LANCASTER — When the civil war began, Abdi Nor Iftin was 5 years old. He and his brother became the sole providers for the family and were forced to attend a madrassa run by a man they called the “Angel of Punishment.” Amidst the bullets and the beatings, Abdi had one escape: American movies and music, through which he taught himself English, and began to dream of a life in the United States.
In his recently completed memoir, “Call Me American,” Iftin recounts his harrowing, extraordinary, and uplifting story. His love of western culture and music earned him the name “Abdi American” (which became a liability when Islamic extremism took hold of Somalia).
Evading conscription by al-Shabaab while secretly filing stories for NPR and the BBC under penalty of death, he stayed in Somalia until he had no choice but to flee.
He smuggled himself into Kenya, where a different but grinding life of hopelessness awaited. He spent days hiding silently in an apartment from raids by Kenyan police, once passing time reading “The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump. And then, a stroke of incredible luck; he won the Diversity Visa Lottery.
In a local connection, Peachem, Vt., residents Sharon and Gib McDonnell heard Abdi’s story when it was aired on NPR’s “This American Life” in an episode called “The Golden Ticket.”
The McDonnells decided they wanted to help and formed what they refer to as Team Abdi. This group reached out with money and their stateside connections, including the help of Sen. Bernie Sanders, to overcome the numerous and inevitable hurdles that acquiring a visa in war-torn Africa presented.
Arriving in Portland, Maine, in 2014, Iftin was taken into the McDonnell family and relocated to Yarmouth. Now a proud and legal resident of Maine and on the path to citizenship, Iftin has learned that his brother Hasan will be allowed to immigrate to nearby Canada. Iftin’s dramatic, deeply stirring memoir is truly a story for our time; a vivid portrait of the desperation refugees seek to escape and a reminder of why western democracies still beckon to those looking to make a better life.
Friday, March 15, at 7 p.m., at Weeks Memorial Library in Lancaster, Abdi Iftin will share the amazing story of his life.