Growing up in Somalia, I did not hear about Martin Luther King Jr. I had not heard the slavery stories of the United States and the persecution that African Americans have experienced. In fact, the whole experience seemed so distant that I thought the colonial stories of Somalia I heard on the radio every night were the most unjust acts by white men.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth.

I only knew about American Black music and Black celebrities. Michael Jackson was known by almost everyone in Somalia. Then famous hip-hop artists popped up on every corner. Their posters were like those of heroes. I never learned the lyrics of their music – some of which were rebellious and addressed injustice. But that music made it feel like Black people got a voice in the United States. Coming to America exposed many injustices to me, some of which are still happening and some brutal ones that happened in the generations before us.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but connect his words to the words of independence warriors in Somalia and other parts of the African continent.

When the English and Italians fought in Somalia in a land grab and for political control, the Somalis watched and silently rebelled. They created poems and songs before they were able to pick up arms and fight. The famous words by nine men, “Death is natural, let’s reject imperialism,” are known everywhere in Somalia. My parents were alive to hear those words ring on the streets.

I remember my mother talking about encountering “skinless humans” on the grasslands of Somalia as she herded her goats in between the two rivers. These were men who spoke a foreign language and carried weapons,  men who got angry when they stepped on goat droppings. The skinless humans were Italian soldiers who roamed around southern Somalia like it was their own land.

My mother recited poems and songs that were very popular in Somalia at the time. In 1963, when some Africans – including those in my native country, Somalia – became independent from Italy, England and France, the famous phrases emerged in a song in Somalia:


Oh once we were like animals and divided by the enemies
Who separated us and drew boundaries
And told us that you are on this side and they are on that side
Let’s reject imperialism, let’s reject separatism and be under one house

In some ways, I feel lucky to at least have a native country in Africa that I am deeply connected to, and I can move back when the time is right. Many newly arrived immigrants may want to do this, too. But that’s not an option at the moment for so many of us. It does not matter where you go in Africa today; the effects of colonialism and slavery are everywhere. The threats coming from leaders supported and sponsored by former colonies are there, and speaking up about justice may end your life.

The famous words of Martin Luther King Jr. ring as true today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Almost every new refugee in Maine has experienced injustice in every society they have lived in, and that continues today. But at least here we are able to speak up for ourselves and for the ones who experience injustices. One thing we all should be proud of living in the United States is that what happens here, including change, can also happen anywhere. Let our celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. brings positive change into the lives of many in this world.


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