“I’d wake up in pain because I was starving. The sound of guns and the smell of gunpowder filled the air. My mother would stay up all night to protect us from gangs and from hungry predators like hyenas and lions that ate her livestock.”
“The first time I saw guns that were not aimed at my face,” said Abdi Nor Iftin, “was when Marines arrived in December 1992. I saw Chinook helicopters, muscular uniformed men
wearing sunglasses, carrying weapons more powerful than anything terrorists had, and the guns were pointed up in the air. The Marines were smiling, handing out candy.”
Abdi Nor Iftin is describing life as a 7-year-old in Mogadishu. He is the author of “Call Me American,” a memoir detailing life governed by terrorists, hunger, and fear and his survival and journey to the United States in 2014. He will be the featured speaker at Love Has No Borders, an evening to create awareness of refugee and immigrant experiences, hosted by the Winchester Unitarian Society at the Jenks Center on March 14.
“The Marines moved and inspired me, they looked beautiful to me. I wanted to be with those people. That was the engine that started my journey to America.”
Shortly after the Marines arrived, Iftin began learning English from action movies. In a rickety shack riddled with bulletholes, a neighbor created a make-shift movie theater, charging admission to see American videos on a television. “I had no money,” Iftin said, “so I would clean for her and then watch the movies.”
Iftin mastered English and reveled in American culture. He took the nickname, "Abdi American."
His open passion for America made him a target for the terrorist, jihadist group al-Shabab, whose aggression continues to torment Somalia today. Everything that gave Iftin hope
and motivation was either banned or criminalized, from Western-style clothing to the English language to fondness for American movies.
“Al-Shabab beat me because I used the nickname, ‘America.” One day they threw a grenade at the place I was living. I had to get out.”
Rather than face further abuse or forced enlistment, Iftin fled to Kenya, following his older brother who had done the same in 2004.
Winning the lottery
In Nairobi, his passion for America unabated, Iftin entered the Green Card lottery. Each year, the Diversity Visa Program distributes visas in countries that have had relatively low numbers of immigrants to the United States. More than 20 million people submit their names annually; only 50,000--a quarter of a percent –win.
“In October 2012, my friends and I used cybercafe computers to enter the lottery on the State Department site, providing photos, and information about families, work and education,” Iftin said. “Six months later the lottery winners’ names were posted online.”
In May 2013, Iftin was the only winner among his friends. “They lifted me into the air in celebration. I was so close to coming to America.” Iftin had six months to apply for the visa he had won.
Abdi Nor Iftin is an American now. He arrived in his new home in Maine in August 2014. He took a job installing insulation, and enrolled in a Southern Maine Community College program to become an interpreter. Then he began to write his book.
“I would call my mother in Somalia to get information about my early childhood. The memories were painful, but sometimes the noise of guns drowned out her voice, and that was even worse.”
Now a Winchester resident and Boston College student, Abdi Nor Iftin will talk about his book, “Call Me American,” at Winchester’s Jenks Center on March 14 at 7 p.m. “Love Has No Borders: Storytelling and Music on Immigration,” organized by the Winchester Unitarian Society will benefit the Lexington Refugee Assistance Program. The evening will include presentations from Iraqi refugee Dr. Jawad Abo-Tabik and Abdulrahan Rageh from Egypt, Spanish folk music by Manuel and Betty Anne Díaz, and songs led by Beth Levin, Cantor at Temple Shir Tikva.
“Nobody chooses to become an immigrant or refugee,” said Iftin. “We become what we are and it’s not choice. But we’re all humans.”