Call Me American

As Abdi Iftin watched American action movies that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in his war-torn hometown of Mogadishu, Somalia, he dreamed of escaping to the United States and beginning a new life away from the violence and bloodshed that surrounded him. Inspired by his movie star idols, he began to steep himself in American culture and learn English, a dangerous pastime in a county with extremist groups that actively recruited young men like Iftin. But after enduring a childhood of famine and brutality, Iftin was finally given opportunity to leave Somalia and build a life in America, when he obtained a green card through the diversity visa lottery program.

Iftin’s long journey to the United States was recounted in 2015, in a moving episode of NPR’s This American Life, entitled, Abdi and the Golden Ticket. And the immense interest in his story prompted him to write an aptly titled memoir, Call me American. The book details his experience as a Somali immigrant in Maine.

Iftin returned to NPR this month for an illuminating interview on how much the U.S. diversity visa lottery has changed his life. As a child in Somalia, he said, his once peaceful life with his nomadic parents changed when he was six years old, and a drought wiped out the grazing animals they depended on for food. Soon after, a civil war started, and “… militias started pouring into the city, and death and killings and torture, and I just cried. … I had a feeling that you could die any time.” [See Somali Refugee Abdi Nor Iftin: ‘I am Here to Make America Great‘ by Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR, 10.Jun.2018.]

In his early 20s, Afti entered the U.S. diversity visa lottery program, which grants 50,000 immigrant visas annually, selected randomly from a pool of millions of applicants. The purpose of the program is to diversify the immigrant population by selecting applicants only from countries with a limited immigrant population in the United States. Recently, it has drawn the ire of President Trump, who denounced it in this year’s State of the Union address as a threat to our nation’s security, despite copious amounts of evidence showing that communities with significant immigrant populations tend to have lower-than-average crime rates. [See Looking at the Diversity Visa Program that Brought Him Here – And its Fate by Isabel Dobrin, NPR, 03.Feb.2018.]

Afti was selected to receive a visa, and he currently lives and works in Maine as a translator, with hopes of becoming a U.S. citizen by next year. In his NPR interview, he reflects, “Americans take so many things for granted. For example, I came to the U.S. through the diversity visa lottery program, which President Trump would like to cancel. But if it was not the diversity visa lottery, I would have never come to America. … and I am here to make America great. I did not come here to take anything. I came here to contribute, and to offer, and to give.”


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