I was a small boy when I met U.S. Marines in camouflage on the streets of Mogadishu for the first time in December 1992. I collected leaflets dropped from U.S. helicopters onto the streets of Mogadishu. Even though I could not read English or Somali at the time, I could understand the illustrations. A U.S. soldier was shaking hands with a traditional Somali man under a palm tree. “We’re here to help” is what I later learned was written in the leaflet.
That meeting opened my eyes to a world that I never imagined existed beyond Somalia. I was inspired by the Marines and by American movies and music. America was the savior, the helper and generous. It was a country that opened its doors to the most vulnerable. The vision that came from American movies and music saved my life and showed me another way to live rather than the child soldiering that was common in Somalia in the 1990s.
I became a dancer, and I earned a nickname: Abdi American. I was proud of it. And, like a title, I fought for it so that nobody could take that nickname away from me. As a teenager, I got a phone call from Somalia’s most brutal Islamist group al-Shabab telling me to drop my nickname, and I knew that threat could mean death. Later, I was beaten for going to the beach and walking with a woman while pretending I was in California.
I faced threats to my life just because I loved the United States. I could have given up but what kept me going was America itself, which I dreamed about every night.
It was that dream that helped me escape from the real-life bloody chaos of my childhood on the streets. So many young men have this dream in refugee camps and in the streets of cities that don’t welcome them. Some risk their lives crossing deserts and oceans just to earn a living in a safe place — and that would be the United States.
Before I moved to the U.S. I learned the names of states and dreamed about which ones I would live in. I did not care about political parties; we celebrated all American presidents. On YouTube, I watched speeches by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both Bushes and Barack Obama; all made me smile.
I had not expected that I would ever see an American president who would hate who I am: Immigrant, refugee, Somali, a Muslim and a diversity lottery winner.
Despite impossible odds, the diversity lottery was my only chance to escape the misery. I lived to reach my American dream. Every year, millions apply among them bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degree holders from all continents. These educated immigrants come to this country and do very well in life, contributing to the U.S. economy.
The immigration plan, announced by President Donald Trump last week, is un-American. It disappoints everyone who dreams of moving to American. It tears families apart. For those of us already here in the U.S. it is constant worry. I fear for myself even when I follow the rules as a green card holder and accidentally cross into Canada from Niagara Falls or the Maine border.
I feel personally betrayed, but worse is the feeling that Trump has betrayed my dream of America. If this country, settled by immigrants, could close its doors to the most desperate people in the world, who would help? Who would set the example of unflinching compassion to other nations? Who would inspire the world’s children of war, like me, to reject violence and strive to raise their own children in peace and security?
Abdi Iftin of Freeport is a translator and advocate for refugees. He is the author of “Call Me American: A Memoir.”