Somali memoir tells remarkable story of survival

Published 7:21 am Saturday, June 30, 2018

By Euan Kerr

MPR News/90.1 FM

If Abdi Nor Iftin had only won the U.S. diversity visa lottery, that would have been enough to tell his story. However, it is just one chapter in the life of the young man who grew up during the civil war in Somalia.

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He survived famine, drought and life under al-Shabab extremists. Now Iftin has written a memoir. He says his book, “Call me American,” tries to fill a gap he sees in U.S. media — in-depth stories about Somalia.

“The only things that you see coming from Somalia are the images that you can see on the television which are Islamists running over things or an explosion and people killed, and that’s it,” he said. Yes, he says, that was part of life, a big part of life, during the civil war. But he wants to tell the story of the struggles of ordinary Somalis.

His parents were nomads, who he says didn’t understand the idea of geographic boundaries. They saw themselves as well off, with all their camels and goats. But that ended when a drought killed their animals and they had to move to Mogadishu.

It was there life took a strange twist, when someone saw his father leap over a fence. It was just something he did as a nomad, but that someone was a basketball scout.

Soon afterward, Iftin’s dad was one of the nation’s top players. Life was good again — until the civil war hit, when he was about 6. Suddenly the streets were filled with militia fighters.

“What shocks me, first, is to see my favorite guy, the man who owns the snack bar on the corner, they kill him and he’s face down on the ground,” Iftin remembered. “And we are out there watching this happen. And I am like, ‘Is this real? Is he gone?’”

His father had to flee. Very quickly food ran short.

“I would say that somehow we survived, mostly because of the nomadic skills of my mother,” he said.