When Abdi Nor Iftin arrived in the United States in 2014, the first thing he noticed was the fresh smell of the air. It smelled different and unlike the air back in Somalia, which smelled like sand under the sun.
Stepping out of the airplane and into Boston’s Logan International Airport, Iftin was led to a private room where he was interviewed for several minutes by security officers, before they looked at him and said, “Welcome to the United States.” The entire experience felt like he was watching a movie, he said, and now, he was the one living it.
“I remember seeing America from above, Boston from above. It was a night you could see with clear skies,” Iftin said. “Those were the moments that felt like an egg hatching.”
From growing up in a war torn country to writing his 2018 book, “Call Me American,” which describes his experiences resettling in the United States, the 37-year-old is now preparing for the next step of his life: graduating from Boston College on Monday. Never even having graduated from high school, Iftin said he didn’t expect the opportunity to attend a “prestigious school,” and earning a bachelor’s degree in political science “feels extremely special.”
“Once you’re in the US, you realize that the more doors are open each time that you have a key,” Iftin said. “I got a visa, I got here, then there was a door open for school, and now, another door. ... It’s a process that continues.”
But when Iftin moved to the United States after obtaining a rare visa, he said his purpose of moving here was to find work and financially support his family back at home.
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, when severe malnutrition, drought, and a civil war hit the country, Iftin said he dreamed of moving somewhere safer and with more economic stability. Iftin later escaped by himself to Kenya, where he became a refugee and lived for five years.
Then, he won his golden ticket — the Diversity Visa lottery, a program allowing those from countries with low immigration rates to enter for a chance to apply for a US immigrant visa.
Iftin said he had grown up watching American movies, teaching himself English, and was even called “American Abdi” by friends. His nickname had finally become a reality.
“You have to be very lucky and very fortunate enough to really get that visa,” Iftin said. “I did not sleep for the 21 hours of flight.”
After arriving at Logan airport, Iftin said he was taken in by a family who lived in Yarmouth, Maine, who taught him about American culture, what part of the sidewalk to walk on, and how to order at Dunkin’ Donuts.
In his first year in the United States, Iftin said he worked any job he could find, from construction to a coffee shop, as he had “left behind family that really needed a lot of support.” His mother and sister were still in Somalia, while his older brother lived in Kenya.
“I worked, worked, and worked my first year, saved some money, and sent it to my family,” Iftin said. “That itself is a dream come true for so many refugees because being here, making some money basically means lifting somebody up somewhere else.”
For the past eight years, Iftin said he has been sending money every month to his mother, which has helped to lift his family out of poverty. He said his mother, who still lives in Somalia, even adopted orphans as the steady income Iftin sent her was enough to financially support others.
Meanwhile, his Maine family suggested the idea of college to him, and then in 2015, a community college employee convinced him to try out university.
But graduating college was a rocky journey as Iftin dealt with mental health and financial concerns.
“I had ups and downs getting up to college,” Iftin said. “I dropped out of community college and then also dropped out of university because I was freaking out about student loans.”
Iftin said he eventually found his way to Boston College in 2019 when he learned about the school’s Woods College of Advancing Studies, designed for older students pursuing higher education.
Tim Klein, a professor at the school who met Iftin this year, said Iftin was an inspiring and courageous student despite being knocked down so many times.
“He has every reason to be frustrated with the cards he’s been dealt, but he still brings such a positive energy to any room he’s in,” Klein said. “He’s polite, he’s soft spoken, but he has this positivity with him.”
Sharon McDonnell, Iftin’s “American mother,” said that after his long journey, it feels wonderful to see Iftin accomplish something that means so much to him. She said the family intends to come to Boston for the commencement ceremony and later hold a party in Maine.
“It’s such a huge accomplishment to come to a foreign country, learn a language, support a family, go to college, and do all those things full time,” McDonell said. “He’s one of those people who turns things into gold.”
Iftin, who currently works at the Church World Service, where he frequently works with immigrants from Afghanistan and Ukraine, said he hopes his story can help others to be resilient and perseverant through struggling times.
“Do not give up,” Iftin said. “At the end of the day, if you keep your hopes [and] spirits up, you will see yourself talking about the past and embracing the moment.”
After graduation, Iftin said he hopes to continue writing and telling his story, applying to grad school, and finding ways he can use his story to help lift up and work with refugees and immigrants.
“Now I have a lot more opportunities to look for better ways to be involved in the country and build my life one brick at a time,” Iftin said. “The American Dream is not over when you land here; it constructs itself, it keeps happening, and this is one of those moments.”