Linda Wentworth: ‘Call Me American’ author to visit Amherst

  • Abdi Nor Iftin will share his story at Amherst Regional Middle School on Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m. file photo

Saturday, February 22, 2020

According to the United Nations, 70 million people are currently displaced from their homelands around the world. This is the highest number ever.

Earlier this month, “This American Life,” a weekly public radio program hosted by Ira Glass, told the harrowing story of one of those people, a young Somali man named Abdi Nor Iftin. The program had been following Abdi’s desperate struggle to reach America since 2013. In fact, their reporter’s interest in Abdi’s plight and the reporter’s subsequent call to a U.S. embassy in Africa may have given him a tiny bit of help when he needed it most.

The child of nomadic herders displaced by drought, Abdi grew up in war-ravaged Mogadishu. He supported his family through his wits, and learned English by watching forbidden American action movies. Sporting American clothes and dance moves, he became known around Mogadishu as “Abdi American.”

His proficiency in English made him invaluable to foreign reporters struggling to cover the violence in Somalia. From Abdi, they learned about the warring tribal militias, religious extremists and the dangers awaiting Somalis who escaped to Kenya. When radical Islamists rose to power, he used his language skills to post secret dispatches to National Public Radio.

As Abdi grew older, he became terrified that he would be forced to join one of those militias, and decided to cross the Mediterranean on a smuggler’s boat. To his disappointment, he was turned away because he did not have sufficient funds; the boat with his friends on board left without him … and sank, killing his companions.

How he finally escapes against all odds is the subject of his new memoir, “Call Me American,” this year’s On the Same Page selection in Amherst. Abdi’s story reminds us of how this country beckons to those wanting freedom, even those for whom the odds of reaching our shores is remote.

Listeners to “This American Life” got to hear the latest chapter in Abdi’s life. Wearing a three-piece suit and a tie displaying U.S. flags, Abdi became a U.S. citizen at a naturalization ceremony in Maine and led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Amherst community is invited to borrow a copy of the book from the Jones Library or either of its branches and to meet Abdi himself when he comes to speak at the Amherst Regional Middle School on Thursday, March 5, at 7 p.m.

Linda Wentworth is a librarian at the Jones Library.