What It Means to Be American

Author Abdi Nor Iftin on gaining U.S. citizenship, writing his memoir “Call Me American,” and what he misses most about Somalia.

What It Means to Be American

Iftin had applied for a visa and been denied numerous times before winning the U.S. diversity visa lottery.

Photo by Michael Lionstar

As a child growing up in Mogadishu, Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin learned English by watching action movies. In 1992, Iftin met Americans (or Mareekans, as they’re known in Somalia) during a ceasefire in Mogadishu, when Marines rolled into the capital as part of the United Nations–led Operation Restore Hope. “The Mareekan flag was waving, stars and stripes,” Abdi writes in his 2018 memoir, Call Me American. “That’s when it hit me: I had seen that flag in movies! These Mareekans were the movie people, and this was a real movie happening in front of us!”

Soon—for his proficiency in English, as well as his dance moves and love of all things American—Iftin became known around Mogadishu as Abdi American. But when extremists took control of the country in 2006, it became more dangerous for Iftin to celebrate Western culture. Fearful of being killed, he fled to Kenya to join his brother Hassan in Nairobi. In 2013, after a number of visa rejections, he joined nearly 8 million other people in applying for the U.S. diversity visa lottery, which awarded just 50,000 winning tickets. Iftin was one of the lucky winners, and he arrived in Maine in 2014. As of January 2020, he is a U.S. citizen.

After selecting Iftin’s memoir for our October AFAReads pick, we sat down with him to discuss immigration, war, the American dream, and much, much more.

What motivated you to write a memoir, and when did you start writing this book?

The movies made based on Somalia, they go one direction. Black Hawk Down, Captain Phillips. If you’re watching those movies to educate and inform yourself on the culture of Somalia, that is the wrong way to do it. I wanted to put together a story that brings out the best of us.

My mother, who happens to be illiterate—can’t read or write her own name—has so much strength and knowledge that she knew what to do when we all fled and our house was gone. She knew what plants to uproot and put on our wounds. She knew what area of the country we needed to go to. In other words, she had what she needed as a mother to make us safe. Those are the stories that I have not seen on the shelves. So I needed to work on a longer version where I could actually talk about the beautiful Somalia and what it was like before the war happened.

What are some of the first things you remember growing up?

Sitting on the shoulders of my father, who was a member of the national basketball team. He would walk me around Mogadishu, which had traffic, people, movie theaters, nightclubs, all kinds of things you can find in a modern city. That’s what Mogadishu had, but it doesn’t have today, because the war has torn everything apart. There was not one moment before the war started that I really worried about losing all that I had—my family, our house, the job that my dad had. We just had life. But within a period of six years my family lost everything my parents had worked for.

The other thing I remember vividly is my dad, this strong, handsome guy, going on his knees and facing a man with an AK-47 who says he’s going to spray bullets on him. I remember the tears coming from my mother’s eyes. That was the moment I realized, ‘Wow, this is not a joke, it’s real.’ We walked into hell, and I walked in that hell until I emerged out as a guy who moved to Kenya and eventually won the lottery. That is where the book takes off. There are a lot of painful memories, but there’s the joy and happiness and hope that one can have despite all the circumstances that I was involved in at that time.

Iftin’s memoir was published in 2018.

Iftin’s memoir was published in 2018.

Cover courtesy of Knopf

It must have been terribly hard to revisit many of those things and put them in writing.

It was very hard. It’s not good for me to go back to those memories because I can’t sleep. Second of all, talking to my mother about those days while she’s still living in the same neighborhood, where all these things have happened, that was also not helpful. She and I would cry when we were talking on the phone and we ended up hanging up so many times because I did not want to torture my mom. But as a writer, you have to fight for these stories that you need, so I kept begging her to help me with details, calling her and taking notes. We wrote the pieces together. My mother didn’t appreciate it—she does now, we all do. But the way I see it is bearing a fruit for something we have worked on. I wasn’t even sure it could get published when I was talking to my mother, but I kept promising that I would do everything that I could to push our story forward.

In terms of how painful it was, if I could measure from 1 to 10, to be very honest with you, I would say it was a 10. But immigration was a major story in the U.S. at the time and I wanted people to really know our stories and not just listen to the rhetoric, particularly from politicians that were demonizing and criticizing immigrants for not loving America—those were the words. These people don’t love America, and they’re just coming here to steal and take away from us. That hurt me so badly. I love this country and it was because of this country and the ideas of this country that I avoided recruitment.

When did you realize you would never give up on your dream of becoming an American?

I think that one moment was in Kenya, when I went for my student visa interview at the U.S. Embassy and was basically denied because I did not have proof of wealth, or of a connection to family.

I was devastated, but I realized then that my American dream was even more real, from the bottom of my heart, because if it was an ordinary thing, I would have given up that same day. I could have said, If this didn’t work out, why do I even bother? Let me just do something else. I walked out of that building and looked at the U.S. flag still flying at the gate. And I thought, “No. You can’t say that to me. You really don’t know my story.” So I fought for it.

Do you think Americans understand how hard it is for immigrants to get a visa?

I don’t think Americans have any idea how it works out. It is very difficult. There’s uncertainty, there’s no promise—everything is blurry. You have no idea what is going to happen so you just have to wait and see how it goes. The bureaucracy involved with it is just incredible. I don’t know anything that has been easy in the process of my visa. I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate the citizenship, having the U.S. passport and having the rights and responsibilities that come under being a U.S. citizen. That’s one thing you need to appreciate about immigrants. We love America, we appreciate it. We didn’t always have the privilege of it. We’ve worked for it, and we’ve worked hard for it.

How has your perception of America changed since your arrival?

I underestimated America. I didn’t know what America looked like, really. Only a year after I came we had a presidential election and a president was elected based on his rhetoric—based on what he said about immigrants, refugees, Somalis, Muslims. That is who I am. Everything that he said is who I am. I thought, What country did I get into? Why is this all about us? Why can’t I be just be a normal human?

And then, America and race. I’ve never been identified as a Black man in Somalia or Kenya, but you get into the U.S. and you are identified by your skin color. It was this difficult thing for me to wrap my head around.

What else surprised you about the United States?

I see it as a line between civil war and civil society. There’s a trillion shocking things and surprises that happen in between them. I spent 29 years of my life with no documents and no rights. I came to a civil society where people follow the rules and the laws, and there’s a peace that exists.

But America is not ready for new immigrants. There’s not much of an acceptance based on the differences—it’s more on similarities. In other words, how many Americans want to accept me based on my differences? Like, this guy thinks his own way, he dresses different, he speaks a different language. Or do I actually have to dress like you, speak English like you, eat the food you eat, speak about the movies and books you talk about? Then will you accept me? Research has shown that most Americans are happy when immigrants speak like them and discuss the things they talk about at the dinner table.

You write in your book about needing a birthdate for visa documents, yet you did not actually know what day you were born.

Nobody ever asked me how old I was in Somalia. You’re a child, you’re a teenager, you’re grown, and then you’re old. My mother has no idea about dates. She has no idea when I was born or when she was born. But she can relate things to events. We’re a nomadic society that bases things on Earth—droughts, rains. When I came to America, I realized it was the land of documents and numbers. June 20 is not actually when I was born. I picked it because it was World Refugee Day. It kind of fits perfectly. Right in the middle of the year. But now I record everything else—everything I write has date, year, month—since I understand how valuable it can be sometimes.

What does it mean to be American?

I think to be American means to have hope. And be resilient. I think that’s what this country was founded on. In 2016, some of my friends were saying, ‘Trump was elected so I’m moving to Canada.’ I hate to say this, but I would think, ‘Well, that’s an American. We can’t flee because this guy is in power. We have to fight to get the America we need back into our hands.’ That’s the America that I’ve lived in for the last four years. But it’s a nation in the process, and we are all in that process.

It has been 12 years since you have seen your mom or sister. Besides family, what else do you miss most about Somalia?

I miss almost everything about Somalia. The air. The beautiful warm ocean. I miss my friends. I miss the food. I miss home, because it’s home. And there’s something about home that’s always with us and that we can never wash away.

Buy Now: bookshop.org

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.

>> Next: Around the World in 80 Books

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR