Abdi Nor Iftin has been driven by the promise of America for as long as he can remember.

Growing up on the violent, impoverished streets of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, he was nicknamed Mr. America by his peers, or sometimes Abdi the American, for alliterative effect.

Although it was common for Somali children and young adults to dream, as war waged all around them, of moving west to the land of opportunity, Abdi took that to another level.

He spent hours watching American movies – “Die Hard,” “The Terminator,” “Rambo” – just to learn English. But he was always cautious to whom he spoke English because not everyone held America, or Americans, in the same regard he did. In Somalia, men often had to choose between joining a terrorist group or joining those fighting the terrorists.

Abdi wanted neither, and that put him at risk. He once received a death threat because of his Western nickname. Bombs and bullets were part of the daily routine.

It took him almost 30 years, but Abdi finally arrived in his land of opportunity in late 2014. He has a car and a job and a place to live in Maine, where he doesn’t have to worry about his life being cut short.


As people across the country celebrate the nation’s birthday Monday with parades and cookouts and barbecues, and perhaps pause to reflect on the freedom inherent in America’s promise, Abdi is a reminder that the fight to live free wasn’t over 240 years ago. For some, like Abdi, the fight is still going.

Abdi’s arrival in the U.S. comes at a time of growing uncertainty and fear among some Americans about outsiders. He said the recent rise in anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric that has been stoked by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others is hard to ignore. He knew being black in one of the country’s whitest states and being Muslim in the time of the Islamic State would be challenging, but he worries that things are getting worse.

“This is home. I know it more than I know any other place,” he said. “But it’s hard sometimes.”

Still, he said, “This is a life I could never have had in Somalia.”

Abdi, whose yearslong journey to America was documented by a BBC reporter in 2014, and by “This American Life,” a popular program that airs on National Public Radio, in a 2015 episode called “Abdi and the Golden Ticket,” is among a growing number of immigrants to settle in Maine – from Africa, from the Middle East, from Asia.

A recent poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found Mainers split on the impact of immigrants on the state: Forty-eight percent of 609 people polled by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center said immigrants strengthen the state, while 32 percent said they were a burden. Among Republicans, though, half said immigrants were a burden.


Abdi was unsure about Maine when he first arrived. It wasn’t like the America portrayed in movies. But because the state has a small but close-knit contingent of Somalis, Abdi has found people like him. He’s found a home away from his home, a family away from his family.

One evening last week, he was in Lewiston enjoying an iftar, the traditional sunset meal Muslims eat after a day of fasting during Ramadan. He ate samosas and drank tea while sitting on an ornate carpet with a handful of other Somali immigrants, all of whom have been in Maine for many years.

Abdi said he values those connections but also admits that he sometimes has to straddle two worlds – the world he spent so many years trying to leave and the world he spent so many nights dreaming about.

“The best thing about Maine is: It’s safe,” he said. “People don’t realize that the same violence they fear from terrorists, I fear it, too. That’s what I spent so many years trying to get away from.”


In places like Somalia, the United States Diversity Visa Lottery is larger than life. The goal of the program is to bring into the U.S. a varied group of immigrants, but it’s highly competitive. Among more than 8 million applicants from all over the world, only about 50,000 are chosen each year. That’s why some refer to it as the “golden ticket.”


Abdi spent his childhood in Mogadishu, a city with many names. The ghost city. The forgotten city. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Abdi was growing up, it was among the most dangerous places in the world. His family never had a permanent home. They moved constantly to avoid war. He grew up in the smell of gunpowder and blood.

By the time he was a young man, he was pressured to join either al-Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, or join the government fighting al-Shabab.

Instead, he fled with his brother, Hassan, to nearby Kenya, but found living conditions in the capital city of Nairobi were at times worse than what he left behind. The police were corrupt. Gangs controlled everything. And Somalis like him were regularly being rounded up and deported back to Somalia.

He was living in Kenya in 2013, when he applied for the visa lottery. He already had been denied a student visa to the U.S. twice and was strongly considering joining so many others who tried to flee by crowding in a rickety boat and sailing across the Mediterranean Sea – a trip from which he might not emerge alive.

When he was chosen for a visa, he didn’t believe it at first. Plenty of other young men and women he knew dreamed of a better life in America, but no one lived and breathed the culture the way he did.

But winning the visa lottery did not mean an instant plane ride to the U.S. As the piece in “This American Life,” explained in great detail – with help from BBC reporter Leo Hornak, who talked with Abdi almost every night – his journey was just beginning.


“He had this incredible vision for his future,” Hornak said. “Here was someone at the epicenter of a lot of these debates about migration and Islam. And it was clear that something dramatic was going to happen.”

Brian Reed, a senior producer for “This American Life” who produced Abdi’s story, said it was unique in some ways because his story relied on another source’s reporting.

“We knew Abdi was an amazing talker. He was a dream in that way,” Reed said. “And it was a fun challenge to sort of build this countdown about: Would he make it?”

Shortly after he got the good news about winning the visa lottery, police in Kenya began raiding homes, looking for Somalis like Abdi who had fled their country. The raid in April 2014 was part of the response to al-Shabab terrorist attacks in Kenya, including a multiday hostage standoff at the Westgate Mall that left 67 people dead.

Abdi and his brother were taken into custody by police. They pooled their money and bribed the officers to let them go. But that didn’t buy them out of any future raids. Even going to the local mosque was a risk.

His love of America put him at risk. Once, an Islamic terrorist told him to drop his nickname or it might cost him his life.


Abdi worried that the uncertainly would jeopardize his visa, his golden ticket. People around him told him he was dreaming of something that never would materialize. He would never get to America.

Abdi refused to accept that. During one phone conversation with Hornak, Abdi compared himself to a wildebeest, an African species that migrates every year across a crocodile-filled river. Many wildebeest don’t make it, but they still try. That’s how Abdi saw things.

But even after surviving random police raids in Nairobi, Abdi still faced another hurdle: bureaucracy. The paperwork required for a visa is significant and Abdi’s interview at the U.S. Embassy was approaching. The fee for the interview was $320. A woman from America wired him the money – she had heard earlier stories on the BBC about Abdi’s struggle and had worked with refugees, so she reached out to him by email.

Her name was Sharon McDonnell and she lived in North Yarmouth, Maine, a place Abdi had never heard of.

The interview went well but his application was rejected. A transcript from the university in Nairobi came through unsigned and was therefore deemed invalid. Abdi had come all that way, only to be denied for lack of a signature.

He made arrangements to have a signed copy sent to the embassy, but when he left the visa office, he wasn’t certain he would ever be called back. Hornak, meanwhile, made a call to the U.S. Embassy after hearing about Abdi’s latest reversal of fortune, to ask what his chances were.


On “This American Life,” Hornak said immigration lawyers told him his call likely helped move Abdi’s application to the top of the pile.

“And with the lottery, because they give out a finite number of visas by a hard deadline, that can be the difference between making it to the U.S. or not,” he said.

Within months, Abdi had moved to Maine and was living with McDonnell, her husband, Gib Parrish, and their daughter, Natalya.

His green card was the first real legal document he’s ever had.


Abdi came to Maine in the fall of 2014. It was still warm and everything was still green. It didn’t look like New York or Los Angeles, where most of the movies he grew up watching were located, but it was far removed from eastern Africa.


He had to learn that police were not going to shake him down. They were there to help. He had to learn about wearing layers, especially when winter came. He had to learn that people drive everywhere they go.

From his first days in the U.S., Parrish said, Abdi has been among the most optimistic and cheerful people he’s known.

“He’s helpful and respectful. I’m pleasantly surprised at how easily he has fit into the routine of our lives,” Parrish said.

Abdi has an apartment in Portland but comes back to North Yarmouth on weekends. It’s quieter there. He’s infinitely busy: He has worked several jobs since arriving, including installing roof insulation and working the deli counter at Hannaford. He also works as an interpreter for Catholic Charities, assisting other immigrants and refugees wherever translation may be needed, such as court hearings or the hospital.

Abdi, who turned 31 last month, hasn’t settled on a career yet but he likes being a storyteller. This spring, he participated in a media training workshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, called Transom, sponsored by Atlantic Public Media. “This American Life” paid his way with a scholarship. He got to meet Ira Glass, the show’s quirky host.

More recently, he received an advance from a publisher to write a book about his experiences. He expects it to come out early next year.


Parrish said Abdi sometimes talks about other immigrants he knows who have struggled to get jobs, in large part because they have yet to learn English.

“He doesn’t understand that, I think, because he sees being here as this tremendous opportunity that he would never take for granted,” Parrish said.

Abdi has earned a bit of celebrity status, too. “This American Life” is one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world and his story was one of its most popular, according to Reed, with more than 2 million people downloading the episode. In April, the episode was nominated for a Peabody Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in the nation for broadcast radio and television storytelling.

When Abdi thinks of Somalia, or Kenya, it’s only in the context of his family, who are still there. His brother Hassan is married now, with twins. He still hopes to join Abdi in the U.S. but has not been successful. Still, he is happy at his brother’s tremendous luck.

“Sometimes luck is fair,” was how Hassan summarized Abdi’s winning the visa lottery, according to the BBC report.

Abdi said he has no interest in returning to his home country.


“It’s not a place you want to go back to,” he said. His mother, who is still in Somalia, goes to sleep every night worrying about bullets flying in the street. “This is my home.”

Hornak, the BBC reporter, said Somalis have a word, “bofis,” which translates roughly to “the dream of a better life.”

“The way they used it, as I understand it, is almost sarcastic, like it’s a daydream,” he said. “But that was never Abdi.”

Now that he’s in America, in this place that he longed for, Abdi is focused on defying stereotypes and preconceived ideas of what it means to be an American.

“I think people like me, we have a chance to show people what we’re all about,” he said. “That we work hard, too. That we want what they want.”

In less than two years, Abdi will be able to apply for citizenship. He’s counting the days.

Until then, he said, “I vow every day to lift up the country I have dreamed of since childhood.”


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