Abdi Iftin is from Somalia. Before he arrived in Boston by way of Kenya three years ago, he had never thought of himself as a person of color. “ I have dark skin. Everybody I knew looked like me. No one ever called me black.” He refers to his first experience in America as “extraordinarily weird.” Upon landing at Logan Airport, he completed a form identifying himself by race and color.
Abdi was six in 1991 when Somalia erupted into Civil war and “everything fell apart.” He describes a horrific scene in which Mogadishu was leveled as warlords battled for control. The militias were eventually ousted, but a new moral code was imposed. Sharia Law forbade Western ideology. “No soccer, no movies, no music, no dancing, no girlfriend, nothing.” Abdi feared Al-Qaeda recruitment and decided to run. “I never thought that I would leave behind my family, my city. We ate some days, we didn’t eat some days, and that was life, and we got used to it and we were surviving and growing up.”
There was no formal school in the burned out city, but Abdi had learned English at the movies. He crossed the border into Kenya to join his brother who had left nine years prior. But Kenya was not safe. Kenya sent troops to Somalia to fight the Islamist state. In retaliation, Al-Qaeda unleashed terrorist attacks on Kenya. So Kenya turned on its Somali refugees with threat of imprisonment or starvation. Abdi applied for the lottery to gain amnesty in the United States. He won.
Abdi speaks frankly about the trauma he carries. In Maine he feels safe, but there are challenges. “There’s the nightmares every night where you think about your mom, I think about my brother.” Abdi left Kenya empty-handed. “I didn’t have a watch, necklace or anything that I could bring as a memory, but everything is pictured in my head.” When he talks about his childhood he says, “I miss seeing my mother’s face.” He languishes over they way she smelled after traditional gatherings. “[The women] read blessings, then they smear themselves with really nice-smelling perfume, and when she comes home that’s the smell that can never get away from me. Almost 8 years I have not smelled it. If I smelled it again it would connect me.”
Nothing can keep his family safe, but at least Abdi can save them from starvation by sending money. He would like to sponsor his mother to come to Maine but she’s getting older and wouldn’t like the cold. He wants her to see that it’s safe. Most emphatically, he wants to take her shopping at Hannafords. “Mom, see they have mango! They have banana!” He would visit Somalia if it were safe “but I have to come back because, to me, America is home.”
Abdi mapped his own path to Maine. A natural storyteller, he reported from the frontlines of the war in Somalia using his cellphone to file daily reports with a radio station in North Carolina. A family in Yarmouth Maine was listening. Captivated, they began an email correspondence. They met Abdi at Logan Airport and brought him to their home, where he still lives. FInding inspiration in their tranquil backyard abbutting the Royal River, Abdi recently completed his memoir. “It’s gorgeous,” he says. “A quiet place to sit and think.” Abdi’s book, Call Me American: A Memoir will be available from Penguin Random House on June 19, 2018.