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Social Justice Series Speaker Abdi Nor Iftin Shares Incredible Journey from Somali Refugee to American Citizen

Social Justice Series Speaker Abdi Nor Iftin Shares Incredible Journey from Somali Refugee to American Citizen
March 10, 2021



Abdi Nor Iftin, author of the best-selling, award-winning book ‘Call Me American’, encourages people to be courageous in using their voice to move the needle toward greater social justice.

Such was his message Tuesday as the guest speaker for the College’s 12th Annual Social Justice Series, a timely story dovetailing with U.S. immigration reform debates. The virtual event brought together roughly 150 community members from campus and beyond.

“The Social Justice Series has been an annual event at Curry for 12 years; a place where we feature voices of those who have lived courageously through unimaginable circumstances. We hope hearing these lived experiences inspire us all to act in more just ways,” says Dr. Jennifer Balboni, professor and interim chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology.

Courage has been a driving factor for Iftin from the time he learned English as a child in war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to the day he set foot on American soil on August 11, 2014. On the airport’s TV monitors was news of the murder of a young African-American man, Michael Brown.

“Here I was after 30 years of Somalia's war, escaped. It was a dream come true,” he says. “But at the same time, a young man with the same skin color as mine was murdered on the streets of the United States.”

In his youth, Iftin’s love of American culture led his friends to nickname him ‘Abdi American’, a title putting him at risk. “I was brave enough to not be bullied into anything,” he says. “I kept telling my story and raising my voice as high as I could, and the media picked it up. That’s one of the reasons why I am in the United States.”

Iftin eventually fled to Kenya, winning entry to the U.S. on a visa lottery after five years. He now lives in Maine. Iftin’s book describes a journey to the U.S fraught with harrowing challenges, including the risky act of saying goodbye to his mother without drawing attention to himself.  It’s been 20 years since he’s seen a family member. He occasionally calls his mother -- $20 buys him five minutes of phone time.

“I’m able to hear my Mom’s voice,” he says. “I’m able to wire money back home so they buy food, drink and clothes. But the one thing that I cannot buy them is safety.”

“I left Somalia searching for a better life,” Iftin points out, adding his story is like that of so many others in war and climate-related migration. “Now that I came to the United States, do I take anything for granted? That’s a question I think about every single day.”

Iftin was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2020. “Being a U.S. citizen, you can run for office and travel freely. The most important thing is you can vote. I cast my vote in 2020 for the first time in my life,” he says.

Iftin has been diagnosed with PTSD. He tries to enjoy life in the U.S, but sometimes is given to panic attacks and nightmares over his family’s safety. Writing his memoir helped his healing in understanding his own resilience, he notes.

While Iftin has experienced some cultural adjustments, he notes that “with all of the injustice, this is a country where you can come as an immigrant and have a voice. Here I am on Zoom criticizing the government. In some countries, I would be arrested."