BY FRANCESCA BENTLEY | Pulitzer Center
Democracy, liberty, freedom, equality—these are the fundamental tenets Abdi Nor Iftin hoped would shape his life in America, after leaving Kenya. Upon miraculously winning a direct entryway into the United States via the annual visa lottery, Somali-born Iftin was rapturous over the chance to pursue his piece of the American dream. What he didn’t realize is that being one of the lucky few and becoming an American, particularly a Black American, comes with caveats, some more dangerous than others.
“Once I came here I was so sad and disappointed to know that my American dream had been betrayed by the reality of America,” Iftin said.
When Iftin recounted his altered take on the American experience after his first year in the U.S., his voice was riddled with disillusionment and coated in sadness.
“America has treated African Americans so terribly. People are suffering, people can’t receive an education. Young African American men are incarcerated, particularly here in Maine—the whitest state in America. It’s traumatizing to see,” he said.
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It didn’t take long for Iftin to realize that race was a singular and defining aspect of American culture. At customs, Iftin was asked, via a form, a seemingly simple, but rather nuanced, question: “What is your race?” When presented with the solitary option of Black/African American, it dawned on Iftin that his identity was now reduced to a lone, superficial factor—the color of his skin. He claimed that this initial interaction with America’s simplification of race was transformational.
“You have nothing else to choose to identify yourself. You’re given a tag and a new identity. That has been my struggle for the last six years.” His voice trailed off, and he then said, “after that a different type of freedom was lost.”
Introduction to Life in Yarmouth, Maine
Iftin engaged in an age-old problematic practice during his first few transitionary days to life in Yarmouth, Maine—a small, traditional, yet upscale New England town. He made the obligatory introduction and hellos to white neighbors upon move-in day with the intention of easing their fears and assuring them that he did not fit their stereotypical perception of a dangerous Black person. The Somali native said he thought this measure would be especially prudent as two days prior to the beginning of his new American life, 18-year-old Michael Brown had been fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer; the officer was not charged.
Fearful of succumbing to a similar fate, Iftin did what he thought was best, as a lone Black man on a six-mile-long road of white houses and equally white families. In a joking, yet somber tone, he said, “You know I had to knock on doors, and say, ‘Hey, I live in that house so if you see me around doing things please don’t assume I’m a burglar and call 911.’”
Iftin said he felt the weight of having to partake in such a regressive exchange, adding, “It was positive because nothing happened. But it was mostly negative because of the whole idea that I had to present myself because I was a Black man. And that was my introduction to the United States of America.”
The American Immigration Council reports that more than 47,000 immigrants (4 percent of the total population) call Maine home. Although, the exact total number of refugees—people who have been displaced from their native country due to war, persecution, and other forms of unrest—and asylum seekers—individuals also fleeing unrest but who apply for international protection upon arrival to another country—in Maine currently is unknown. The Office of Refugee Resettlement estimates that 941 refugees relocated to Maine between 2011 and 2014. According to Dr. Robert Glover, an immigration politics professor at the University of Maine, the state’s foreign-born resident population has expanded by 21.8 percent over the span of 13 years, with communities such as Lewiston, Maine, now including more than 5,000 Somali refugees. Glover further explained that most refugees/asylum seekers commonly originate from Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, the DRC, and Djibouti, Africa.
Alongside Iftin’s growing understanding of American life as an immigrant is his growing conceptualization of the evils of race in America. As a minute portion of Maine’s greater population, a Black person is only afforded so much comfortability in a space so white. According to last year’s U.S. census, 94.4 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million population is white, and 1.7 percent is Black/African American.
Iftin said although he enjoys driving places and exploring the natural beauty Maine has to offer, “the police always seem to have their eyes on you, you feel like something’s lurking around you. There is this feeling in this state particularly manufactured by the former governor, (Paul) LePage, who was able to spread false information about Black people. He said they’re coming here to rape white women, they’re bringing drugs. And I’m unfortunately not making this stuff up.”
Iftin was recalling the then-Republican governor’s disturbing claims in 2016. With a glaring similarity to President Trump’s racist rhetoric, LePage’s two terms in office were abundant with racially charged misinformation. As reported by mainstream news media at the time, the governor implied that Black people were at fault for Maine’s struggles with elevated heroin usage, and alleged that drug dealers named “D-Money, Smoothie, and Shifty” were facilitating Mainers’ access to heroin and impregnating “young, white girls” in the process. According to The Atlantic, LePage’s representative claimed that “the governor is not making comments about race.” However, The Atlantic also underlined that such a statement was weakly merited as the governor specifically mentioned impregnating “young, white girls.”
Maine’s current Democratic governor, Janet Mills, has espoused an active willingness to dismantle Maine’s systemic racism. Since taking office in 2019, Mills has met with students of color to hear what they believe Maine’s government can do to combat racial discrimination and has passed legislation that prohibits arrests that are the product of racial-based profiling.
Upon being asked for comment regarding plans to further ensure the safety and equity of Black Mainers, the governor responded, “It has always been my goal to ensure that Maine is a safe place where all people have an equal and fair shot at success. For too many, especially people of color, that promise is too distant, and this pandemic has laid bare the deep-seated inequities and racism in our society. I do not have all the answers to the longstanding, systemic problem of racism, but I am committed to learning and improving our state in the months and years to come.”
Although the new governor’s platform is more inclusive, the discriminatory sentiments, which LePage promulgated, continue to hang over Mainers and weigh heavily on those whom he targeted, Iftin noted. During an interview with Maine Public Radio in 2018, LePage declared that if Mills pushes Maine in a direction he does not agree with, “he’ll return four years from now to challenge her.”
However, not all Black Mainers feel equally sobered by this reality.
Maine is home to Black immigrants and asylum seekers/refugees who view racism in Maine, and America at large, in varying lights. Panbo Boris, a Gabon, Central Africa, native, recently made the journey from Morocco to Yarmouth, Maine, seeking asylum in 2019. He described his initial perception of the people of Yarmouth as “friendly, compassionate, helpful. And wanting to help migrants.” He painted the town very attractively and said he has had nothing short of welcoming encounters. When asked about his thoughts and feelings surrounding Black Lives Matter (BLM), Boris expressed that at the outset he felt scared after watching what happened to George Floyd, a Black man, earlier this year, and that the police should not only act as oppressors. Floyd died, handcuffed, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes in Minneapolis. However, Boris spoke of Floyd’s death and police brutality very abstractly. Later, hementioned that white people, too, are being brutalized by police.
Encountering racism firsthand can fundamentally shape one’s views. Yves Nkurunziza, an immigrant from Rwanda, says he has faced massive discrimination since coming to Maine. Four years after arriving, Nkurunziza was arrested in Portland, 12 miles from Yarmouth, after an unknown person called the police claiming he was “too loud.” Although the charges were eventually dismissed, the experience was demoralizing.
“I’ve never ever been to jail. The first time I’ve ever been to jail is in America,” Nkurunziza claimed. “In Africa we don’t study the truth about race in America. When we studied American history in class they told us that racism was done after Martin Luther King. They said life has changed—it’s paradise.” Not only was Nkurunziza unprepared for the inequality in America, but it was worse than what he could have ever anticipated. He declared, “I support BLM 100 percent.”
Iftin, who wrote the memoir Call Me American, which describes his life in Somalia and his journey to becoming an American citizen, is not surprised by the weak grasp some refugees and immigrants have on race in America. “Race and racism is such a foreign idea to those of us who come here,” he says. “America doesn’t give credit to how slavery has built this country. There’s a lot of things I didn’t know, so I had to read books to pick up these pieces.”
Without tangible confrontations with racism, it can be difficult for those entering American society without contextual knowledge of how racism functions in America to comprehend its existence and adverse implications.
“It’s so hard for these people [immigrants] to get an idea of what’s going on. So if you haven’t experienced it you can just ignore it, and that’s the problem here.”
To make matters worse, there seems to be a substantial gap between older Black immigrants and native Black Americans. Iftin explained that some immigrant Somali parents perceive BLM as a purely African American issue, that doesn’t involve them.
Although Iftin admitted that Yarmouth is one of the more progressive towns in Maine and has welcomed Black immigrants throughout the years, he remains wary of its authenticity. He used a community-based BLM protest in front of a local church as an example. Yarmouth’s residents equal nearly 8,500, yet fewer than 100 people attended the protest, with half of the protesters coming from other nearby towns.
“I don’t really know how receptive Yarmouth truly is,” Iftin said. “I think these days it’s kind of a game where people have BLM signs outside like ‘hey look at me; I’m a part of it.’ I’m not trying to generalize or anything, but sometimes that’s how I feel.”
Iftin said that there still remains a massive disconnect between Black Americans and Black migrants and asserted that bridging such a lacuna would be highly beneficial and subsequently help Black migrants get in touch with Black America and its concerns, and assist Black Americans in recognizing the plights migrants face getting to America and resettling.
Iftin’s comments revealed that America may be beguiling Black immigrants. “I’m telling you all of this, because this is not America, this is not the America I expected.”
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