Abdi Nor Iftin Explains What It Means to "Call Me American"

How much do you know about Somalia?

The extent of information I possess about Somalia is that it’s a country in Africa, and there are often pirates off its coast. I also know it has the longest coastline on Africa’s mainland, but only thanks to Wikipedia.

Abdi Nor Iftin knows most people don’t know anything about his homeland, which is one of many reasons he wrote his memoir, Call Me American. It’s a story about growing up in Somalia and of his journey to America in search of peace. By turns harrowing and heartfelt, Iftin takes his audience through the terrors of hiding from recruiters for the Somalian army, the incredulity of winning a lottery that placed him on a short list for an American visa, and the sometimes difficult process of trying to navigate his adjustment period upon arrival in New York.

“I first learned English from movies in Somalia,” he said. “Once I arrived, I had to learn day-to-day English…”

Being multilingual also meant he wrote the first version of his memoir in Somali and then translated it into English—"movie English,” he said, will be how people read about his home country. The process was often tricky; for example, the words for “microwave” and “snow” don’t exist in Somali. And Iftin said he still experiences feelings and emotions in Somali and has to then capture them in English. But it’s worth it, he said.

“I’m a storyteller,” he explained. “I can talk to people about what happened. I’m not freaked out or scared to share my story.”

He also wrote his memoir to empower and encourage other Somalis in the United States. Iftin told me many parents don’t like talking about the country and the life they left behind because it opens old wounds. This means, he said, that the current generation of American Somalis are losing touch with their culture.

“Maybe it will open minds,” he mused. He’s hopeful.

When I asked him what he learned from the process of writing his memoir, he didn’t hesitate.

“I underestimated how strong and protective my mother was of me,” he said. “I wish I had said one million thanks to her.”

Iftin talked a great deal about his mother during his visit to Midtown Reader, explaining that he wants her to visit the United States to experience safety, access to health care and many other benefits. But he says he doesn’t believe she would want to stay permanently.

“I don’t believe any Somalian mother actually wants to die here,” he said. “They all want to return to their home. And my mother says she wants me to have children so they, too, can come to Somalia.”

His family is on his mind every day, especially his brother Hassan. Hassan couldn’t get an American visa, but he has a Canadian one. Yet Kenya, where he has been living as a refugee for years, refuses to grant him an exit visa. And his Canadian visa expires in two months. You can see the stress this causes Iftin cross his face as he discusses it.

But there is happiness, too. Iftin said one of the best things about this country is the openness of its people. He said people ask him all the time what they can do, how they can help. And they’re very friendly.

“I had to get used to everyone smiling and waving to me,” he laughed. “It’s very different from Somalia. Sometimes my face actually hurts from smiling so much.”

Note: Abdi Nor Iftin’s story was broadcast via ‘This American Life’ on NPR. You can listen online here: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/560/abdi-and-the-golden-ticket