Abdi Nor Iftin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Abdi Nor Iftin

Abdi Nor Iftin

An interview with Abdi Nor Iftin

Abdi Nor Iftin, author of the memoir Call Me American talks about his life growing up in war-torn Somalia, what coming to America means to him and his fears for American under President Trump.

How old were you when the civil war started in Somalia, and how did it change your life?

I was six when the civil war erupted; it felt like a doomsday. It spread all over the city very fast and destroyed everything. It was excruciating to see how much damage the guns could do to an entire city. My dad's years of building a beautiful life for our family were destroyed within a day. His basketball trophies and earnings were looted at gunpoint. The house where I was born was reduced to ashes. The war split my family apart; our father ran for his life and disappeared. My siblings, my mother and I wandered in the wilderness, barefoot, without knowing where we were going, and later stayed on the streets with dogs while dodging bullets. We lived everyday like it was our last. It was almost impossible to survive as a child because the war had also brought malnutrition and disease. Every day that passed felt like a year of hell fire. We all prayed for death, but death refused to come to me.

You write about your teacher at the madrassa, Macalin Basbaas, and the "education" offered through his school. What did he and his school represent to you?

Koran is the highest education that one can attain in Somalia. During the civil war Madrassas sprang up on every corner, and to our parents the Madrassa was a place where we learned the most important words in the whole world, those of God, and where we learned good from bad. Macalin Basbaas could do anything our parents could do, and could beat, torture or even kill us. But his goal was to produce a generation of great Koran reciters and to do that he used brutal tactics such as constant beating. The seven years that I attended the Madrassa felt as brutal as living in a war. I desperately needed an escape but there was none. The Koran I learned from Macalin Basbaas saved my life when al-Shabab came to power in 2006. I was quizzed in Koran and asked to recite verses and I was able to answer correctly. If I had not been able to do that, they would have killed me. That was the only time I ever thanked Macalin Basbaas.

Western movies were your entertainment and escape. What did movies like Rambo and Commando mean to you, and what did you learn from them?

Rambo and Commando introduced me to America—the patriotism, the freedom, the strength—and were my motivation to achieve. After watching these movies relentlessly night after night and mouthing the words along with Arnold and Sylvester, I became more ambitious, energetic and persistent, like them. They gave me dreams and hopes for the future. I found an identity through them in the depth of the Somali civil war. I called myself a new nickname, Abdi American. I would walk down the streets of Mogadishu listening to music and dancing. I found a girlfriend and dared to take taboo-breaking trips to the beach. I would imagine myself in sandy and sexy Hollywood movies, holding hands with my girlfriend, standing up to gangs at the beach with my fist high like Arnold, shouting "Get the hell out of here!"  

As al-Shabaab and the Islamists rose to power, how did things change? How did you escape recruitment into the Islamic forces there?

When the Islamists rose to power in Somalia in 2006, they imposed strict moral codes. Everything I adored became a crime, including speaking English and loving America. My personal freedoms diminished, and my adopted and beloved nickname Abdi American almost cost me my life. Sharia law became the law of the land. They pressured me and other young men into submission to join them. Recruitment became mandatory, and I trimmed my hair, stopped speaking English, and stayed hidden, constantly praying for escape.

You filed a series of stories for NPR from Mogadishu and Nairobi – how did that come about, and what did you report? How did you record and file your stories, and was the work dangerous?

Under the constant shelling of al-Shabaab, sitting in the cave I dug under my bed while praying for escape, I recorded my stories on a cellphone device. Excruciating and painful personal stories of my survival in Mogadishu. I talked about the brutal new moral codes in the city and fears of a forceful recruitment. I turned 22 and that was a dangerous age because al-Shabaab preferred that age for recruitment. The stories I dispatched would kill me if al-Shabaab found out. But I knew what I was doing could be one way to escape. My stories aired on radios across the America and doctors, journalists, professionals and citizens from across the United States came to my rescue. They raised funds to get me out of Somalia.   

There has been a lot of discussion of the Diversity Visa Lottery program here in the US recently. Since you have been through it, can you briefly explain what it involves? How long did it take for you to be accepted, and how much longer to actually receive a visa?

The Diversity Visa lottery is one of few ways to immigrate to the U.S permanently. This lottery system allows people from under represented countries to immigrate to the U.S. every year. I was lucky to be one of over 120,000 people that were selected for the fiscal year of 2014 by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. But after tough screening and Consular Processing, the United States State Department had to disqualify seventy thousand people as they could only issue fifty thousand visas. It took me two years to put together everything I could for the visa eligibility. Two major requirements for getting a visa were high school diploma or work experience. I did not have either. I had been a refugee my entire life and was living in Kenya with a refugee status. I had been disappointed many times before, but I never gave up. The chance of approving my visa was low, especially coming from a country the U.S considers to harbor terrorism. I collected everything I could: medical and police records, a college transcript, letters from the offices of senators from Maine, Vermont and Chicago, letters from my supporters in the U.S. I was put on Administrative Processing by the State Department, which meant they were checking my name for terrorism-related issues, which took two weeks. Finally, after some calls, my visa was finally issued.

What are some things that surprised you about life in America?

America is more than a country. It feels like a continent. People from all over the world come and live here. My first surprise in America was that all Americans don't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Some people are not even fit and strong. Some people don't even speak English. My greatest freedom ever was driving from Maine, with large white communities and small farm towns, to Boston and New York's skyscrapers and the most diverse communities I have ever seen. I am surprised how huge the country is. I find it a surprise that everyone, despite their color, faith or country of origin, all respect the law of this nation. With the freedom America gave me I rose above the circumstances of being a refugee to become an author, go to school, and work. The hospitality and the mentoring Americans have given me is remarkable. America is the best place to become what we dream to be.

Has living in America affected your worldview/principles/faith/etc? If so, how?

America gave me a space to worship and practice my faith when I need without being forced to do so. I wake up every morning without worrying about being recruited or shot. The only thing I worry about is paying the bills, and keeping my schedule and appointments that I have with people. Unfortunately, I have learned of the existence of racism, hate and xenophobia that some Americans express towards newcomers and immigrants like myself. I was shocked to see that some Americans, including the president of the United States Donald Trump, saw me as less worthy and a threat on American soil. Besides all the goodness and kindness America showed me, there is also bad, and people who don't want me to be here. But whatever the case is, I call America home. I am not here to take anyone's life, money or happiness. I am here to be part of the people, to salute the flag and most importantly to become the American that I have dreamed of being since childhood.

Where is your family today, and how are they doing? Do any of them want to come to the United States? Can they?

My mother and my sister are both living in a two-room house made of corrugated metal walls and roof in Mogadishu. They just repaired the roof after a massive bombing tore it off in March 2018. This bombing also killed a Somali-American, a guy who fled Somalia and built a life in Minnesota but went back to see his city, only to be murdered by the radical Islamists. Gunshots, explosions and targeted assassinations are happening every day in Mogadishu, so mom tells me I am lucky to be in the U.S. and away from that fear. 

My sister's kids are following in my footsteps. They are all going to Madrassa where they spend the entire day reciting Koran and come home at night to sleep. When I call them, I tell them my story about when I was their age. 

Thanks to ex-Team Abdi, now Team Hassan, my brother, his wife and kids had been approved to immigrate to Canada on Monday, May 7th, 2018. He had been denied immigration to the U.S shortly after President Trump announced the Immigration Ban in early 2017. We wrote letters to Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto to sponsor Hassan, and we raised all the funds needed for the process. The Canadian embassy had a one-on-one interview with Hassan, and they had approved his visa immediately. I am lucky to have Hassan become my next-door neighbor. I can't wait to welcome them in Canada when they arrive in early Fall 2018.

What is your response to Trump's immigration ban? What does this mean for you, personally?

The travel ban is a rejection of everything America stands for—a country that was founded by immigrants and believed in offering the oppressed refuge from violence and persecution from its very start. America is where people want to come and feel safe from terrorists attacking their countries. Before Trump became president, I listened to speeches of previous U.S president to improve my English, but I also smiled listening to them. As a teenager I went to the movies to learn American English, and earned the nickname Abdi American because I could not stop talking about America as a great country. I dared a taboo-breaking trip to the warm ocean of Mogadishu holding my girlfriend's hands, singing in English, and when radical Islamists arrived in Somalia they almost killed me for my American actions, my nickname and I was told not to speak English. I almost got recruited when I fled to Kenya, fearing for my life.

Coming to America saved me. I was happy to come to Maine and call this state home until Trump came to complain and tell his supporters that we immigrants, Somalis and Muslims should not be here. And when he became president he banned Somalis and wants to stop the diversity lottery. It's a disappointment to hear a president of the United States say that. I never thought I would be marching on the streets of America against a U.S president, but because of Trump I found myself being part of the resistance, angry, and frustrated but also fearful of his actions.   

What do you want people to know about refugees? Why is it important that America continue to accept people who, like you, are seeking a better life?

No one chooses to be a refugee; we are forced out of our houses and our countries by conflicts and wars but we all deserve safety and an environment to thrive in. America is a place of hope. A place where every one of every faith, color and belief can thrive. Some of America's biggest minds are immigrants or children of immigrants such as Steve Jobs and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I did not come here to change America and the Americans. I came here to contribute, to make, and to experience.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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