By Abdullahi Ali, Yusuf Yusuf, and Mohamed Awil
Abdi Iftin, a Somali refugee who grew up in war-torn Mogadishu, recently wrote a memoir describing his experiences in Somalia and his journey to the United States. This book could have been an opportunity to shine a light on the positive aspects of immigration and to celebrate not only his success but the successes of the Somali community in Maine. However, in reading Call Me American, we recognized ourselves in the final chapter and we are outraged by the incredible misinformation that was spread by the author, not only about ourselves but about our community. What follows is a narrative response by three of the roommates Mr. Iftin describes in Chapter 16: “Abdul,” “Yussuf,” and “Awil.”
In Chapter 16, Mr. Iftin shares his life experiences when he moved to Portland, ME and became acquainted with members of the Somali community in the area. Specifically, he references several Somali roommates, us included. He paints a picture of us as disinterested in cultural integration, unwilling to learn English, unwilling to accept non-Muslims, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. He characterizes us as simply biding our time until we could return to Somalia permanently, and in the meantime escaping to Somalia for visits whenever we get the chance.
We are saddened and disappointed by what we have read. We are shocked and outraged because the content in Mr. Iftin’s book grossly misrepresents our Somali community in Maine. We have a vibrant and well-integrated Somali community here. We rarely have people who have been in the country for more than 10 years who do not speak English. The portrayal that we do not have American born friends is absolutely and categorically untrue. Some of us employ hundreds of people including American-born Mainers. We did not see anything about our accomplishments, or even at least the true facts about ourselves included in Call Me American.
What disappoints us even more is that a member of our own Somali community is lying about us, perhaps to advance personal interest. We absolutely celebrate the fact that a friend and a member of our community wrote a book about his journey and his struggles for a better life. However, we cannot sit idly by and watch when a section of this book is nothing but an utter falsehood that vilifies us, our friends and our community. This is not, in any way, to suggest that the entire story is untrue; it could be. While Mr. Iftin was in Somalia, no one can verify the authenticity of his account of the events. This piece is simply in response to our disappointment with the part of Call Me American that talks about the three of us, and about the Somali community that he joined in Maine. We lived this part with Mr. Iftin. We state vehemently: THIS PART OF THE STORY IS A FABRICATION.
Abdi Iftin was our roommate for a while. When he first came to Maine, we were told about him by a friend of a friend of his host family. After couple of phone calls, Abdullahi and another friend (a medical student) visited him. Soon after, he asked us all to take him to Somali stores, mosques, restaurants and other community owned centers. We did without hesitation. We also invited him for lunch and introduced him to our other friends. Abdullahi even allowed Mr. Iftin to practice driving and to take the road test in his brand-new car, assuming all liability. We wanted to help him find his way in the United States while maintaining a sense of belonging and community. This is what we have done, and will continue to do, for all new arrivals to the United States. That is part of our community and our values. The three of us would like to point out various misrepresentations included in Call Me American and we will provide the truth of the matter in response to the egregious mischaracterization of ourselves and of our community.
The author states that “Abdul, Yussuf and Awil had been in the country for more than 10 years.” Not true. By that time, we had all been in the country for less than 5 years. He goes on to report that “Abdul learned English because he needed it for his business.” Again, not true. Abdullahi learned English in Kenya. He studied Community Development and Sociology in Kenya. By the time he met Mr. Iftin, Abdullahi was in his 4th year at USM studying Social Science and Economics. He acquired his Master’s Degree in 2016 from the University of Southern New Hampshire and started his own business. He has not returned to Somalia since he came to Maine; in fact. Abdullahi had also held several other professional jobs before he even met Mr. Iftin.
Another piece of this chapter states that “Awil and Yussuf didn’t know any English words.” Mohamed “Mo” Awil is a young man who is brilliant and well-integrated. He is a graduate of Lewiston High School and currently in his 4th year at USM studying Social Work. He works with a local agency as an executive assistant and he is one of the most talented individuals you could meet. While at LHS, he competed for Regional and State track championships and served as the team’s captain. He won no less than seven Varsity letters and was a member of National Technical Honor Society. His English skills, both verbal and written, are every bit as good as any Native Mainer. His knowledge and love for American sports, movies, art and entertainment is unimaginable. He is described by Mr. Iftin as “scurrying away” from other people because his lack of English was “like being naked.” Clearly, this is completely false. Moreover, Mo Awil has never even been to Somalia. He was born in Kenya and has not returned to Africa since he came to Maine.
Yusuf Yusuf holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from Western Washington University. He has never returned to Somalia. He is a professional social worker who helps other refugees and immigrants integrate into the society. He garners praise and respect from colleagues, clients and the social services community with his spectacular work. Even if Mr. Iftin was referring to our friend Yusuf, and not our roommate, the book’s description would still be far from the fact. Our friend Yusuf completed a medical degree in less than 7 years and during that time was always an “A” student. He currently works as a Physician Assistant in one of Maine’s hospitals.
Mr. Iftin goes on to detail another roommate, Mohamed, the taxi driver. We never had anyone who was a taxi driver by that name in that apartment. As you can see, the number of roommates is exaggerated. He then reports that Mo Awil and Yusuf worked at Walmart stocking shelves when they first arrived to the US. This never happened. This is only as true as “we ate on the floor.” In fact, Mo Awil’s first job in the US was as a youth counselor, followed by a role as a field supervisor with a social action agency. Moreover, our residence was described as being essentially a low-income dump, which is again completely untrue. It’s been years since we all lived together, but we 3 continue to pay full, non-subsidized rent on our own. In fact, we might point out that Mr. Iftin declined an invitation to pay rent and be a roommate to one of us in our new apartments, instead opting to go back to living rent-free with his original host family.
As we have mentioned, Mr. Iftin repeatedly attests that we try to get back to Somalia as often as possible, using statements such as “they had all returned home at least twice for a visit, and they talked about enjoying camel meat, which you can’t find in Maine.” None of us have returned to Somalia since we came to the US. Not even once. We do, however, rejoice in our Somali heritage and culture. The camel is a symbol of Somaliness. We are proud Somali-Americans! This is a direct contradiction to the statement “no one except me [Abdi Iftin] had passion for America.” The accomplishments listed in this piece are a testimony to our hard work and our passion for the American dream. Mr. Iftin seems to draw his American identity from his love of pop culture and little more. We don’t think playing hip-hop songs comes anywhere close to our accomplishments. We do, however, listen all the hip-hop songs you could think of. Some of us have enlisted in the Army reserves. Some of us mentor and empower other younger citizens in our community. Success is not measured by what songs you listen to nor by the number of movies you’ve seen. Our friends went to school, graduated with honors, found professional jobs, pay taxes, live independently and give back to the larger community. To us, that seems like the most American thing anyone could do.
Call Me American also shares misinformation about religion, specifically that the author’s roommates “yelled at me for not praying.” That is utterly false. Some of us, currently, have non-Muslim roommates or have had non-Muslim partners. We have non-Muslim coworkers and anyone that has known us can confidently testify that we do not bring religion into any conversations. Some of us are practicing Muslims, others are not. We respect all others as human beings and we embrace differences rather than discriminating. The statement that “they only listen to Arabic Nasheeda” [prayer chants] is similarly untrue. Only one of us speaks Arabic. Some of us can barely read or write Somali; English is the language we use on a daily basis. Mr. Iftin also said every Somali asks him about his tribe. We didn’t. None of our friends did. Some of us, unlike him, do not even know what tribe we belong to. We also don’t want to know.
Another inflammatory excerpt reads “For most Somalis in Maine, the only future goal besides going back home, was to have money left to send to family members,” and “my roommates did not have saving accounts.” Somalis in Maine do not live paycheck-to-paycheck as described in the book. We own homes, businesses and are represented in various sectors of the economy. We support our family members back home and we save money at the same time. That is how we started businesses, graduated from schools and how we continue to pay taxes.
The picture that Call Me American illustrates is that the Somalis in Maine are bunch of backward, radical and isolated individuals waiting until they can return to Somalia, making no efforts to integrate or to work hard. What makes it worse are the plain lies about individuals like us that are then being used to generalize the whole community. We wish to call attention to the fact that this memoir, while written by a member of the Somali community, does not represent the truths of the rest of the Somalis here in Maine or in the United States. Mr. Iftin’s attempt to elevate himself by maligning the rest of his community is uncalled for, untrue, and shameful.
Abdullahi Ali, Yusuf Yusuf, and Mohamed Awil
–Two Somali memoirs: Reflections of different generations By Abdisalam Garjeex
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