Abdi Nor Iftin was only five when the civil war in Somalia began. By the time he was an adult, he knew his home country had become too dangerous for him to stay.
Iftin, whose story has been featured on the radio broadcast “This American Life” and who is the author of “Call Me American” spoke at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum in Peterborough Sunday, giving a taste of the struggles he went through to get to Maine, where he now lives, and onto the path to American citizenship.
Growing up, Iftin said, he was fascinated by American culture, particularly music and movies. He taught himself English watching Arnold Schwarzenegger films and listening to music by Madonna and Michael Jackson.
His English became fluent enough for him to translate for his friends at showings of “Hollywood” movies. This led to his friends to call him “Abdi the American.”
He was proud of that nickname, Iftin said. But it soon became a liability as Somalia was taken hold of by Islamic extremism.
Soon, American movies, speaking English, dancing, or walking with a girl – everything Iftin loved – were dangerous. Once, he was badly beaten for walking down the street with a woman.
Iftin was eventually able to flee Somalia with his brother and hid in Kenya, where he began to apply for refugee status in the United States. In 2014, he was selected to immigrate through the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery – a one in 400 chance.
Now settled in Maine, he is working towards permanent citizenship while attending the University of Southern Maine and working as an interpreter for recently arrived Somalian refugees.
There are moments when he realizes just how lucky he is, he said.
Somalia is a “homogenous society,” Iftin said. He was only exposed to other cultures through media.
“Anything outside of this circle is scary,” Iftin said, of the view of other religions or culture in Somalia.
However, in America, he is able to talk to many different kinds of people, whether they be immigrants from the Congo or lobster fishermen. Iftin said he has been gifted with many experiences since leaving Somalia – from being afraid to go downstairs to use the bathroom while hiding in an apartment in Kenya, to traveling to New Hampshire and Washington D.C. to give talks. Even to step into a Christian church to talk with people about his life.
At the same time, he sees America shrinking the number of refugees it allows into the country, in a time when refugee numbers are rising. And also placing bans on travel and immigration from mainly-Muslim countries. The day Donald Trump was elected, Iftin said he got calls from his mother and brother, asking him if he was safe. Which, he said, he was, but he did not go into work that day.
“Honestly, it was a betrayal to my friends who weren’t here yet,” Iftin said of the election results.
Recently, his brother had to seek refugee status in Canada, after being refused by the United States.
But despite that, he said, America still remains as a symbol for many who are seeking a better life.
“When I think of Somalia, it is not an idea. It is a country. When I think of France, it is not an idea. France is a country. There are millions out there who think of America as more than a country,” Iftin said.
Next Sunday’s talk will be “A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland” by speaker James Waller.
Lyceum talks are held every Sunday through the summer in the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church at 11 a.m.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.