NORTH YARMOUTH, Maine — Abdi Nor Iftin’s journey to Maine started in a tiny shack in Mogadishu, Somalia, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator.”
It was there, packed in a room with about 30 other people, that he learned his first three English words: “I’ll be back.”
At an event at SPACE gallery in Portland Oct. 1, Abdi – whose name has achieved “pop star” fame, according to one close friend – said that when he would go to the “theater,” he would always sit near the speaker, rather than the screen, and repeat the words and phrases to commit them to memory.
As he learned more English, Abdi said, his friends began to call him “the American.”
But as he grew older and the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab secured power over his home city, his boyhood nickname became an increasingly dangerous one to have.
Several times he was threatened for his association with American culture, and eventually he made his friends drop the name.
In April of 2011, Abdi returned home to find a bomb had gone off in his room, destroying his bed, the walls and the door. It was nighttime, and it was too dangerous to go back outside, so he curled up in the rubble of what had been his room and went to sleep.
Three years later, Abdi would be lying in a bed in North Yarmouth, wide awake with jet lag, waiting for the sun to come up so he could catch his first glance of America.
Abdi came to the United States after winning a visa through the State Department’s U.S. Diversity Visa Program, better known as the green card lottery. Every year about 8 million people around the world enter the contest for about 50,000 winning tickets.
Abdi’s story of winning the “golden ticket,” hiding from Kenyan police, bribing officials for necessary documentation, and being initially rejected was recently featured on the public radio show “This American Life.”
Abdi has been in Maine now for just over a year. On Sunday, Oct. 4, he was at the house of his host mother, Sharon McDonnell, who played a vital role in getting him from Somalia to the states.
She and Abdi sat in her cozy wood living room, taking a break from the Sunday gardening.
McDonnell is an epidemiologist who has taught at Dartmouth College and worked with refugees in places like Afghanistan and Liberia. She said she first reached out to Abdi in 2009, after hearing one of the radio broadcasts he was secretly doing for NPR, called “Messages from Mogadishu.”
“I was in my kitchen and I heard this story about a young man living in the middle of Mogadishu. … Here were our only eyes and ears (over there),” she said. “Clearly he was doing this (work) at great risk to himself.”
She sent him an email through the local public radio station, after which they began a “long correspondence.”
“I had no idea the journey we were starting,” McDonnell said, laughing.
McDonnell and Abdi exchanged emails for two years. But after his home was bombed in 2011, “we knew we had to get him out,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell, along with Abdi’s older brother Hassan, and a former epidemiology student of hers, Ben Bellows, started forming a plan to get Abdi to Nairobi, Kenya, where Hassan and Bellows were living. They called themselves “Team Abdi.”
The first step was to buy him a plane ticket from Mogadishu to Kampala, Uganda. On the day of his flight, Abdi pretended to go on a walk, but instead went straight to the airport and flew out of Somalia.
In Uganda, he paid a pair of Somalis to smuggle him over the Kenyan border in an empty oil tanker.
But even in Nairobi, he was not safe. He and Hassan were repeatedly targeted as refugees and harassed by Kenyan police officers.
“The main target for the Kenyan police … was the money,” Abdi said.
Abdi said he always walked around with $5 on him, just in case he needed to pay a bribe to keep an officer off his back.
“We had to have money in our pockets to survive,” Abdi said. “And $5 is a lot of money. Five dollars could give me two days of food for me and my brother.”
Over the three years Abdi lived in Kenya, he estimates he paid out over $500 in bribes.
Neither Abdi nor his brother could get jobs in Kenya with their refugee documents. But, he said, “we had the support of Sharon.”
Abdi finally did get his lucky break, though, and left Kenya in August 2014 with his lottery visa.
Abdi landed at Logan Airport in Boston on the night of Aug. 11. McDonnell picked him up and they drove up Interstate 95 to Maine through the dark tunnel of trees and past road signs advertising New Hampshire state lottery tickets.
Abdi said he will never forget waking up the next morning.
“It was late summer; it was a little warm,” he said. “I was sleeping upstairs, and I looked through my window and I just see greenery, right there. That’s what I saw first. I kept looking at it for like, 10 minutes, not even looking around, and I just said, ‘Wow.’”
A voice for refugees
Abdi’s first year in Maine has been one of many changes.
Some changes are small, like learning that to survive in this cold corner of the world, people need to wear layered clothes.
“It took me like a whole day to understand what a ‘layer’ means,” he said.
Other changes are bigger, like the “transformation” of his view of the police.
Earlier this year, Abdi said, he went down to the Yarmouth police station with his host sister, Natalya, to report that people had been speeding down their small rural street.
“And the next day, there was a police sign, right there,” he said, pointing out to the road in front of the house. “They just did it. They listened to us … that was not something I ever thought possible.”
Another big change, in the words of Natalya, is that because of the “This American Life” episode, Abdi is now “a Hollywood pop star for Maine.”
He’s working on a book proposal with a literary agent, which may also be turned into a movie.
During the day, Abdi works as a translator for Catholic Charities, going out to hospitals and courts to translate for Somali refugees.
And last week, he was part of a sold-out speaking event at SPACE, organized by nonprofit The Telling Room.
There, he told a crowd of about 150 the question that most troubled him in Somalia as he watched his country ravaged by militias, and then al-Shabab.
“Why is the world silent?,” he asked. “Why does the world not say anything?”
Abdi comes back to North Yarmouth every weekend to write his book, to find some quiet outside of his noisy apartment in Portland. He said he always thinks of his brother in Nairobi, and his mother, who is still in Mogadishu.
The last day he saw his mother was March 10, 2011. He is able to talk to her on the phone, but he doesn’t know when he’ll see her again.
“I do have a purpose … I want to go back and help that nation,” he said. “I will be that guy to tell the Kenyan police, ‘You are wrong, stop doing this.’ I will publish books, and documentaries and movies, because I was a refugee myself, in Kenya.”
Or in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’ll be back.
“That,” he said, “is my kind of dream.”