From Somalia to North Yarmouth, radio star settles into new American life

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NORTH YARMOUTH — 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.

‘Team Abdi’

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.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Somali Abdi Nor Iftin on Sunday, Oct. 4, in front of his host mother Sharon McDonnell’s home in North Yarmouth, where he first lived after coming to the U.S. from Kenya on a visa he won through the State Department’s green card lottery.

Abdi and Sharon McDonnell weed in McDonnell’s North Yarmouth garden. McDonnell first reached out to Abdi after hearing one of his radio broadcasts from Somalia in 2009.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.
  • Kafir911

    This really tugs at my heart strings. However, what if Abdi is a Sharia-adherent Muslim who wants to replace our laws with Sharia law? What if he needs public assistance because he doesn’t have the requisite skills to earn a living while he’s writing his book? Will his mother and brother become “Follow to Join” refugees also needing public assistance like the 50,000 others? What if this is all a ruse and he is an unvetted member of al-Shabab? What if he is simply performing civilization jihad because of the Islamic doctrine known as the “Hijra”? Just sayin’…because inquiring minds want to know.

    • David Craig

      How about you stop your anonymous libel by insinuation?

      • Kafir911

        Since when am I not allowed to ask questions? I’m just being skeptical which is different from being libel. Are you a member of CAIR who want to silence all criticism of Islam?

        • David Craig

          Abdi Nor Iftin is a human being who deserves our warm welcome to America, not your accusatory questions thinly veiled as skepticism. I could care less if you criticize Islam or any other religion or philosophy, but you don’t have to be rude to this young man who is trying to make a new life in our country.

          • Garik

            We can be rude to any one we like when our country is s financially sound that we can have a lottery to invite 50k refugees to our country. How priviledged they are to have a free ride when our own veterans, elderly, disabled, etc… can’t get the proper care they deserve. So Mr. Craig you can stop your liberal bull****and front the bill yourself for this person to come over to our country. I know you and Mayor Brennan would be two peas in a pod. Spend the tax payer dollars, support Catholic Charities; it’s the tax payer’s dollars so bring in as many they want. What if he is right and this is the person behind the next 9/11?

        • Scott Harriman

          “What if Kafir911 is a tax-dodging, drunk driving, kitten-torturing pedophile?”

          Like this one, your accusations are simply ridiculous.

          • Garik

            Wow. Your comment is elementary and I have first hand knowledge the accusations aren’t rediculous. What are your sources; Obama and Clinton?

        • yathink2011

          Since the First Amendment was changed in the US.

  • Dennis

    So you’re in denial that jihadists have and are infiltrating this country? That their purpose is to assimilate into our culture and convert or kill infidels? Many are not jihadists, but I can’t find the list of names of those who are. Apparently, you know the difference and choose not to share that with those of us who are a bit more cautious than trusting as you! Try to catch up on the world news, or better yet, take a trip to Dearborn Michigan….or soon, Portland and Lewiston Maine.

    • EABeem

      Welcome to conservative America where all Muslims are terrorists, all Black people are criminals, all people on welfare are frauds, all immigrants are illegals, all taxes are theft, all public programs are socialism and all government is the enemy. Sometimes I think we ought to just give the GOP everything between the Mississippi and the Rockies, build a big wall to keep them in and foreigners out and let the Donald rule over Trumplandia.

      • Garik T

        Apparently you have no problem with VOLAG’s (Volunteer Agencies ; ie Catholic Charities) making approximately $8,000 a head for every refugeee, asylee, etc… into this country? All of which is funded by the Federal Government and taxpayer dollars. That’s profit!!

        • Christopher White

          Care to offer any sort of verifiable FACTUAL support for your allegations?

          • h

            In reference to the sworn affidavit.  This was done by a retired FBI agent who had a seminar on this at the Portland Public Library last year with local law enforcement and citizens and wrote a book on the subject – Muslim Mafia (don’t worry Lewiston has a nice page devoted to the subject – if you care?).  Plenty of stats in there for you.

            Catholic Charities – Maine and the country’s largest VOLAG received $551.6 million from the government for refugee resettlement in 2014 – The Red / Green Axis by Jim Simpson. 

            Annual welfare costs for Refugees and Asylees – $6,331,159,417.  Same reference above.  If you care, that is your tax payer dollars.  I care and not impressed.

            Why don’t you do your own research, since I know you wont listen to me and any debate I put out there is all for naught with this crew


      • Dennis

        Well, since we are dealing with hyperbole, I guess it’s fair to take the liberal viewpoint and claim no Muslims are terrorists, no black people are criminals (just targeted unfairly by the racist police), there is no welfare fraud or scamming of the system, there are no illegal immigrants, and no government programs are wasteful. Welcome to liberal Americastan!

        • EABeem

          A vastly nicer place than the Amerikkka of xenophobes, racists, and far right fruitcakes.

        • Christopher White

          A thoroughly ridiculous comment. Please find me even one ‘liberal’ who has EVER claimed ‘no Muslims are terrorists, no black people are criminals (just targeted unfairly by the racist police), there is no welfare fraud or scamming of the system, there are no illegal immigrants, and no government programs are wasteful.’

          In the meantime, there are seemingly plenty of self-styled ‘conservatives’ (perhaps you among them) who claim most, if not all, Muslims are jihadists or a majority of those on ‘welfare’ are cheats and moochers.

          • Dennis

            I guess you didn’t understand the word “hyperbole”.

          • Christopher White

            Your initial comment, the one generating this thread, is a clear case of hyperbole. In it you claim and infer large numbers of jihadists are infiltrating the US, intent on committing acts of terrorism. You then respond to EABeem’s admittedly sarcastic comment by doubling down with another hyperbolic attack on those who disagree with you. Now you seek to insult me for failing to buy into the nonsense you’re peddling.

            I will resist the urge to add some snarky rejoinder; have a nice life.

          • Dennis

            You clearly don’t get it. It was intended to be a “clear case of hyperbole”. Maybe your counterpart can “Beem” you both up into a world of reality!

          • EABeem

            Chris, you and David and Scott need to understand that in some of these posts you are dignifying the comments of people who do not deserve reply. I gave up a long time ago trying to reason with some of them. Don’t know Dennis, but he’s right that he was just replying with the typical unimaginative conservative “I know you are, but what am I” response to my description of conservatives above. I do appreciate your thoughtfulness however. Best, Ed

  • Kafir911

    Isn’t it a mantra of “journalists” to consider the source? Well, I’m no journalist but Mr. Wuthmann hails from San Francisco which is a major sanctuary city and where illegal immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez murdered Kate Steinle. Enough said.

  • teetime9

    WOW! I was just going to comment to point out that the McDonnell family lives in Yarmouth, not North Yarmouth, but I feel compelled to add that we are neighbors and we know Abdi. He has stopped by our home numerous times and played soccer with our two young sons. He is a fine young man and simply looking for a better life. We welcome him with open arms and wish him nothing but the best here in America.

  • Garik T
    • EABeem

      What makes you think this is real? It was posted a year ago on the website of ACT for America, a virulent anti-Muslim organization. I doubt “Magda Borham” exists.

      • T

        Signed affadavits from FBI agents saying that Portland ranks as an 8+ out of 10 as far as sedition, Anti-American sentiment, and Anti-Constitutional beliefs in mosques.

        Seminars from the Center for Security Policy

        Statistics that back up the corruptness of VOLAG’s

        Shariah Law being used in our courts rather than our own laws.

        By the way. I read your article about DHHS and the number of cases referred to for prosecution by the fraud investigation unit. YOU ARE A LIAR AND EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW! For someone that has first knowledge, 17 cases over 3 years is a gross misstatement. The actual number is 93 out of a goal of 100 as of 10/01/15 and that is just for this year with 3 more months left, not 3 years.

        Signing off!

        • EABeem

          I am sometimes mistaken. I never lie. In this case, I am not lying or mistaken,
          ” Medicaid Fraud Unit Referred Just 16 Cases to Attorney General in 3 Years ”

          By Mal Leary • Sep 28, 2015

          Mal Leary reports on the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

          AUGUSTA, Maine — Figures released by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that over a three-year period, a special Medicaid fraud unit in Maine only sent a handful of criminal referrals to the state attorney general’s office.

          That has led to criticism from Attorney General Janet Mills and other Democrats.

          The office’s review found that out of 3,600 cases referred to the attorney general’s office over the past three years, only 16 were referred from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Medicaid Program Integrity Unit. This is a special unit created to root out cases of welfare fraud.