never elect Trump, and that right after the election, he received phone calls from family and friends in Portland who said, “Abdi, if you feel threatened, come over.”

Iftin said he feels “butterflies” when he sees police officers, and wonders, “Are they going to deport me?”

“You know what? I left Kenya and Somalia for the safety of America,” he said. “I can’t believe that the barrier is still lurking.”

“I wish I could speak face to face to Trump,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Do you even know how much I love America? I grew up in war-torn Somalia. I could easily have been turned into a Somalian soldier, but I taught myself English, and I had a dream, and I became an American. I escaped al-Shabab, who wanted to recruit me, because I had an American dream.’ I’d say, ‘I’m here, man, not to disrupt anything. I’m here to make America great again.’”

On June 27, he will speak at the Portland Public Library and then at Print Bookstore in Portland, where he now lives.

Iftin will speak on Aug. 9 at the Bangor Public Library as part of the Dirigo Speaks series, which is hosted by the Bangor Daily News.

This fall, he plans to study political science at the University of Southern Maine.

“Call Me American: A Memoir” has been named a finalist for the 2018 New England Book Award for Fiction and Non-fiction.

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