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Highlights from Abdi Nor Iftin’s presentation

Abdi Nor Iftin, author of “Call Me American,” spoke on “A Refugee’s Journey” during the fourth event in the UNC School of Social Work Centennial Speaker Series on April 8, 2021. Iftin’s presentation was hosted by UNC Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initative, which was founded at the School and is led by Josh Hinson, a clinical assistant professor at the School.

“Mr. Iftin’s story was a powerful reminder of the challenges that refugees face,” Hinson wrote to attendees after the presentation. “His presentation also highlights the importance of helping refugees to access culturally sensitive, trauma-informed mental health services, using professional interpretation.”

The initiative provides mental health services to refugees across North Carolina, including mental health screenings and assessments, individual and family therapy, community adjustment support groups, and psychiatric care management. However, these services often requirement quality interpretation with a trained professional interpreter, which costs nearly $50 per hour.

Hinson invited those who attended the presentation to support UNC Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative through donations to help cover the cost of interpretation for refugees receiving mental health services.

UNC School of Social Work Dean Gary Bowen emphasized the need for social workers to provide support for refugees in North Carolina.

“This story is very riveting, and it goes right to the heart, in terms of the challenges that many of our immigrants and refugees face in their own countries and then the trauma and difficulty of resettling into our country,” Bowen said.

“I’m really proud of the work that Josh and his team are doing in North Carolina,” he added. “This is important work that’s front and central to the School of Social Work.”

If you were not able to attend this event, here are some highlights from Iftin’s remarks:

On his childhood

In Mogadishu … my father was a famous, well-known basketball player. They used to say “the Michael Jordan of Somalia” — I’m not kidding.

We had a pretty decent life. We had all the basic fundamental rights that any human could have. We had peace. We had food. We had our own house. I could play with my siblings. My family had built a beautiful life. Things fell apart in one day.

What was the problem? A dictator … running the country since 1969 with an iron grip. There was a volcano that was starting to erupt — a group of local militias training themselves. War broke out.

We did the impossible, wandering the streets of Mogadishu, escaping bullets, hiding from the militia, picking up whatever we could — food, milk, water. [My mother] trained us to become responsible, to take charge of the situation and feed our family. If we have to die, we have to die as a family.

What was on my mind was survival. Now I consider myself and my family one of the luckiest in Somalia. We’ve only lost one sister and one uncle to this war; everybody else has survived. My dad, mom, siblings Hassan and Nima survived. Now 32 years into the war, we’re grown up, talking about these stories.

On Somalia

I would like to ask you this question: What do you think about when you hear the word “Somalia” — what events, what movies, what books, what stories? What do you really think of this country as a whole?

There are two kinds of stories that come out of Somalia. Really horrifying, terrifying, scary stories about death, destruction, warlords, militia, pirates. A nation that’s all cruel … angry … not listening.

The other kind of story — the human story — is pretty much invisible. The truth is different. Over 99 percent of the Somalis are innocent; they’ve never been engaged in wars; they’re not interested. So that is what created the massive influx of refugees in 1991 and 1992, when the war began in Somalia.

On the Dadaab refugee camps

In early 1990, when the war broke out in Somalia, they designed this place to host 90,000 refugees, but now over half a million Somalis have flooded into the area. The government is currently working on shutting down [this refugee camp].

[To be a refugee] is just uncertainty. You never know what’s next. You have no control of your own life. It is always that some sort of organization has plans for you, a certain country is thinking about putting you through their resettlement process. You feel like you’re powerless. That is exactly what my brother and I had been feeling, living together as refugees.

Every day, we’re going back and forth, meeting some man in a suit, wearing an expensive tie, glasses, sitting in an office with flowers sitting on the window. And that man could easily say, “I’m going to reschedule; come back in five months.” Can you argue? No, you cannot. You just have to slowly walk away. If you argue, he’s going to drop your case to the bottom.

I’m telling you these stories because, most of the time, it sounds pretty easy to talk about refugees — “You get the documents; you move on.” Well, that’s not true. The underlying cases are really complicated and very difficult.

I did not migrate to the United States because of the refugee process — I went out of my way, ignored the refugee status, and applied for the visa lottery. That’s how I am here now.

My brother, who was in Kenya and was very hopeful to migrate to the United States through the refugee process — after waiting for 15 years, he was simply denied. We do not have any clear justification or any point where they told him, “This is the reason why you’ve been denied.” His case has been closed.

That has been a huge blow, and it traumatized him. It traumatized all of us.

[As an alternate, I thought] maybe Canada could accept my brother. It worked. After a year of interviews, raising funds, going back and forth to the Canadian Embassy in Kenya, he has made it — he’s in Toronto. This evening, my brother is just an hour and a half from where I am. This weekend, my brother and I are going to reunite at Niagara Falls. He’ll be on the Canadian side; I’ll be on the US side [due to COVID-19 restrictions that limit travel across the border]. We will be on the phone but seeing each other.

On tools for survival

The psychological struggle was not something that I’d really experienced in my life, that shift of coming into a new society and adjusting and understanding that you have to speak English.

I was very fortunate to have had the ability to build a network. I really realized, in my story, the power of family support or team support. Without this, I could not have become who I am today.

I really received comfort [while dealing with trauma] in telling my story — I think that’s very helpful.

It’s important that you really find somebody who knows your culture, who knows where you come from, who knows what it means to be hungry, to be starving — how does your stomach feel if you didn’t have food for seven days? What kind of trauma does that create? My traumas actually come from those moments, when I was a child: It’s not the bullets that will kill me; it’s hunger.

As you open yourself up to the therapist, you learn more. If any refugees are listening tonight, I realized when working with a local Somali community that sitting in the house, not really doing a lot of activities, just sends you back to the hospital, slowly kills you.

[To help cope with trauma] I do all kinds of activities. I go for a walk. I go for a run, finding some sort of a park, hiking out in the wilderness — you know, get your mind off of the things that were really traumatizing. To not really have it dominate my day-to-day life.

On life today

When my book was published in 2018, I was not even a United States citizen. I’ve only just become a United States citizen a year ago. America was an idea, this idea that I’ve always believed in.

The process of healing sort of started for me in 2014. However, the healing was interrupted completely by the events in our country in the last few years. I started redefining my identify as a Somali American or African American or Black man. For those of you who are people of color, you probably understand what I’m talking about, in terms of realizing how you fit into situations, what things you need to do to protect yourself or to keep safe. These are not things I’d really ever expected could happen in the United States. Unfortunately, these seem to be a reality.

I loved this country before I ever set foot here, but I shifted into realizing that America is actually less welcoming. I’m not taking the United States itself for granted any more. I worry every day — what’s going to be on Twitter, on the news.

I think every single person who tried to invade and take over the capital [on January 6, 2021] has no idea what it means to lose a sense of existence, peace, and security.

Twenty people are being displaced every single minute. Those are the most vulnerable. There are extremely educated, smart people within these, so don’t assume it’s just a bunch of people who don’t know where America is, living in tents. That mindset has to be stopped. When I connect with my own friends who are refugees, the only thing that they are asking for is an opportunity to contribute, to make money, to do this and that.


The Centennial Speaker Series (and many other educational opportunities for Master of Social Work and doctoral students) is made possible by unrestricted gifts to UNC School of Social Work.