Image: Greta Rybus
Lewiston, Maine is a town of roughly 36,000 and sits just north of Poland. It is a town, over the last 10 years or so, called home by a majority of the state’s Somali population. Somalis in Maine have faced their fair share of both good and bad publicity in the press. If you conduct a quick Google search much of the results involve violence and theft. When you dig deeper you will find people who have contributed largely to the culture in the town of Lewiston. One such person, a resident of Lewiston himself, is Abdi Iftin.
Iftin was born in 1985 under a fragrant and blossoming neem tree. He says it is, “a good place to be born” because it provides shelter. His actual birth date is unknown and It was only recorded once he landed in Kenya. Upon his arrival to the states, he chose June 20, 1985, as it was easiest for him to remember. In his latest memoir, Call Me American, he recounts life in Mogadishu, the largest city in Somalia. His parents were nomads from Baidoa and made a living tending to farms. He remembers them as loving people, who did anything they could to protect their family. In 1977, the drought hit them very hard. “The rains of Dayr and Gayr never came”, he says, “The corn withered, the red clay land around Baidoa turned parched and bare, its wide cracks littered with skeletons of animals. Those who survived were thin and dying.” During this dire time, his parents’ wealth slipped away. However, they managed to survive. This is a skill Abdi, too, would pick up very early on.
Abdi’s Father would eventually become a famed basketball player in the country. However, this would soon change, and people would cease to remember Nur Iftin. The rebel forces would come rolling in, and a violent campaign against Siad Barre’s regime would begin. He describes the frightful sight of rebels roaming the streets, weapons in tow. In the thick of the war, he and his family fled to Baidoa. They did what any nomadic family would do in a time such as this, “walk to safety”. His feet would bleed, and his belly would ache from hunger. Along their journey, they would be stopped by rebel forces who would take away their money and goods. They would escape death many more times, and look on in horror as their neighbors faced a different kind of fate. Abdi learned to care for his mother and siblings, and he had to grow up very fast. The end was always right around the corner, but he was not ready to give up just yet. His thirst for freedom would not go unquenched.
“Cidna ma dooran karto goobta dhalashadda; wixi dhaca intaa kadib ayaa ah waxa aad ka qiyaas qaadan karto.”
“No one gets to choose where to be born; what happens after that is what you can imagine.”
— Abdi Iftin
When US troops touched down to provide humanitarian aid, it was a sigh of relief for the people of Mogadishu. It was then that he decided to learn the English language. This was his motivation, combined with a newly found adoration for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Abdi and his brother, Hassan, became entranced by the American military. To them, it was like witnessing all the action movies they had seen come to life. While he had feelings of resentment towards the US military when they attacked and killed civilians during combat, he believed that deep down, he was one of them. “I’m not Somali,” he says, “I am Mareekan. I was left behind by the marines. And they will come for me soon.”
Instead of dreaming of spreading the words of the Koran, he dreamt of a whole new world thousands of miles away. This was much to his parent’s dismay, and when he was fourteen, they told him to pack his bags. Out on his own, he began to teach English to children in the neighborhood, something he truly enjoyed. Soon, strict Sharia would be the law of the land. Iftin was at a constant risk of being recruited by Islamists, a possible reality he greatly feared. He believed that Sharia was not enforced to protect him, but take away free thought. There was no mention of western culture, and any reference to it would be punishable. Much of the time, physical.
Iftin’s wishes to leave the country finally came true when he was granted the opportunity to become a regular diarist on an American Public Media program called “The Story”. He would inform viewers on life in war-torn Somalia, and his feelings of entrapment. The program’s producers, combined with the graciousness of a family in Maine, were his ticket home. The Diversity Immigrant Visa, also known as the “green card lottery”, he was accepted for; his lucky token. This special visa gives those from developing countries a shot at life in the US. Approximately 8 to 15 million people apply every year, but only 50,000 of those applicants are given visas. For 20 cents he took his shot, and in August of 2014, he was on a plane to the place he now calls home. Here, he could finally speak English freely, and celebrate holidays.
Iftin admits that the past still haunts him. He writes, “I wake up in Maine a grown man, but in my nightmares I am still a boy in Mogadishu after the basketball finished. What happened after the basketball is never in the past, it lives again every night in my sleep, and sometimes when I am awake.” However, he has not allowed his past to affect the course of the rest of his life. He has conquered it all, like a true patriot would.
He is Abdi: The one they call American.