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693: Abdi the American

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Abdi Nor

Hey.

John

Hey.

Abdi Nor

How's it going?

John

How are you feeling today?

Abdi Nor

Yeah, it's a little chilly. I'm so excited, man. This is the day. Yeah, this is the day.

Ira Glass

In a big hall on a pier in Portland, Maine, walls of windows looking out on the water, Abdi Nor, wearing a royal blue three-piece suit, American flag tie, American flag pin on his lapel.

Abdi Nor

Hey, John.

John

Look at you. [INAUDIBLE]

Abdi Nor

Yes, yes, yes. I dressed up for this. I ordered this online. It arrived yesterday.

John

Ooh, just in time.

Abdi Nor

So it's all the US flag.

Ira Glass

This was recorded three weeks ago. Abdi and 45 others from 25 countries were becoming US citizens. And just before the ceremony started, Abdi was told that he will be leading the entire group at the end in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Abdi Nor

So John, let me see if I sound perfect.

John

Yes.

Abdi Nor

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

John

Yes.

Abdi Nor

Any pronunciation problem?

John

Perfect, but slow down at the end.

Abdi Nor

OK, yeah.

Ira Glass

It's been a long journey to this moment for Abdi, starting in 2013. We did a whole episode of our show years ago, built around recordings that Abdi made during that difficult journey to America. And today, to commemorate his new status as our fellow citizen, we thought we would replay that story with some updates at the end.

His odyssey began when he won something called the Diversity Visa Lottery, or the DV Lottery. If you've never heard of this, it sounds like the kind of thing that can't be real. But it's been around since the '90s, run by the United States government every year. The original idea of it was to get a more varied group of immigrants from a diversity of countries into our country.

The Trump administration has cut some of the eligible countries from the list, but the lottery is still operating. Over 14 million people applied for the 2020 lottery, with over 80,000 winners. Back in 2013, Abdi found out he won in a cyber cafe in Kenya.

Abdi was a Somali refugee back then, living in Kenya. His next tape I'm going to play you was from those days, so you'll hear Abdi's American accent is not as good as it is now. He remembers the moment that he won this way. He sat down on his computer.

Abdi Nor

I put my confirmation number. I put my date of birth, and then clicked Submit. There was a few seconds of silence. But then, you have been randomly selected.

Ira Glass

Everybody went nuts, lifted him up in the air in his chair. But Abdi didn't believe it. He asked his friends to put him down and started entering his information into the computer again and again.

Abdi Nor

It's the same answer, the same response. I put in same response. I realized I won. I walked out with these friends all shouting behind me, in front of me, holding my hands, shaking me. My heart was bumping. I was not holding myself together.

Ira Glass

Moving to America seemed like a done deal. But he didn't know the half of it. Winning the lottery was especially a big deal for Abdi because really more than anybody he knew, Abdi had been obsessed with America since he was little. As a kid growing up in Mogadishu, Somalia, he'd go to the movies, which, in Mogadishu, just meant a TV perched on a table in a shack. And he would bring a pen and paper to watch American films so he could write down any words he didn't know and learn the language better.

He became known to people as the guy who could translate the movie for you. Stuff would happen on screen and everybody would turn to Abdi, who would shout out, "He says he's about to kill that guy." He pronounced his English like an American. That's why his accent is so amazing when you hear him, which led to his nickname that all his friends called him.

Abdi Nor

Abdi the American-- that's my name. That's my nickname.

Ira Glass

And as he got older, he devoted himself to the goal of getting to America, not only studying English, but also teaching it. He did some radio stories in English. And you can totally understand why he'd want to leave his country, right? He grew up in Somalia. For years, there was no functioning government. It was rival warlords, and militias, and just anarchy, dangerous and violent. There were bombings and attacks from the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

Abdi says, for him, or really for any man in his 20s in Somalia, it's hard to stay out of the fight. You can't just be neutral and go about your life. He tells stories of Al-Shabaab members threatening him to join them, or else. At one checkpoint on the way to his mom's, they told him basically, next time you come through here, you better be one of us.

So it was that, or join the government forces who were fighting Al-Shabaab. Or he could flee the country. You know those boats full of people trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe, and sometimes they sink, and hundreds of people drown? Abdi knows people who've gone on those boats and on boats like them to escape to Yemen.

Abdi Nor

Yes, I've lost three very good friends. And one of these friends had his child less than a year old with his wife. He knew how to swim, but he could not swim because his child was-- you know, he was trying to save his child and his wife. And then they were caught up in the sea and sharks. They were not the only ones who died there. 75 other Somalis were killed in that journey. And that has changed nothing about our decision. That doesn't scare us a lot at all. We know death is there.

Ira Glass

Several times, Abdi planned to take one of those boats. But he had trouble getting the money together. And eventually, his mom talked him out of it. So instead, he escaped across the border to Kenya. Somalia and Kenya are next to each other.

Abdi moved to Nairobi, enrolled in a university, tried twice for a student visa to America, was denied both times. And if he hadn't gotten lucky that day in the cyber cafe, he said he would be looking again in getting on a boat.

Abdi Nor

Yeah. If I had not won this green card lottery, that was one of my options. I was not afraid to do that. I'm looking for a life. And to get to that, I'll keep trying to the death.

Ira Glass

The thing about the lottery, though, what Abdi learned is that it does not guarantee you a life in America. And in fact, it's just the first step. After you win, you have to wait more than a year. Then you show up at an American embassy for an interview.

And you have to gather all kinds of paperwork to bring with you-- medical documents and school transcripts and a criminal background check. Everything has to be perfect, every I dotted. The tiniest mistake means that you can be denied for good. In fact, most years, over half the people who win the lottery never get their visas. They don't make it to America.

And right away after winning the lottery, Abdi got a bad break. The police in Nairobi, Kenya, where he lived, started raiding houses, looking to round up all the Somalis like him and kick them out of the country. We have a very unusual, day by day record of what happened to Abdi, because a BBC reporter named Leo Hornak wanted to document this process and started calling Abdi every night. This is one of their very first recordings.

Leo Nornak

Hey, Abdi. Can you hear me?

Abdi Nor

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can hear you.

Leo Nornak

Are you safe right now, for the moment?

Abdi Nor

Yeah. Actually, I'm safe.

Leo Nornak

You sent me an email that had me really worried today. Tell me what happened.

Abdi Nor

Yeah, it was crazy. I was actually chatting with some of the people in our apartment when these guys-- we don't call them the police, we call them the guys. Out of nowhere, they appeared at the gate. And they asked us all to raise our hands up. And you know, we were thinking, like, OK, this is the end of it. We're going to go there tonight.

Ira Glass

By there, he means a place called Kasarani, a giant soccer stadium that Kenyan authorities and police were using as a makeshift jail to hold hundreds of refugees.

Abdi Nor

Like, oh, my god, the next couple of nights you're going to be spending there in the concentration camp. And then they take you to Mogadishu. And OK, you're going to miss your lottery. All that things were going through my mind.

Ira Glass

This call happened on April 17, 2014. Abdi had 96 days to go before his interview at the US embassy, which would be scheduled for July 22nd. Leo started calling him every day. He was worried for him. Like I say, over half the people who win this lottery never make it to the United States. Would Abdi succeed?

Over the next three months, he faced a horrifying obstacle course. It's just like one seemingly impossible task after another. At several points, he's afraid for his life. And his story is the story of so many people around the world who are desperately trying to make it to America, to become one of us.

Act One: Act One

Ira Glass

OK, so you remember where we are. Abdi is about to be taken into custody by the police. Here's Leo Hornak.

Leo Hornak

So here's why the police were raiding Abdi's neighborhood in Nairobi. Al-Shabaab, the very group Abdi moved to Kenya to escape, had been ramping up terrorist attacks inside Kenya. You may remember one of the biggest ones.

Reporter

The hostage crisis in the upscale Westgate Mall is ongoing, the chaotic scene now a tense standoff.

Leo Hornak

In September 2013, Al-Shabaab gunmen trapped hundreds of people in a mall for days and killed 67. And the way the Kenyan government responded to these terrorist attacks was the way governments often do in these situations-- with a huge crackdown on the community they held responsible. Al-Shabaab is from Somalia, so they go after Somali refugees living in Kenya.

The government is trying to clear them out of Kenya's cities and move them to camps in the country, or deport them back to Somalia. And in Nairobi, the neighborhood they target is Abdi's neighborhood. It's called Eastleigh. It's a dense neighborhood where many poor Somalis live and where there's some Al-Shabaab support.

Eastleigh's been there for decades. It's known as "Little Mogadishu". Abdi lives there with his older brother, Hassan, in a small room with one bed and a single bathroom for the whole building. So back to that phone call on April 17th. The police show up and grab Abdi by the shirt.

Abdi Nor

They just get your collar and hold it so tight. And they tell you, come with me and just get into the truck. That's what they said to all of us.

Leo Hornak

It's 96 days until Abdi's interview. And Abdi's worried they're going to throw him and his brother into a truck and take them into detention, before he can ever get his papers together and leave for America.

Abdi Nor

They threaten you, and they try to forcibly take you to the trucks. We were not going with them. We were saying, OK, let's negotiate. I'm not going anywhere. I have legitimate documents. And they were telling us, OK, bring out all your documents. What do you have?

Leo Hornak

Abdi pulls out his refugee ID. Officially, that should protect Abdi. It's from the United Nations. Unofficially--

Abdi Nor

He didn't even try to give it a single glance, because he knows the shape. He knows the frame of it. And he says-- he threw it into my face and he says, you're a refugee. What are you doing here? And they were like, come on, give us whatever you have. That's one of them said.

Leo Hornak

So that's when the real business starts.

Abdi Nor

Yeah, when the real business starts.

Leo Hornak

AKA, the bribes. Abdi, his brother, and the neighbors start pooling their cash.

Abdi Nor

In total, I think we give them more than $80 US. And I had to beg them. Please, I have nothing. This is all I have. I have nothing. I have nothing. This is all I have. Please, you have to take it.

Leo Nornak

And how much does $80 US buy you in Eastleigh?

Abdi Nor

It gives you the best food. It's better off jeans, better off shirts, jacket, all that stuff. It's a lot of money. It's indeed a lot of money.

Leo Nornak

And Abdi, what happens next? I mean, there's no solution, right, to this. This could happen again tomorrow.

Abdi Nor

Not even tomorrow. It can happen right now. It can happen tonight. It can happen the next few minutes. It can happen in the next few hours.

Leo Hornak

Talking to Abdi every day, what I realized was how relentless it is. Every night's another excuse for a crackdown. And the Somalis are sitting ducks, trapped in this one neighborhood.

Abdi Nor

Most people are indoors today. They're not going to anywhere. They're not coming out of their houses.

Leo Hornak

April 25th, 88 days to Abdi's interview, and counting. It's a Friday, which normally would be a busy day in Eastleigh because it's a Muslim holy day. People take off from work, go shopping, go out to eat, and meet at the mosque for prayers. But not today. Abdi says last week, the police showed up at a nearby mosque, grabbed people as they left prayers, and drove them away in trucks.

Abdi Nor

We're getting additional threats from the police, saying that they will intensify the operationism, that they will take more people.

Leo Nornak

So Abdi, what do you think you're going to do today? Will you visit a mosque?

Abdi Nor

No, I will not. I never missed a prayer on Friday, but this one. But this one. Never missed, but you never know.

Leo Hornak

Soon, Abdi stops leaving his apartment for anything. He and his brother, Hassan, essentially go into hiding, locked down in their building. They stopped going to school.

As the days go by, food begins to run short. Abdi and Hassan pool their supplies with another Somali family on the ground floor of their building-- two women, one a single mother with two small boys. But it's not much. Soon, they're down to just tea and sugar and a loaf of bread they're able to get each day from a Kenyan guy who delivers it on his bike. That's what they were living on-- tea and bread.

Abdi Nor

Our eyes are turning red, and the energy is running out. We're looking, like, pretty skinny.

Leo Hornak

Abdi and Hassan are paying for the tea and bread with money they get from overseas. Years ago, Abdi did some reports for an American public radio show called The Story, and a listener reached out wanting to help. She sends them money, not too different from lots of Somali refugees who have family members abroad supporting them. But obviously, that kind of help only goes so far.

Hassan Nor

It's challenging, because you can't even shut your eyes at night and sleep soundly.

Leo Hornak

This is Abdi's older brother, Hassan. He tells me they aren't sleeping. He and Abdi sound the same, by the way. Apparently, even their father can't tell them apart on the phone.

Hassan Nor

Any minute, you expect them breaking into your house or grabbing you. It's like sleeping with your pants on. You know, you are always ready. You don't know what's happening, you know?

Leo Nornak

Yeah, wow.

Hassan Nor

Feeling at home, it's like, you relax. You watch movie. It's something like-- that never happens. If you hear another sound outside, or some other knocking, or a small kind of sound, what was it? What's happening? Are they coming? We are not criminals, just we are refugees. And I never thought being a refugee will make you sound like criminal.

Leo Hornak

The kind of police abuses Abdi told me about are well documented by human rights groups and journalists-- arbitrary arrests, extortion, beatings, forcible deportation, family members separated. It's illegal under international law to send refugees back to a country where their lives could be in danger.

The spokesman for Kenya's Ministry of Interior, which oversaw the police raids in Eastleigh, told me they were justified to make the city safe from Al-Shabaab. But he confirmed that the kind of police corruption Abdi told me about has been a problem for a long time in Kenya. That is a fact, he said. We're not denying that.

Abdi and Hassan tell me Eastleigh's come up with a warning system. The first person to spot the police from his window fires a group text to his friends to say, they're coming your way, so you've got time to hide. Then you pass the message on to your friends, and so on. You can tell a raid started, Hassan says, when you hear all the phones going off.

With just three months left til his interview, Abdi still needs to get all the documents required by the US embassy, documents from the police, his school, his doctors. But he can't do any of that, because he can't even leave his building. The clock's ticking.

Abdi Nor

This is a long dream. My hopes were high to get this thing. But now today, I'm in trouble, you know?

Leo Nornak

Right.

Abdi Nor

It's not the Americans who are putting my visa into trouble. It's the Kenyans, the Kenyan police. And I'm supposed to have my interview here in July. My heart broke, you know? My feelings are very, very bad. I'm feeling like, OK, you're not going to make it.

Leo Hornak

April 28th, T minus 85 days to his interview. Instead of hiding from the police, people are now surrendering. From his window, Abdi sees entire families sitting on the sidewalk with their belongings.

Abdi Nor

Hundreds of families are on the move back to Somalia. They're ready to show themselves to the police and say, all right, I'm done.

Leo Hornak

I'm done. They don't have any more money to pay off the police. And rather than end up at the football stadium, they'll just go back to Somalia. Even the family on the ground floor, the two women with the young boys, are packing up.

Abdi Nor

Which really broke the heart of my brother and I, because that means we're going to be alone here.

Leo Nornak

Did you have any conversations with them about their plans, what they're afraid of? Can you tell me about any conversation you had with any member of that family?

Abdi Nor

What they are telling me, Abdi, what are you doing here? Come on, move. You're dream about America, that doesn't exist. This is a dream. Come on, boy. You're wrong. That's what they're telling me, Leo. At some point, I'm thinking, like, would be OK to go with them. This is totally no life.

Leo Nornak

I guess it can't be safe for two unaccompanied women with small children to be traveling by car from Nairobi to Somalia. It can't be safe, right?

Abdi Nor

They're expecting everything. They're expecting an extortion of property. They're expecting a rape, because there are gangs on the road that can rape women. And the gangs know that there are Somalis on the move, so they're somewhere on the road where there's no police inside. So they can come and jump into buses, rape women, take their money.

And the other thing that these families are fearing when they reach at the border between Kenya and Somalia, another chapter of danger begins, because it's Al-Shabaab that are lurking around the border. And when you fall into the hands of Al-Shabaab, you disappear forever.

The other thing that I was also discussing with them about this seven-year-old and five-year-old kids, because these are the age that the Al-Shabaab really want to program the kids and teach them whatever ideologies they believe. And so yeah, the lady looked like she was so much worried for her kids than for herself. Knowing this, these two ladies and the kids must go.

Leo Nornak

Wow.

Abdi Nor

It's really. So you've got a lot of things to think about, a lot of things to worry about.

Leo Hornak

One night on the phone, Abdi asked me if I'm familiar with the migration of the wildebeest. Abdi wants to be clear he doesn't know about this, because he's African. He's a city kid. He's just seen it on Discovery Channel clips like everyone else.

Anyway, each year thousands and thousands of wildebeest trek to a river that they have to cross in order to graze on the other side. The river's infested with crocodiles, and not every wildebeest makes it. But they all have to try. Abdi says he knows how they feel. Somalis are prey, he says. They're being hunted.

Each evening when I phoned Abdi, I was always concerned that one night, no one would answer, that he would have finally taken the advice of his neighbors, or been hauled off to the holding pens in Kasarani. But when he did pick up, often he wanted to talk about things that weren't related to the Kenyan police or Al-Shabaab. We talked about his favorite movies, Rambo, that movie, The Rock with Nicolas Cage, anything Schwarzenegger. We talked about his friends in the good old days in Eastleigh when you could sit in a cafe and sip tea with camel milk.

One thing I asked Abdi about, when people win the regular lottery, you always hear stories about how, all of a sudden, family members are really nice to them, how cousins they haven't spoken to in years start calling to say hi, asking for favors. I wondered if this was the case with Abdi. Here he was sitting in a slum with all these refugees who were in the same terrible situation, and now he had a ticket out. Did people start treating him differently?

Abdi Nor

Yes, Leo, especially the girls. This is a very good question.

Leo Hornak

Abdi's a practicing Muslim, and so are the women he hangs out with. So normally before, you could only visit them in a kind of formal courtship visit at their home-- no having girls over to his place, no hanging out in public.

Abdi Nor

The difference now, since I won the green card lottery, is that they are trying to come to my house.

Leo Hornak

He's talking about before the police raids started, when life was relatively normal in Eastleigh.

Abdi Nor

So I just hear someone coming up the stairs and knocking at my door and saying, hey, Abdi, how have you been? And it's a lady. And yeah, she sits right next to your bed, and it's all about the conversation. She's trying to do anything to attract you with the sweet words.

Hi. Do you have a girlfriend? When do you want to marry? What type of girls do you want? Now you're going to America, you need a wife. When you go to America, please let me be the first person that you [INAUDIBLE], because I'm here, and I don't have a husband.

Leo Nornak

Are you thinking about any of these girls? Maybe something could happen.

Abdi Nor

Yes. I really am attracted to one of these girls. She's really beautiful, cute. She's Somali, but she has finished high school in Nairobi. The good thing about her is that she speaks English. She is really, I think, my type. She likes to read a lot, you know?

She has a different character. The rest of Somali girls are very shy, but this pretty girl she gives me all this confidence. And she allows me to go to her, and she allows me to hang out with her in downtown Nairobi, wherever possible. So yeah, I think I fall in love.

Leo Nornak

Well, congratulations. That's one piece of good news.

Abdi Nor

Yeah. But unfortunately for the last four weeks, we haven't seen each other. [LAUGHS]

Leo Hornak

May 1st, 82 days and counting. Abdi cautiously ventures out of the apartment building for the first time in weeks. He heads downtown to central Nairobi where life is continuing as normal. It's a stressful journey, but he's able to buy a couple of gallons of clean water and some cans of beans to bring home. He says it's amazing how good these taste to him and Hassan. He tells me he's getting more and more worried about the paperwork he still has to get together for his interview-- his medical records and transcripts from his university. And there's one piece of paper that terrifies him.

Abdi Nor

One of the US embassy requirements is to get a police certificate, something called a Certificate of Good Conduct.

Leo Hornak

What this basically is is proof from Kenyan law enforcement that Abdi isn't a criminal. Abdi doesn't have a record, so this shouldn't be a big deal, except for the place he has to go to get the official certificate-- the headquarters of the Kenyan police.

Abdi Nor

So that scares you a lot. Thousands of Somalis are being held, as we speak. And they are waiting for their return to Somalia, or some of them are waiting for their return to the camps. So while I'm thinking of jumping into a bus and headed to headquarters, stepping in there and saying, hey, guys, I need a police letter, my heart is already pounding.

Leo Hornak

For weeks, Abdi had been talking to me about this, telling me how worried he was about having to go into the belly of the beast. Finally, on a Tuesday morning in May, 77 days before his interview, he gets up early, gets together every ID he has to prove he's a legal refugee, says goodbye to Hassan, and takes a bus to police headquarters. He walks in, waits for his name to be called, and walks up to the window where he faces a Kenyan police officer. And what he encounters is not brutal police tactics, but bureaucracy.

Abdi Nor

He was telling me, there's nothing that I can do but take your paperwork and send it to UNSCR. And then I have to wait for that to come back to me. Even it can take more than five months, he tells me.

Leo Hornak

Five months-- way too long for Abdi to have it in time for his interview on July 22nd.

Abdi Nor

The guy there was not friendly. He was really, really fierce. And I was frozen with fear. And finally I tell him, wait, just listen to me, gentleman. You're talking about five months, sir, but that's not what I'm talking about. If I don't get this police certificate, they will not give me or issue a visa for me, all right? So please, is it possible? And he was telling me, there's nothing that I can do for you. It's going to take more than five months.

Leo Nornak

There's no possibility of you going into a later position with the US Embassy, is there?

Abdi Nor

No.

Leo Nornak

No?

Abdi Nor

It doesn't happen. If you delay your interview, that's the end of it. Some other people will grab the visa. Yeah. Then it's going to be a doom.

Leo Hornak

It's going to be a doom, Abdi says. And I felt that, too. Up to this point, it seemed like if Abdi could just hold on long enough to get to his embassy interview, he'd make it to America. Now, all bets were off. Now, unless this changed, there was no way.

Ira Glass

Leo Hornak. Abdi decides to keep going back to police headquarters every few weeks, despite the risk, despite how frightening it is, to see if one time maybe he gets a different answer. What happens next in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, we're replaying the story of Abdi Nor, just three weeks after the ceremony where he finally became a US citizen. Abdi's a Somali refugee, who escaped to Kenya. And then he won what amounts to a golden ticket to move to the United States and become an American, but only if he's able to make it to an interview at the US embassy, with all the right paperwork, all done perfectly, so he can cash in that golden ticket.

The United Nations has reported that the number of people around the world displaced from their homes because of conflict and persecution is at an all time high. It's over 70 million people, the largest number the UN has ever recorded. Abdi, of course, is one of those people. He's Muslim, from a country with a proven history of terrorism.

The story all happened back in 2013, but today, under President Trump's travel ban, a Somali like Abdi would not be allowed a visa to immigrate into the United States. Anyway, Leo Hornak continues our story.

Leo Hornak

May 12th, T minus 71 days to Abdi's embassy interview. Abdi gets on a bus home from school and, this time, runs into another danger-- not the police, not Al-Shabaab themselves, but the fear of Al-Shabaab.

Abdi Nor

The bus is so crowded with people. And there are these two ladies watching me.

Leo Hornak

Abdi looks around and realizes he's the only Somali. People can tell. Somalis look different. And a Somali with a backpack on, on a public bus? He knows what people are thinking.

Abdi Nor

They're watching my hands. They're thinking, like, when is this guy putting his hand into that bag and start to blow up? This lady then started shouting at the driver, have you made sure there's no bomb in that bag?

I had to fight back. And I say, listen, lady, wait a minute. I'm not what you think I am, you know? No, there's no bomb here. I'm not one of those people. I'm a student, and I'm carrying my books. It's quite embarrassing. And at the same time I feel fear, because everyone in there had very cautious eyes on me.

Leo Hornak

In Kenya, because people don't trust the police, mobs will take justice into their own hands. For example, if a shopkeeper yells "thief" on the street, strangers might grab the person and beat them. And it's not unheard of for people to die this way. A man in the back of the bus chimes in. Why is he there? He shouts, kick him out.

Abdi Nor

I tried as much as I can to calm them down. And they were ignoring me. And then the driver turns his head and tells me, boy, step out of my car. All right, call the police.

And you know, we weren't in Little Mogadishu. We weren't in downtown. We were in the middle. And in the middle, what I mean in the middle, is exactly the Bengali police station.

Leo Hornak

This is the police station Somali terrorists bombed two weeks earlier.

Abdi Nor

What do you think? If they kick me out there with a bag standing there near the police station, what's going to happen? They can shoot me to death.

I said to the driver, wait a minute. You want to know what's in here? And then I had to unzip my bag and bring everything out-- the books, the papers. Showed him the pen, the ID, student ID. Everything, I brought out.

And then I hang the bag upside down and showed him. Do you see anything in there? And then it looked like the driver was kind of satisfied. He looked straight, and he drove the car a little bit faster.

Leo Hornak

Four days later, May 16th, 67 days to the interview, Al-Shabaab blows up two buses. It's a big deal. They were in a Central Market-- at least 12 dead, more than 70 injured. Abdi is sure the police will be out in force, and he hunkers down at home for a while.

Leo Nornak

Hey, Abdi. What's up? How's it going?

Abdi Nor

Leo, it's good. How are you?

Leo Nornak

Yeah, not too bad at all. Could you tell me the date? And then we can start.

Abdi Nor

The date?

Leo Nornak

Yeah.

Abdi Nor

It's May 17, 2014. And last night after that explosion, there was a massive operation in Little Mogadishu. They've knocked at our house. It was like 2:00 last night. We haven't opened. They just kept knocking. And they were thinking, like, there's nobody here. And then they have moved.

Leo Nornak

So hang on. So they kind of-- if they just don't get any answer, then they think it's empty?

Abdi Nor

Yes. The thing is that Eastleigh is not like before. Now, there are no more people at all. 80% have gone. That's what I think. It was like 50% before. Now, it's 80%.

Most buildings are empty. So these days when they keep knocking and nobody's opening, they're thinking, like, people here have moved. So yes, that's what we did last night. We just-- none of us opened.

There was no light in our house. Because these guys, they're listening to the movements. They're watching if there's any movement in the windows. They are seeing if there's a light, or something. Just something like that shows them there's a life here. So that's what we do. We don't show there's a life. It's totally blackout.

Good evening, Leo.

Leo Nornak

Hey, Abdi. How are you?

Abdi Nor

I'm good. I'm good, Leo. How are you?

Leo Nornak

Good. I'm pleased to hear it. I know that you had a tough, a very difficult evening. Do you want to say what the date is and tell me what happened?

Abdi Nor

May 19. Now the time is 8:45. All I can say, Leo, is that I haven't slept for the last, I can say, 30 hours or more, because the police raid has increased. They have come and taken so many people from our neighborhood. And we have realized that this is not the ordinary police. They have changed something.

These guys, they don't negotiate on cash. Everything has changed. They're not going into any negotiation at all. They throw you in the back of their trucks and drive away. So many, so many refugees for the last--

Leo Nornak

And how are you finding this out? How do you know this?

Abdi Nor

Well, I told you already about that girl. She's my-- I can say she's my girlfriend now, but she has a Kenyan national ID. The text message she sent me here, it says, hey, they have been with me for, like, 15 minutes, where she was just sleeping, her room.

And one of them said, you are not supposed to be a Somali. You're a Kenyan, so you can be my wife. That's one of the policeman, what one of the policeman said when she showed them her Kenyan national ID. I'm taking all the Somalis, so you would be lonely here. Just come, and you will be safe. You will live with me. And she said, please leave me alone.

They took everyone else in the compound where she lived who had a refugee ID. She lived with other girls. And the other girls don't have the national ID, so they forced the girls out. They have finally forced the girls out.

Leo Hornak

I tried to confirm this with his girlfriend, but she didn't want to talk to me about it. Abdi says the police took her roommates that night, but left her behind.

Leo Nornak

So what? She's alone now? What's the situation?

Abdi Nor

She is alone, yes. So Leo, yes, that last night, Hassan and I, we didn't know where to go. We could hear all those sounds-- the knob of our gate, the shouts, the bullets that were being fired into the doors of people. At one moment I was thinking, like, go under your bed. And then a moment, I was thinking like, if they find you here, they're going to kill you. I was like, this is-- I don't know. I've never been in such a stressful situation.

Leo Nornak

So if you were to look outside the building right now, what would you see?

Abdi Nor

Leo, to be honest-- Leo--

Leo Nornak

I'm not asking you to. I know it's dangerous, but just help me imagine.

Abdi Nor

Leo, to be honest, if I just look through my window, there's nothing that I can see, I'm telling you, there's nothing that I can see. All the lights are off. Even there's no street light here now.

It's totally, totally dark. There's only this light coming from the laptop. We have to put lots of things on the windows so that they cannot even see-- that's what I'm doing right now-- so that they cannot even see the light from my laptop.

But Leo, I don't know. I don't know why they come midnight. Why is that? Because they don't want us to go to sleep? Why don't they come during the day? They usually come the same time, 2:30, 2:30, you know? And that's exactly when Somali women and children are all asleep and that these guys are coming.

They kick the door open, telling you, wake up, terrorist. Wake up. Why are you sleeping? They're coming back every night. What the hell is going on? Why don't they-- at least if they're doing an operation, why don't they come at one time and finish the hell the whole thing? They're killing us. They're killing us by fearing.

Leo Nornak

In this situation, it must be easy for Al-Shabaab to get supporters, I guess-- people who have maybe a little bit of sympathy with their ideas.

Abdi Nor

Did you read or did you hear about the young men who were deported from Kenya to Somalia have already joined Al-Shabaab?

Leo Nornak

No, I didn't see that.

Abdi Nor

They are coming from the border already, attacking Kenya as revenge, because the Kenyans have really mistreated so many women, and children, and so many young men. Kenya is really giving a very good opportunity to these Al-Shabaab guys, because they are getting what they wanted. They are getting the young men that they were looking for.

Leo Nornak

Yeah. Well, I wish I could say more, but I think there's nothing more I can say right now.

Abdi Nor

I know all I need is some sleep. I don't know if you can feel that, but my eyes now--

Leo Nornak

I can. I can. I can hear you feel very stressed. I hope you get some sleep and keep safe as well, as safe as you can with your good luck, I mean.

Abdi Nor

Thanks, Leo. Good luck to you, too.

Leo Hornak

Days go by. Abdi and Hassan do their best to keep their spirits up and entertain themselves. They read books. They watch Lost and Walking Dead. It's one of the weird quirks of Eastleigh that, even if food runs short, you can still have good broadband internet. They even build makeshift barbells out of old milk cans they've filled with sand and stones and start working out.

Abdi Nor

1, 2, 3.

Leo Hornak

And they do one of Abdi's favorite things.

Abdi Nor

You want me to go out and get--

Hassan Nor

Yes.

Abdi Nor

OK.

Leo Hornak

Listen to music.

[MUSIC - "CARELESS WHISPER" BY GEORGE MICHAEL]

Back in Somalia, if Al-Shabaab caught you with MP3s on your phone, they would flog you. Or they could even kill you for it. They believe most music is sinful. But Abdi always took a risk. He kept his music collection on a secret SIM card hidden under the mattress.

Abdi Nor

This song, called "Careless Whisper," give me some good memories. Because in Somalia, we really had very few Western songs. And there was one time that they got this song and made it into Somali. They translated it.

Leo Nornak

Wow.

Abdi Nor

Yeah, yeah. I would love to play you that. I don't know if it-- let me think where we can get it. Yeah.

[MUSIC - "CARELESS WHISPER" BY MUKTAR IDI RAMADAN]

To be very honest, I have so many songs on my phone, but most of them are very, very old. I really enjoy them. Because I remember my father and the beautiful days in Somalia, he used to play these songs. Because he had this big radio. I'm talking about the '90s, when I was a pretty young guy.

And my father used to sit like this. He's leaning against the wall. His big radio was right next to him. And next to him is a flask full of hot tea with his khat. And the khat is the small leaves that Somalis eat as a stimulant. And next to him is also a bowl full of milk.

Oh, my god. My father, when he has all that stuff, he's in heaven. He's smiling. He gets his finger on the tape, and he makes us quiet. He says, shut up, and just enjoy.

Leo Hornak

During all this, Abdi did leave the house sometimes, but only for a very specific reason-- either to go to an important class he couldn't miss, or to go to the police headquarters and try his luck again getting the certificate he needs for his interview. Then on May 29th, with 54 days and counting, Abdi sends me this recording.

Abdi Nor

Hi, this is Abdi. I have great news to declare, so let me just-- I'm so excited. Oh, my god. I'm really different today. My police clearance is done. Let me say that again. My police clearance is done.

I'm looking at my hand, fingers. They're all black, because I'm still wearing the black ink for the fingerprints. And I'm not sorry about it. I smell the US visa. I smell it. I smell it. I see July 22 coming. This was the only problem. I dealt with it. It's done.

Leo Hornak

At this point, Abdi's a shoo-in. It's almost hard to believe after all the obstacles. But he calls up the embassy, talks through all the paperwork, and they tell him he's good to go. And they'll see him on the 22nd. And his tune on our nightly phone calls totally changes, from this--

Abdi Nor

My heart broke, you know? I'm feeling like, OK, you're not going to make it.

Leo Hornak

--to this.

Abdi Nor

Now I'm in love with the American culture. I'm in love with their beautiful roads and streets, houses. I'm in love with everything, everything in the United States that's going on.

Leo Nornak

Do you sometimes worry that maybe you're so in love with this place that it might disappoint you when you reach there? Many people who reach America have a very tough time.

Abdi Nor

Mm-hmm. No, I don't worry about that, because I know whatever I have been through, they've never been through. I've been a refugee. I've been hiding from police. I've been hiding from Shabaab. I've been hiding from so many armed groups. I have had enough trouble. I have had enough disappointment. America is an opportunity, so I'll take my chances.

Leo Hornak

And America is an opportunity not just for Abdi, but his whole family.

Abdi Nor

My mother is in Somalia. She's in Mogadishu, the most dangerous city in the world. And so every call that's coming from Mogadishu, I pick up really with shaky hands.

Leo Hornak

Abdi hasn't seen his mother in more than three years. She lives in a tiny, rundown shack made of corrugated tin. And she doesn't always have access to enough food or clean water. If Abdi gets to America, he hopes he can make some money. And even if he can't protect her from violence, he can at least help her to get a better place with clean water and three meals a day.

Abdi Nor

I spoke to my mother yesterday evening. She asked, boy, when are you going out of that country? And I said, mom, I've got 52 days. 52 days. I need your prayers. And she said, oh, my god, he's got 52 days. I'm praying for you, boy.

And I know, like I am right now, she's counting the days. It's going to be something that will make her proud, that will make her survive. She's really sending all her prayers towards me.

Leo Hornak

Abdi's older brother, Hassan, has also applied for the visa lottery. Like Abdi, he's worked for years on his English. He came to Kenya years before Abdi. Now he's getting ready to live alone again.

Leo Nornak

Hassan, is there a part of you that thinks, just a little part of you that is a bit jealous about Abdi? Because you both worked hard. And Abdi has got this not through hard work, but by luck.

Hassan Nor

Actually, if I tell you, I don't have the least jealousy at all. If we get two of us visa to get out here, it would even be better. But if someone told me right now, there is one visa, which one of you will take? I would say Abdi, because he's new to this country. And I know how we are so fearful at night. And I know how he can't sleep at night. For him to get visa is my biggest pleasure. Yeah, there's luck there, but luck can be fair.

Leo Hornak

June 4th, 48 days and counting. Abdi goes into the stairwell to use the bathroom and finds a police officer standing there, who calls for backup. The officer doesn't ask for a bribe. He lets Abdi go. Abdi has no idea why.

June 8th, 44 days to go. Abdi tells me, apparently the police have started raiding during the day, which is a change. He avoided them because he was at class.

June 15th, 37 days to go. Abdi hears on the radio that dozens of masked Al-Shabaab gunmen bombed the police station, stole its weapons, and went on a rampage in a town on the coast, killing at least 48 people. Abdi and Hassan brace for more police raids. July 7th, 15 days to go.

Abdi Nor

Leo, I'm telling you, they have chased me with machetes, with stones.

Leo Nornak

Abdi, you're kidding.

Abdi Nor

Yeah, it was only 12 hours ago.

Leo Hornak

When Abdi and I speak, he's shaken up. He says he just tried to visit the mosque for the first time in weeks. It's right down the block.

Abdi Nor

I was like only 10 steps away from my house, and then there's this, like, 50 armed young men. They were armed with machetes and with rocks in their hands. And they started chasing me and throwing those stones. And then I started running towards the mosque.

Leo Hornak

The mob was a bunch of Kenyans attacking Somalis at random on the streets.

Abdi Nor

Yeah, they caught up with us. They were beating these guys, and I couldn't look back.

Leo Nornak

Oh, no.

Abdi Nor

I threw myself-- I threw myself into the mosque, and then somebody closed the gate. And the sheikh, clerk, he was like, please calm down. If these people want to kill us, I think we will all go to heaven. Because Allah says, if we die in the mosque, that's it. We're going straight to the heaven.

Leo Nornak

Well, did you expect to die?

Abdi Nor

I did.

Leo Hornak

July 17th, five days to go. The woman sending him money from America wires cash for his interview fee-- $320. And then finally, July 21st, one day to go.

Abdi Nor

It's actually not days. It's now hours left to my interview.

Leo Hornak

10 hours and 53 minutes, to be precise. It's at 7:30 tomorrow morning.

Abdi Nor

I'm not going to bed anymore. I'm not going to sleep. I am sure about that. Tomorrow is going to change my life. It's going to change my life to be the happiest person on Earth. It's going to change my life to be the most devastated man on Earth. So it's this too.

Tomorrow night, I'm coming back to this home, breaking everything, smashing everything right here, because I'm happy or I'm angry. In both situations, I'll break these things, I know. I will just give a punch into my laptop.

Leo Nornak

I have to say, Abdi, I'm really excited for you. I'm just wishing you good luck with all my heart.

Abdi Nor

Thank you.

Leo Nornak

I'm going to leave you and let you prepare, and can't wait to speak tomorrow.

Abdi Nor

I wish I will talk to you smiling, not really have that--

Leo Nornak

I think you will be smiling. That's what I expect.

Abdi Nor

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Leo Hornak

OK, so while I was brushing my teeth this morning, I got a text message, and it was from Abdi. Hi, very bad news. They gave me a red paper that said visa rejected. And yeah, we text messaged backwards and forwards. And the last message he sent to me, which was a few hours ago, was, this is my worst day on Earth.

I couldn't get hold of Abdi for a day. When I finally did talk to him, he walked me through what happened. Abdi arrived hours early. The waiting room was filled with other lottery winners. One by one, they were called in, and one by one, Abdi says, they came out grinning. Then Abdi's number was called. This was it, window 9.

Abdi Nor

And there was this American lady. She was a black American, to be honest. I was really happy, because somebody already told me that the ladies are good than the men. So if a lady interviews you, you get the visa also. I was thinking, like, all right, man. You got it. So the first thing she said was, please, can you raise your right hand and swear that everything that you will say is the truth?

Leo Hornak

Abdi did, and he answered a few simple questions.

Abdi Nor

And then she was busy, writing something on her computer. I could feel that my legs were shivering. This is the moment. Man, this is the moment that you have been waiting for. And then she said, so tell me, where did you go to high school? And I said, Mogadishu, Somalia.

Leo Hornak

Where did you go to college, she asked. And he told her his university in Nairobi.

Abdi Nor

But she said the transcripts that you have here does not have a signature. Did you know that?

Leo Hornak

One of his school transcripts didn't have a signature. She took out a pink piece of paper and on the bottom, wrote two words-- "Missing Transcript." She handed it to Abdi and said, sorry, I can't give you the visa. I was looking into her eyes, like, please, come back to me and say, hey, I've changed my mind. Please, please, God. I need your help. I need luck today.

But the lady didn't change her mind. She picked up her microphone and called the next number. Dazed, Abdi walked outside and sat alone under a tree outside the embassy.

Abdi Nor

Because I needed to calm myself and bring myself together. I sat there. I was holding my head, and I was looking at this whole world as the worst place to live. I told myself, hey, are you rejected? Is this real, or am I dreaming? I thought it was like a dream. No, you can't do this. You can't do this.

Leo Hornak

The embassy told him he could send them a signed transcript, if he wanted. But they told him not to come back to the embassy. They'd be in touch, maybe. Abdi sent the transcript, even though he was sure he'd missed his chance.

Abdi Nor

Hello, this is Abdi Nor. It's the 1st of August, 2014. An email got into my inbox. It was Immigrant Visa Department at the US embassy. And it tells me, from our records, your document has been received, and your visa will be sent by tomorrow.

Oh, my god. This email made me jump off from my bed and hit my head onto the ceiling. It's issued. God, I just looked at it again. It's issued. What the hell is going on? It's issued. This big smile was on my face. I've never, ever had such a big smile-- never ever, ever, ever.

Abdi Nor

Hey, you.

Leo Nornak

Abdi. [LAUGHS] Oh, my god. How are you?

Abdi Nor

Leo.

Leo Nornak

Are you recording this? First, please, before you say-- don't say anything first. Please be recording.

Abdi Nor

I'm recording, yeah.

Leo Nornak

OK, great. How does it feel to be the owner of a US visa?

Abdi Nor

Mm-hmm. What was the question again? Sorry.

Leo Nornak

[LAUGHS] You're on a different planet.

Abdi Nor

Oh, yeah. What does it feel like to be a green card holder? It feels like the dream has just become real. I don't know what to say. It feels like I am not a refugee. No, this is not the refugee that was hiding from the police. I'm an American citizen.

Leo Hornak

There was one thing about the approval of Abdi's visa that made us wonder. The day Abdi's visa was issued, before he heard the news, I had actually called the US embassy in Nairobi. I said I was a reporter doing a story about Abdi and that I was curious about how long their decision would take, because of my deadline. The woman I spoke to said she didn't know. For nine days, Abdi hadn't heard anything. Two hours after my call, he got the good news.

We asked the State Department if my phone call influenced their decision about Abdi's visa, and they told us, quote, "The journalist's call played no role in the timing of the visa issuance. Any visa process coinciding with a press inquiry is merely a coincidence." I can't prove anything, but that is at odds with what the woman on the phone told me back when I initially called the embassy. She said that now that they knew I was doing a story about Abdi, they would try and expedite the process, even though I told her that wasn't why I was calling and that I was only asking for information.

We spoke with eight immigration lawyers, all experienced with the Diversity Visa Lottery, and they all said my call probably bumped Abdi's application to the top of the pile that day. And with the lottery, because they give out a finite number of visas by a hard deadline, that can be the difference between making it to the US, or not.

Ira Glass

Leo Hornak, he's now at The Times of London, where he's the executive producer of the paper's new daily news podcast called, Stories of Our Times. The show launches next month.

On August 11th, 2014, Hassan took Abdi to Nairobi airport, and Abdi flew to America to live in a small town in Maine. The woman who had been supporting Abdi put him up with her family. He looked for work for a while, finally found a job installing installation. Lived in an apartment with three other Somali guys, mattresses on the floor. He wrote a book about his life, Call Me American. And then, three weeks ago--

Man

If all the candidates would remain standing, or stand if you can, and raise your right hand.

Ira Glass

Abdi and 45 others in a sunshine-filled room in Maine raised their right hands. Abdi had tears in his eyes.

Man

And repeat after me. I hereby declare--

Abdi Nor

I hereby declare--

Man

--on oath--

Abdi Nor

--on oath--

Man

--that I absolutely and entirely--

Abdi Nor

--that I absolutely and entirely--

Man

--renounce and abjure--

Abdi Nor

--renounce and abjure--

Man

--all allegiance and fidelity--

Abdi Nor

--all allegiance and fidelity--

Man

--to any foreign prince--

Abdi Nor

--to any foreign prince--

Man

--potentate--

Abdi Nor

--potentate--

Man

--state or sovereignty--

Ira Glass

OK, jumping ahead here.

Man

That I will support and defend--

Abdi Nor

That I will support and defend--

Man

--the Constitution of the United States--

Abdi Nor

--the Constitution of the United States--

Man

--against all enemies--

Abdi Nor

--against all enemies--

Man

--foreign and domestic.

Abdi Nor

--foreign and domestic.

Ira Glass

Jumping ahead again. It all takes less than two minutes.

Man

So help me, God.

Abdi Nor

So help me, God.

Man

Congratulations. You are all United States citizens.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

There's also brief remarks from Senator Angus King.

Angus King

All of you who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants--

Ira Glass

A choir sings.

Choir

(SINGING) And the rocket's red glare--

Ira Glass

Abdi leads everybody in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Abdi Nor

-- and to the republic for which it stands--

Ira Glass

And afterwards, I get a chance to talk to him.

Abdi Nor

I think every second today was very, very moving. And I feel the transformation happening. I feel the change happening.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. You actually do feel different now?

Abdi Nor

I feel different, yes. Really, I feel different. I mean, I'm not that Abdi from yesterday. I can feel that. I can sense that, you know?

Ira Glass

Is the difference just that you feel safe?

Abdi Nor

The difference is that I feel safe, but I also feel empowered. Empowered.

Ira Glass

Able to vote, able to do anything any citizen can do, able to bring his mother over from Somalia. He's no longer worried that he'd be banned coming in and out of the country, or that the Trump administration will start to deport green card holders like him somehow. Finally, he said, his childhood nickname, Abdi the American, is matched by his nationality. It feels good.

Abdi Nor

Who was I all these years? My life had been based on fighting for survival, and getting out of the war, and being threatened under-- it felt like I didn't have any rights at all as a displaced person, as a refugee, even as a green card holder or a resident in the United States. But now, I feel like it's like restarting. You know, when you play video games, if something happens and then you have a character was killed, you just have the power to go back and redo everything.

Ira Glass

One of the things I was so curious to ask Abdi about was, he had idealized America so much before he got here, in Kenya he used to say he loved America, so what was it like for him to actually live here? It seemed like no place could possibly live up to the way he'd felt about the United States. And he said, yeah, for all the safety, and opportunity, and freedom to speak and protest that he appreciates here, there were things about America that he was not prepared for.

At his first job here installing insulation, guys on the crew stole his hardhat, and his tools, and his winter coat, treated him like an outsider. And in a bigger way, the America that he liked seeing on television when he was growing up, an idealistic, united America, that's what he had expected to find.

Abdi Nor

But that America is not on the TV anymore. It's such a scary place, so divided, more like the Somali tribes. Some things that happen here really reminded me what started the Somali civil war, how people were not happy with each other, how we hated each other's tribe, and power and all that. And then the war that it started in 1991, 30 years old now. So I can't watch America go that path, you know? I can't. So the only thing that I can do is sort of not see the news to not break my heart. So America is such a confusing place.

Ira Glass

Things are going well for him, though. He got certification as an interpreter, and that's his job nowadays. His brother, Hassan, has made it to Toronto with his wife and kids. And Abdi is attending college part time, studying politics. He doesn't just want to use his right to vote now that he's a citizen, he wants to run for office someday.

[MUSIC - "BETTER" BY K'NAAN]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, the program was produced today by Brian Reed, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Julie Snyder, and Nancy Updike. And editing help for today's show from Joel Lovell. Production help from Noor Gill, Katherine Rae Mondo, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney.

Thanks to BBC Radio current affairs, Hugh Levinson and Brigitte Harney, BBC's Crossing Continents radio show, where a version of Leo's story first aired. Special thanks to Esther Sung at the National Immigration Law Center, also to PRI's The World, where Leo was a producer.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he was giving me a ride home last night. And I reached out to the radio, which, of course, was playing our station. And before I could even touch the tuner, Torey is so hardcore Public Radio, he screeches the car over to the curve and tells me--

Abdi Nor

Boy, step out of my car. All right, call the police.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "BETTER" BY K'NAAN]