As a young man fleeing violence and civil war in his native Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin dreamed of a magnificent future in America. In 2014, after years of stateless limbo in Kenya, he won the Diversity Visa lottery, a program that offers a limited number of visas to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. His 2018 memoir “Call Me American” describes his experiences resettling in the United States.
Now a US citizen living in Maine and a student at Boston College, Iftin published a second edition of his book last month, intended for young adults. He sees it as an opportunity to promote understanding of immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Somalis — groups he feels too often face negative stereotyping in America — inspire hope as a Black writer, and renew belief in young people’s individual and collective power to claim the American dream.
Surviving wars and starvation, Iftin never finished high school. As children, he and his brother dug the grave for their baby sister, who died in infancy. In his youth he called himself “Abdi American” and refused to give up the nickname, even when it endangered him. He says he preferred death to abandoning his hope for America. “I hope that when young African-Americans read [the book], they will see America as the idea that I saw,” he said.
The day Iftin’s plane landed in the United States, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and Black Lives Matter protests flooded the news. “I was going through this joy and excitement and I was completely disconnected from this race world that America lives in,” he said. Iftin had never identified as Black or African, or as African-American. He soon saw that in the United States all of these groups were lumped together — facing the same abiding menace of racism and discrimination.
Today Iftin proudly owns a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and speaks at BLM rallies in Maine. “I fought for this dream,” he said. “I have to fight for the next Black generation to live in a less stressful and more peaceful place here in the US.” Following worldwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Black artists and writers have received a surge of attention that he feels is long overdue.
Iftin’s story is what many call extraordinary, but he doesn’t see it as exceptional — rather more like one star of Black excellence in a sky of other unseen, kindred stars. “I believe that every single Black child, or teenager, or young adult, has a story to tell,” he said. “And I want any African-American who finished reading my book, to start writing their own story.”
Victoria Zhuang can be reached at email@example.com.