He stood in the glass-walled room at Portland’s Ocean Gateway with 45 others representing 25 countries, ready to make official something he’s dreamt about since he was a boy in violence-ravaged Somalia.

Abdi Nor Iftin raised his right hand and repeated the lines, his voice mixing with the voices of other new Americans.

Abdi Nor Iftin’s lifelong journey to U.S. citizenship that culminated Friday has been well-documented, first by the BBC and the “This American Life” podcast, and then in his own book, “Call Me American.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen,” he said.

With that oath Friday, Iftin, 34, became a naturalized U.S. citizen, culminating a lifelong journey that has been well-documented, first by the BBC and the podcast “This American Life,” and later in his own book, “Call Me American,” published in 2018.

“I did not have the European dream. It didn’t exist,” he said in an interview a week before the ceremony. “So, this America that I learned from movies, whose Marines came to Mogadishu … and handed out candies and chocolates when I was 7 years old, this same America that produces hip-hop music you can find in the most remote village in Africa … I never saw its people as belonging to one country. They belong to an idea. A dream.”

Now, he belongs to it, too.

***

Iftin spent his childhood in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous places in the world. He learned English, both the language and culture, from pirated movies and longed to leave the violence and poverty of his homeland.

By the time he was a young man, his choices were grim: Join al-Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, or join the government fighting al-Shabab.

He wanted neither and instead fled to nearby Kenya with his brother, Hassan. But things there were not any better. He lived in constant fear of being deported back to Somalia, or worse, killed.

He twice tried to get a student visa to come to the United States but was denied. He was contemplating joining many others who were trying to flee by traveling north and then sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to safety in Europe when luck struck.

The U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery is little known here but in places like Somalia and Kenya, it has another name: the golden ticket. Of the 8 million who apply, only about 50,000 are chosen. Iftin was one.

Even after winning the lottery, Iftin’s journey was perilous. But he had many people helping him along the way, including a couple in Yarmouth, Sharon McDonnell and Gib Parrish.

When Iftin arrived in the U.S. on a visa – the first legal document he ever had – he stayed with them.

America has mostly lived up to its promise so far, he said, although he has his frustrations, too, particularly with the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

“People back in Somalia are telling me to be safe,” he said. “Think about that.”

***

Since his arrival in the U.S., Iftin has gone to college, held a variety of jobs and written a book about his journey here.

The book has been critically praised but also created some controversy within Maine’s Somali community. Iftin’s former roommates objected to how they were portrayed in one chapter, prompting the author to make some minor changes to settle the dispute.

Abdi Nor Iftin at his host home in Yarmouth on Friday morning preparing for the naturalization ceremony in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Iftin said the uproar quickly quieted and he’s not worried about any lasting impacts from the experience.

“There is no community that is perfect,” he said.

But there are things that give him hope, too, such as the 2016 election of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Somali immigrant like him.

“She comes from Somalia but America made her who she is,” he said of Omar, whom he got a chance to meet last year. “One of the first things she said to me was: ‘Run for office. This is a country that allows you to raise your voice.’”

Closer to home, another fellow Somali – Safiya Khalid – was elected to the Lewiston City Council in November. Iftin has no immediate plans to seek office, but is back in school again, at Boston College, studying political science.

When he was eligible to apply for citizenship last August – five years after his visa was approved – he didn’t wait even one day. The process took several months and included a mountain of paperwork, a formal interview in Boston and a civics test.

The only thing left was the oath.

***

Iftin woke up early Friday.

“I couldn’t really sleep,” he said. “Too much energy.”

Abdi Nor Iftin gets ready to depart for the naturalization ceremony in Portland on Friday. In an interview a week earlier, he said that growing up in Somalia he dreamed of becoming U.S. citizen. “I never saw its people as belonging to one country. They belong to an idea. A dream,” he said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Two hours before the naturalization ceremony, he sat in the kitchen of his host family’s home in Yarmouth eating oatmeal, drinking tea and reflecting on what led him to this day. His outfit – a blue pinstripe three-piece suit – had been picked out long in advance and the final touch, an American flag tie, arrived in the mail earlier in the week.

Inside Ocean Gateway before the ceremony, Iftin walked around the room with nervous energy talking to everyone.

Before he and the others accepted their certificates of citizenship, officials marked the occasion with short speeches.

“Today you gain citizenship, but you lose nothing. You do not lose who you are, or where you came from. You don’t not lose your history,” said Daniel Renaud, associate director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.

Sen. Angus King, who attended the ceremony, started his remarks by asking everyone in the audience, except the new citizens seated in the front rows, to raise their hands if they were an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants.

“Turn around and look,” King then instructed. “It’s everybody! That’s who we are.”

Abdi Nor Iftin reads the Pledge of Allegiance during a Naturalization Ceremony on Friday at Ocean Gateway. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When it was time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Iftin got to lead the room. His voice was steady and loud into the microphone.

Later, when they called his name, he walked to the front and accepted his certificate. Back at his seat, he looked down at the piece of paper and felt the moment’s weight. It was the only time a smile left his face.

“It was emotional,” he said when the ceremony ended. “I had chills.”

Before he left Ocean Gateway for a day of celebration, Iftin stopped at a table hosted by the League of Women Voters of Maine. He wanted to fill out his voter registration card.

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