Somali Refugee Abdi Nor Iftin: 'I Am Here To Make America Great'

Jun 10, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 10:41 am

What does it take to become an American? In 2015, This American Life told the story of a Somali refugee who was finally issued a visa to come and live in the United States. "This big smile was on my face. I've never had such a big smile," Abdi Nor Iftin said at the time.

Iftin's long road to the US began when he was only a child in Mogadishu, watching American movies and teaching himself English, while brutality and war raged around him. In his new memoir, Call Me American, he tells his story from the beginning: with his nomadic parents and their now-unimaginably peaceful, pastoral life.

"She had no idea that the country she was living in was called Somalia," Iftin says of his mother. "She had always told me, 'You know, Abdi, there's only two days: The day that you're born and the day that you die. Everything else is just grazing and hanging out with the animals.'" Life was so easy, he says, before drought and famine wiped everything out.


Interview Highlights

On his first memories of Somalia's long-running civil war

I was six years old when the civil war started, militias started pouring into the city, and death and killings and torture, and I just cried. The smell of Mogadishu, it was just the smell of gunpowder. And that had been sticking with me forever ... I think this is the most touching memory that I can remember, to have our youngest sister die, and we said, "Good. That is so easy for her," and then I was jealous. I was jealous because that was the time when our feet were swollen, our bellies were empty. It was a feeling that you could die any time ... and I looked at my other sister, and she was just eating sand. And I think that's the stories that people don't hear about.

On his encounters with Marines in Mogadishu

I still say they stole my heart, because it was the very first time that I saw people with guns, and the guns were pointed up in the air, not in my face. Then they were coming and giving us sweets — I wanted these people to stick around, I wanted these people to be part of my life.

On being targeted by Islamists because of his nickname, "Abdi the American"

Unfortunately, I still believe that Islamists were born out of the American involvement somewhere in the Middle East, and the phrases that they had used to attract young men of my age was just "America." They said, "They are the enemies of Islam" ... surprisingly, I was out on the streets, defending President Bush, I don't even know why I did that. But I was defending him, and blaming Osama bin Laden for all the problems. But I thought, to me it was just expressing myself, but then it got me into trouble, and I received a phone call saying, "You got to stop and drop that nickname, or we're going to kill you."

On whether Americans know how hard it is to get a visa to come here

I don't think they do! You know, Americans take so many things for granted. For example, I came to the U.S. through the diversity immigrant visa lottery, which [President Trump] would like to cancel. But if it was not the diversity lottery, I would have never come to America, never. I had been an American since I saw those Marines, and my nickname is going to be my nationality, very soon ... When I wake up in the morning, I say, oh, I'm so lucky — I have arrived here before America had turned its back against the rest of the world. If this had happened when I was hiding myself from Islamic terrorists, just trying to come to America and become an American and all that, it would be a disappointment, it would be a betrayal by the United States. Because the way I understand is that America is open to the rest of the world. And I am here to make America great. I did not come here to take anything. I came here to contribute, and to offer and to give.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

What does it take to become an American? In 2015, This American Life told the story of a Somali refugee who was finally issued a visa to come and live in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ABDI NOR IFTIN: This big smile was on my face. I've never, ever had such a big smile. Never, ever, ever, ever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abdi Nor Iftin's long road to the United States began when he was only a child in Mogadishu, watching American movies and teaching himself English while unimaginable brutality and war raged around him. In his new memoir "Call Me American," he tells his story from the beginning. And he joins us now from Portland, Maine, where he now lives. Welcome to the program.

IFTIN: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to take you back to the beginning where this book begins and your family's story, your parents, who were nomads. And they describe a sort of Somali life that I've really never heard about, of lush fields and a peaceful pastoral life.

IFTIN: It is. It is. My mother had - you know, her entire world was just her nomadic life - you know? - the animals, her family. And she had no idea that the country that she was living in was called Somalia. She had always told me, you know, Abdi, there's only two days - the day that you're born and then the day that you die. Everything else in the middle is just grazing and hanging out with the animals. And, you know, how easy life had been to my parents before the disaster had hit and wiped out all their animals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that disaster, of course, was the famine and the drought. And your life was marked very early on by war. What was your earliest memory of the conflict?

IFTIN: I was 6 years old when the civil war started, militias started, you know, pouring into the city and death and killings and torture. And I described the smell of Mogadishu. It was just, you know, the smell of gunpowder. And that had been sticking with me forever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, there's just these scenes where people are being dragged out of the back of trucks and shot on the streets and chaos, essentially. Everything that you'd known sort of suddenly wiped away.

IFTIN: I think this is the most, you know, touching memory that I can remember, to have our youngest sister die. And we said, good. That is so easy for her. And then I was jealous. I was jealous because that was the time when our feet were swollen, our bellies were empty. There was a feeling that you could die anytime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were starving.

IFTIN: I was - yeah. We were all starving. And I looked at my other sister, and she was just eating sand. And I think that's the stories that people don't hear about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your first contact with America and that American dream was with U.S. Marines who came to Somalia. There was a lot of opposition to them being there - and Americans, of course, are familiar with this story because of "Black Hawk Down," when a helicopter was downed by insurgents, and Americans were killed. But that was the first time that you sort of saw a different America.

IFTIN: Yes. I still say they stole my heart because it was the very first time that I saw people with guns. And the guns were pointed up in the air, not in my face, you know? Then they were coming and giving us, you know, sweets. And I wanted these people to stick around. I wanted these people to be part of my life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you've become obsessed with America. And you get a nickname, right?

IFTIN: Yes. Abdi the American. Yes, that was my nickname...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you were watching American movies, and you learned English from watching American movies.

IFTIN: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then come the Islamists. And you were a target because you were called Abdi the American. And you were whipped on the beach for being with a girl in public. And the fighting groups were trying to recruit young men to be suicide bombers and fighters. And you didn't want anything to do with it, and you became a refugee.

IFTIN: I did. Unfortunately, I still believe that Islamists are - were born out of the American involvement somewhere in the Middle East. And the phrases that they had used to attract young men of my age to be recruited was just America. They said they are the enemies of Islam. They are attacking everywhere and - all of then. And, surprisingly, I was out on the streets, defending President Bush. I don't even know why I did that, you know? But I was defending him and blaming Osama bin Laden for all the - but I thought - to me, it was just expressing myself. But then it got me into trouble. And I received a phone call saying, you've got to stop and drop that nickname, or we're going to kill you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This American Life then tells the story of the whole next part of the saga, how you got that visa. And what struck me from your account in the book is not only how much luck you needed, how much help, how much perseverance - I mean, it literally took a village to get your American dream. Do you think Americans know how hard it is?

IFTIN: I don't think they do. You know, Americans take so many things for granted. For example, I came to the U.S. through the diversity immigrant, you know, visa lottery...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The visa lottery, which President Trump would like to cancel.

IFTIN: Which he would like to cancel. But if it was not the diversity lottery, I would have never come to America. Never. I had been an American, you know, since I saw those Marines. And my nickname is going to be my nationality very soon. It's going to be my passport.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When are you going to become an American?

IFTIN: A year from now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you think now - if the visa lottery ends, what do you think about that door closing?

IFTIN: Well, first of all, I - you know, when I wake up in the morning, I say, oh, I'm so lucky. I've arrived here before America had turned its back against the rest of the world. If this had happened when I was hiding myself from the Islamic terrorists, just trying to get to America and become an American and all that, it would be a disappointment. It would a betrayal, you know, by the United States because the way I understand is that America is open to the rest of the world. It's a hope. It's a dream. It's an idea that everyone has out there. And I'm here to make America great. I did not come here to take anything. I came here to contribute and to offer and to give.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abdi Nor Iftin's memoir is "Call Me American." Thank you very much.

IFTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "THE MAN WHO TOOK MY SUNGLASSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.