Call Me American is the incredible true story of a young boy living in war-torn Somalia who eventually escapes to America—first by way of movies and music, and years later, through a miraculous visa lottery. That boy, Abdi Nor Iftin, is now a grown man and refugee making a successful life in America.
Abdi’s memoir will transport your reading group from the deadly streets of Mogadishu, where each day that passes without meeting one’s death or being recruited by the militia is considered a triumph, to the idyllic neighborhoods of Maine, where immigrants face a whole new set of challenges. Abdi is a shining example of what this country means to so many people around the world, and he was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about his new life in America.
Reading Group Center: Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, how has your life changed here in the U.S.? How do you see your memoir fitting into the current cultural and political conversation?
Abdi Nor Iftin: After the 2016 presidential election, I felt personally betrayed, but worse was the feeling that President Trump had betrayed my American dream. If this country, settled by immigrants, could close its doors to the most desperate people of the world, who would help? My brother was denied entry into the U.S. through his refugee program only a couple of weeks after the travel ban was put in place. If America acts this way, who will inspire the world’s children of war, like me, to reject violence and strive to raise their own children in peace and security? The America that was born after 2016 betrayed every dreamer.
My memoir, Call Me American, adds to the conversation around immigration, asylum, and refugees in the United States and in the world. The book weaves together diverse approaches to storytelling, and it helps illuminate the complicated American immigration system. Despite all the rhetoric from some U.S. officials that makes it look easy to immigrate to the U.S., my memoir details, step-by-step, how difficult it was for me, even after I was selected as a visa lottery winner. After moving to the U.S., the challenges I faced here included not being accepted as an American. It was disappointing to experience the prejudice and misconceptions held by some people without knowing much about myself. But I had to talk about what the real America should mean to every one of us. I am here to have freedom, peace, and opportunities like every other American, and most importantly to be accepted as an American, not as an immigrant or a refugee.
RGC: In the book, you talk a lot about the films and music that have had a truly life-changing impact on you as an individual. Are there any specific books that have had a similar influence on your writing?
ANI: In Somalia, we did not have access to any books published in the U.S. I remember that I collected some magazines with pictures of famous actors and musicians in the U.S. because I enjoyed reading about what they were doing. I was able to start reading novels when I arrived in Kenya in 2011 because they were cheap and sold on the streets. I was inspired by books like Barack Obama, a biography about the U.S. president at the time. He was black, like me, and I read it happily.
I also read some history books, which taught me about the government branches of the U.S., the Constitution, the nation, and all of its states. I even learned about its darker history, namely the enslavement of African Americans and the story of the Native Americans. My memoir is an addition to these American reads and I am happy to see that younger generations of immigrants are already reading it.
RGC: What is your favorite question you’ve been asked about the book and how did you respond?
ANI: “Does your American dream still exist?” is my favorite question and my answer is simply “yes.” I usually follow up by saying that this American Dream is the last thing I have and I will not give up on it. The price of the American Dream is staggering, including continued family separation, but I feel the need to prove that immigrants and refugees are a part of it. We don’t come here only to economically advance ourselves and our countries, but to prove that we belong and to permanently participate in the greatness of this country. I taught myself English by watching American movies. I refused to join Al-Shabaab or street militias. I recorded my story and sent it out to the world at a time when that could have gotten me killed. It was the dream of American life that gave me an escape from the real-life bloody chaos of my childhood and teenage days.
RGC: What is the primary message that you hope readers take away from your memoir?
ANI: The primary message for my readers is to be thankful for everything they have. Consider the many moments in my book during which I could have given up on life because we lost everything. There were countless long, painful days of walking and sleepless nights with empty bellies, not to mention the risk of recruitment to the Islamic army and the loss of personal freedoms, including movies and soccer. The personal freedoms, the peace, the opportunities that we have in this country are things people elsewhere can’t afford.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing Call Me American. What is a topic or question you would like to pose to the group and why?
ANI: A topic would be “Positive Change.” Open discussion is one way to overcome many toxic issues surrounding our communities today, like prejudice, xenophobia, and stereotyping. It’s important for the wellness of the diverse groups of people living in America today. I believe that this country has come a long way. There was a time when women could not vote, a time when black people could not sit on buses with white people, and times of slavery and civil war. But today we have white supremacy, xenophobic groups, and widespread anti-immigrant sentiment. We need to work together to change these issues and bring more love and respect to one another.