Somali immigrant shares story of moving to US in new memoir
AMHERST, N.H. (AP) — Born to desert nomads, Abdi Nor Iftin grew up in Somalia listening to his parents’ tales of fighting lions and hyenas to protect their camels and goats.
He says he knew his mother and father were strong and brave, and their bravery served them well after a drought killed his family’s animals and forced them to move to Mogadishu. The city soon was wracked by violence, first from Somali warlords, then from Islamic extremists.
But there is much more to the world than hunger and fear. Abdi learned that from the American movies he started watching as a young boy after a neighbor set up a makeshift movie theater in a shack with small TV set and a short stack of tapes. Abdi and his friends watched them over and over, but none of the kids loved the movies as much as he did, so much that they started calling him “Abdi American.”
Reading movie subtitles and translating dialogue for his friends, Abdi picked up the language quickly and grew determined to move to the land of Arnold Swartzenegger and Bruce Willis. No beatings from the head of the madrasa, the Muslim school, could keep him away from the movie shack for long, he recalled.
U.S. Marines who came to Somalia for a while also became his American heroes. Instead of pointing their weapons and yelling at the children, they smiled and gave out candy.
“Wherever these guys go, I want to go there,” he told himself.
There was nothing Abdi wanted more than to live in America, he explained. Music fed that love, and he said he started carrying around a boom box that he took to weddings and danced to, an increasingly dangerous thing to do under Sharia Law imposed by the jihadist fundamentalists of al-Shabaab.
Somalia was a failed state, and life in Mogadishu became a living hell, he explained.
There were no police, no firefighters. Guns were given freely to young boys, and human life seemed of little value. Abdi said his sole focus was on getting out, and he and his brother fled to Kenya as refugees.
Abdi tells the riveting story of his struggle to come to the United States in his memoir, “Call Me American,” published this year by Alfred A. Knopf.
During a recent evening program at Amherst Town Library, Abdi told attendees of how he met Paul Salopek, one of the few journalist in Mogadishu, which led to Abdi posting secret dispatches to National Public Radio.
“He has a story the world has to hear,” Salopek told NPR.
Listening to one of his stories over breakfast one day, a family in Maine decided to sponsor him, and Team Abdi was formed.
But it still took years of ups — including the winning of a green card lottery — and some harrowing downs for him to get a green card and finally board a plane to Boston.
As the plane banked over Logan Airport, “I felt like I was going up to heaven,” he said.
That was in 2015, when he was 27. He is not officially an American yet — as it takes five years to become a full voting citizen — but Abdi now works as a translator and goes to school.
His story often is grim and horrifying. Friends were killed by bombs or drowned in overstuffed boats bound for Yemen. A baby sister starved. A man was shot to death in front of him. He has nightmares every night, and fears for the life of his mother in Somalia and cried as he talked of her love and courage. His brother, Hassan, has been in Kenya for 17 years, living the limbo life of a refugee.
But the spirit that brought Abdi to America still is evident, and he talked about all the things here that excite him, like collecting mail, or the fact that he can drive himself from Maine to New Hampshire for a book tour that also took him to Chicago and Seattle.
“It’s still unbelievable,” he said.
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.nashuatelegraph.com