Abdi Nor Iftin knew just what America would look like. It would look like a giant New York City. Tall, tall buildings would soar to the sky. Humans would scurry about like ants at a picnic. Those who were not racing along densely packed streets, cellphones in hand and earbuds stuffed in place, would ride in taxis, limousines or underground contraptions called subways. Horns would blare, a constant state of cacophony.
Possibly, he thought, much of the United States would actually resemble Los Angeles. The sun would never stop shining, ever. Every citizen would have perfect teeth, gleaming so white that the entire population would perpetually wear sunglasses. All the women would be beautiful and blonde, perhaps by civic regulation. Men — all with names like Dirk or Brad — would not have time to work because they would spend every minute working out. The Los Angeles vehicle of choice would of course be a convertible. Every resident would own at least one.
This is what happens when a small child in Somalia learns about the planet through movies viewed illicitly in the course of a 30-year civil war. Flying across the Atlantic, Iftin, no longer a child, thought about the myriad ways in which the United States would be different from his own African nation. Would there even be gravity?
But all that cogitation could not prepare him for his new life in the coastal village of Yarmouth, Maine. People lived not in high-rise apartments or rambling Beverly Hills mansions, but quaint homes known as Capes, made of gray shingles with crisp white trim. Their English was strange, words like “ayup” or “lobstah.” Neighbors tried not to stare, but often found themselves gaping at a tall, slender person with such dark skin.
And there was another surprise.
“Most of us Somalis do not know there can be so much change in the weather,” Iftin said.
“Feeling old” at 35, Iftin appeared recently at the public library in Beaverton, Oregon, to talk about the life story he has documented in “Call Me American,” a book co-written with journalist Max Alexander. The title took on new resonance only a few weeks earlier, when Iftin was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, five years after he first sought freedom in a country he first encountered through the movies.
“Now I am safe in America,” he writes in his dedication to his “proud nomad mother,” who kept him alive in Mogadishu, “the city of the dead.”
An Invented Birthday
Iftin comes from a culture where birthdays are not recorded; where friends and family gather to sit on the floor or on the ground and eat with their hands; where life is so communal that if you need something like sugar, you walk over to your neighbor’s house and take it. When he arrived in the U.S., Iftin invented a birthdate, June 20, 1985. He was pretty sure the year was correct, more or less, and he thought a nice round number in the middle of the year sounded just fine.
His parents were nomads who worked their way through the bush with their herds of camels, marking their way by the trees they saw. A series of terrible droughts beginning in 1974 brought their livelihood to an end, and in 1977 they walked to Mogadishu to live with a relative. It was their first encounter with something as seemingly mundane as money, for as nomads, their world had centered around barter.
His father found work as a fisherman. Then one day a friend saw him leap over a fence, like a goat. Basketball fever had gripped the African continent, and his friend began urging Abdi’s dad to join the Somali team. Like so many members of the Rahanweyn tribe, Abdi’s father was himself a sort of human skyscraper. His years of working with animals had given him strong hands that quickly adapted to handling the ball. His teammates called him Nur Dhere, Tall Nur. In short order Tall Nur was a local hero.
Abdi and his older brother Hassan studied at the madrassa, the only kind of school in Mogadishu, where children meticulously dissect the Quran with the goal of becoming good Muslims. Their teacher was a cruel man whose name, roughly translated, meant “the teacher who uses hot pepper and scorpions to bite on wounds.” Abdi and his brother preferred to think of him as the Angel of Punishment.
Abdi often suffered at the hand of the Angel of Punishment, and instead of going to school, he snuck into the local movie house to watch American movies. The teacher, as well as Abdi’s mother, felt the boy was headed for certain damnation. Women in bikinis! Men and women kissing in public! Dancing that was far too suggestive of something men and women do in private.
Abdi’s mother put such stock in her Muslim faith that, as her younger son rebelled, “There were moments, I think, when she hated me.”
But then basketball came to an end and rebels took hold of the city. Abdi’s mother was pregnant with her fourth child as the family joined thousands of others, fleeing by foot to who-knows-where, just somewhere to escape the shooting, the looting, the robbery that had overtaken the city. They aimed for the city of Baidoa.
“What nomads do is walk,” Abdi writes. And so, his family believed, “we will walk to safety.”
Walking, But Not to Safety
At every turn, the family was confronted by rebels demanding goods. Soon they had nothing left to steal. Meanwhile, Mogadishu, receding in the distance, was on fire. The longer they stayed together, the greater their peril became. Rebels, known by now as the Somali Patriotic Movement, were killing men who traveled with their families. His father broke away to flee on his own, reasoning that his family was safer without him.
But safety proved elusive. It was 1991. Abdi was just 6 years old. At sunrise, the family began to creep toward what they hoped was some sort of sanctuary in Baidoa. Instead, Abdi writes, “I see the bodies of a man and a woman in the embrace of death. Just beyond them, I see a woman on her back, crying, blood covering her stomach, stray dogs preparing to feast.”
Baidoa is burning as they approach. In front of them is the bush, filled with ravenous lions, hyenas and other beasts. They make the decision to return to Mogadishu, where they will live or die.
What they return to is a city of women and children, no husbands or fathers. Restaurants, office buildings and houses — including their own — are shells. Roofs have vanished, along with windows, and in the case of Abdi and his family, all the furniture that had been purchased with his father’s basketball earnings. Landmarks, such as enormous bronze statues, have disappeared. Random bullets fly at random moments.
At last their one remaining neighbor agrees to take them in. With rebels battling rebels, their city in a constant state of chaos, the boys have taken to playing war games, making AK-47 rifles out of tree branches while their mother removes bodies from the streets in hopes of improved sanitation. Make-believe games for the children include pretend rocket attacks. Hide-and-seek takes place in bombed-out houses — turns out the debris makes for excellent hiding spots.
A 1992 ceasefire ended what had become known as the Four Month War. That December, a coalition of United Nations peacekeepers, led by U.S. forces, pulled into Mogadishu. The task force was known as Operation Restore Hope, and its goal was to supervise distribution of food and supplies.
Meeting the ‘Mareekans’
Mareekans were what Somalis called people from the United States. Abdi asked his mother who these Mareekans were.
“They are huge, strong white people,” she told him. “They eat pork, drink wine and have dogs in their houses.”
When one of those Mareekans tossed a chocolate to Abdi from the tank he was riding, Abdi was overjoyed. When he went home and told his mother how delicious it had been, she slapped him and told him not to eat pork. To her, pork and chocolate were equally foreign, equally forbidden.
One soldier removed his mirrored sunglasses and Abdi saw that he had blue eyes.
“He was like an alien,” he remembered.
In 1993, U.S. forces suffered a devastating attack depicted in the Academy Award-winning film “Black Hawk Down.” By 1995, even the United Nations had given up and pulled out, citing too many casualties. Now Mogadishu was left to tribal militias, beggars and refugees from the countryside whose land had been appropriated by warlords. Taking sides with a tribal warlord became an odd form of survival.
“If I join with you,” said Abdi, “you will not kill me.”
Snipers abounded. Every day, Abdi walked to the airport, hoping the American marines would return to rescue him. From day to day, the potential for peril on every street changed.
“You had to have eyes everywhere in Mogadishu,” he said. “You had to know who to avoid, who to talk to.”
Seeking Refuge in the Movies
But still there were movies. His mother would send him to the mosque. Instead he went to the movies. Abdi realized how different life could be in a place where there was no war.
In the movies, he said, “Arnold” — he talks about the movie star and former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as if they were old friends — “Arnold has breakfast with his daughter.” It was such a small thing, such an ordinary thing. “I wanted that, too,” said Abdi.
Abdi’s older brother Hassan talked incessantly about leaving Somalia — and eventually, he did. Abdi “found peace” sitting at the video shack watching movies. Sometimes, in order to help improve his English, he would ask the video shack’s owner to turn up the volume. He carefully followed the subtitles, connecting the words he heard in English with what he read in Somali.
He learned slang, and taught himself phrases every day. He practiced pronouncing the names of movie stars. He especially liked it when the movie actors swore. But when he put a poster of Madonna in a bikini next to where he and his brother slept, his mother went ballistic.
“There is no god but Allah!” she shouted. Then, summoning her husband, she threatened: “I will kill these two boys.”
She was no happier when Abdi decided that if he was going to try to speak like an American, he should also dance like one. He took up hip-hop and donned a bandana as a makeshift do-rag. His neighbors began referring to him as Abdi American. It didn’t take long for his mother to kick him out of the house.
He lived on the streets but continued his English language immersion lessons, via the movies. At 15, he began teaching English to anyone who could shovel a few coins in his direction. As conditions in Mogadishu began to improve, somewhat, he offered his services as a dancer at the weddings that suddenly were happening once again all over the city.
Few foreign journalists ventured into Mogadishu. Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize-winner then with The Chicago Tribune, was an exception. With characteristic brashness, Abdi made it his business to meet Salopek. The American journalist bought Abdi a cell phone so they could remain in touch. Abdi found a cybercafé so they could establish an email relationship as well.
Salopek quoted from Abdi in an article he wrote for The Atlantic magazine called “The War Is Bitter and Nasty.” Naming Abdi carried risks of retribution, and Abdi blanched when his cell phone rang with a number he did not recognize soon after the article ran. The jihadist fundamentalist group, al-Shabab had threatened him before, and he was certain that this time the extremist group tied to al-Qaida meant business.
But a producer for an American public radio program wanted to discuss a diary recording project after she had read The Atlantic article.
“I don’t have a future,” he told her. “I could die anytime; it can be tomorrow, or this evening, who knows? Everything I enjoy has been taken from me. I live in a world isolated from the rest of the world. I dream of going to America. I know I belong in that country.”
Messages From Mogadishu
America was by then the most hated country in Somalia. Abdi knew al-Shabab would monitor anything broadcast from Somalia. Still, he began his first audio dispatch with this recording:
“It is midnight. Pitch-dark. I can hear gunshots ringing. Heavy shells landing. This might be my last night on earth. Or I might survive.”
His stories were titled “Messages From Mogadishu.” In one such dispatch he noted: “I have taught myself to walk, pump iron and speak English like the carefree stars I have watched more often in Hollywood movies.”
His work as “our man in Mogadishu,” as the radio host introduced him, led him to an email correspondence with an American epidemiologist who had worked in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. Eventually the physician, Sharon McDonnell, organized “Team Abdi,” a group of Americans determined to get the young man out of Somalia.
The plan worked, albeit not without bribes and detours and scary encounters with dangerous people. Months passed, with Abdi filing reports from Eastleigh, a neighborhood in Nairobi dubbed “Little Mogadishu,” where he was stranded. And then, after countless visa rejections, he received a message that began “You have been randomly selected.” He had won the green card lottery.
Abdi preferred to think not that he had won the right to live in America, but that he had earned it: “Years of practicing English, a lifetime of dodging bullets and bombs, risking death by refusing to join the Islamists, hiding from crooked cops and above all, never giving up.”
Today 35-year-old Abdi is finishing his bachelor’s degree in political science at Boston College. He lives with Sharon McDonnell and her family. Her daughter calls him her brother, though the Somali elders up in Lewiston, Maine, worry that Abdi will be corrupted by American heathens who practice no structured religion.
A New American
So many adjustments: The first time he used a microwave to soften a container of rock-hard ice cream, he set the timer for 60 minutes and nearly flooded the kitchen. He still marvels that people can sit at a dinner table for an hour, talking, long after they have finished their meal. The postman delivers mail, to the home, and no one bribes him or steals his deliveries. Dogs —dogs! —wander freely in the house and even sleep on the beds with family members.
Instead of beautifully calligraphed passages from the Quran, landscape paintings or family photos hang on the wall. There is this whole mystery about something called winter: “What?” Abdi mocked himself. “Trees get naked and then the leaves come back again?” What was a vacuum cleaner? Why did people freeze meat? What is this button that people push when they want to cross the street? People put ice in their tea? “Ridiculous.”
Turning serious, Abdi said: America makes people, adding “America is shaping me.” People in the United States have invested in him, realizing he has something to say.
“In Somalia, if I went around telling my story, I would be shot,” he said.
In Abdi’s view, the current administration’s ban on Muslim immigrants has played right into the hands of extremists.
“You know who is the happiest?” he asked. “ISIS! ISIS is just laughing their heads off. Ban Muslims? Great!”
In America, Abdi has fallen in and out of love with assorted girlfriends. He has worked at a grocery store. He delivered a TED Talk. He appeared on episodes of “This American Life” and “Live Wire.” He wants to change the Somali immigrant narrative, focusing not just on trauma — of which he has had plenty — but on “funny, happy stuff.”
His ego has not suffered. He calls himself a rock star among this country’s 150,000 Somali refugees, and says he cannot walk down a street in Minneapolis — home to the nation’s largest concentration of Somalis — without being recognized. He pledges that he will “use whatever I have learned in this country to change the world,” with Somalia as his first priority.
“Liberated” by his new status as a full-fledged American, he invokes the first three words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the people.”
“The ‘we’ is what this is all about,” he said. “I believe in that. I belong to that.”
And, he admonishes: “I strongly believe you do not have to be born in America to be an American.” After all, he observes: “Arnold was not born here. Jeff Bezos’ (adoptive) father was not born here. Donald Trump’s grandfather was not born here.”
America, he contends, “is not just a place. It is an idea.”
And for Abdi Nor Iftin, that idea is one he is proud to embrace.
We want to acknowledge Creative Commons for making some of the images used in this article available for use.