Abdi Iftin, who will become an American citizen this month, poses for a picture with a flag and Shadow the horse in Yarmouth on Thursday. Iftin, who is originally from Somalia, wanted both in the photo with him as symbols of his adopted country.

YARMOUTH, Maine — Later this month, Abdi Iftin, 34, will finally raise his right hand, swear an oath and become a United States citizen. It’s been a long time coming.

Iftin survived a malnourished childhood in Somalia, fled terrorists who wanted to kill him because he could speak English and endured years trapped as a refugee in Kenya. Five years ago, after winning a U.S. visa lottery, Iftin made it to Maine with the support of a local family. Since then, he’s written a book, started college and garnered national media coverage.

But gaining citizenship isn’t the end of his odyssey, Iftin said. It’s just the beginning. That’s because he will finally get to do something he’s never done before: Vote.

“It gets more exciting from here,” Iftin said. “This November I will get to vote for the first time in my entire life. I’ve never voted anywhere.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Somalia had no functioning government and no elections. As a refugee in Kenya, and green card holder here, he couldn’t vote either. The Boston College political science major has plenty of opinions and thoughts on the future of his adopted country and is burning to make his voice heard at the polls.

“To vote will be one of the most important things in my life,” Iftin said. “I know there are American citizens who don’t vote — I don’t understand. I’m thrilled. I’m excited. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing [on Election Day], I will get to the polls and I will cast my vote.”

Iftin is no fan of President Trump, his attitudes toward immigrants or the travel ban the president issued early in his administration that barred visitors and refugees from seven mainly Muslim countries, including Somalia. Iftin sees the ban as blatantly anti-Muslim. To him, it does not reflect his long-held dream of an open, free America. He has already published newspaper opinion pieces on the subject.

“To me, being an American is separate from what the president is doing,” he said. “I don’t associate him with the ‘American Way.’ I don’t understand what the heck he’s doing — it’s quite un-American.”

Iftin first heard of the United States when Marines stormed the beach in his hometown of Mogadishu in 1992. They were part of a multinational force trying to restore order to the war-torn country. He was 7 years old, malnourished and homeless.

“They were so close to me. I could see their eyes, and we could smell them, and they could smell us,” Iftin told the Bangor Daily News in 2018.

He still smiles recalling how the Marines handed out candy.

Later, he learned to speak English through pirated action movies including “The Terminator.” His friends began to call him “Abdi American.” In 2009, Iftin’s language skills got him noticed by international journalists. Among them was Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek, who wrote about him in The Atlantic. Iftin also did a series of secret radio reports from Mogadishu the same year.

Iftin’s American ties also drew unwanted attention from the militant Islamist group al-Shabab. They beat him, threatened to kill him and bombed his house. That’s when Iftin was forced to flee to Kenya. He spent three years there in limbo, unable to work or leave.

Through his radio reporting, Iftin met epidemiologist Sharon McDonnell of Yarmouth. McDonnell helped support him in Kenya and gave him a home here in Maine when he finally got the chance to immigrate.

That was five years ago. Iftin’s been busy here ever since. He published a book about his life — “Call Me American” — and gave numerous talks about his life to audiences all over the country. He was also featured in an hourlong “This American Life” story syndicated on National Public Radio.

Since he was a child, Iftin always saw the United States as a beacon of hope. He watched old presidential addresses on YouTube such as Ronald Reagan’s famous “shining city on the hill” speech. But now that he’s here, and about to become a fully franchised citizen, he knows the American Dream is more complicated than that.

Iftin was only allowed to come to the U.S. by chance. He won his visa in a State Department diversity lottery. His brother, who lived with him in Kenya, tried to enter via the asylum process.

“After 19 years as a refugee he was denied — two weeks after Trump’s [2017] travel ban went into place,” Iftin said.

His brother was later allowed to immigrate to Canada, and the two were recently reunited in Toronto after more than five years apart. The experience underlines Iftin’s conflicted feelings. He’s thrilled to become an American citizen but not always happy with the government.

In May, Iftin published an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News titled “Trump has betrayed my dream of America.”

In it he said of the president’s immigration policies, “It tears families apart. For those of us already here in the U.S. it is constant worry. I fear for myself even when I follow the rules as a green card holder … I feel personally betrayed, but worse is the feeling that Trump has betrayed my dream of America. If this country, settled by immigrants, could close its doors to the most desperate people in the world, who would help?”

When Iftin’s citizenship ceremony is completed Jan. 17 at the Ocean Gateway Terminal in Portland, he feels he will finally have the power to effect change instead of just talking about it. He’s not ruling out a run for office someday but he is looking forward to voting most of all.

“I don’t see it as a random day where I wake up and vote,” Iftin said. “I see it as a power in myself and the meaning of a true American. Somalia could not give me that chance. Kenya could not give me that chance. This is what America means.”

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.