Hunger, War and an American Dream: One Man’s Story of Overcoming the Odds to Survive

World Food Program USA
November 20, 2019
Photo: Courtesy of Abdi Nor Iftin

In the early 1990s, Abdi Nor Iftin was a child. Just like other children across the globe, he loved playing outdoors, bickered with his brother and dreamed of being a Hollywood star. Unlike most other children, however, Abdi was starving – simply because he was living in Somalia during a time of drought and civil war.

Abdi lived through the unthinkable, but he was one of the fortunate ones; he survived. Rescued from the brink by perseverance, luck and humanitarian aid, he’s now a successful author living in the U.S. with a story he’s eager to tell.

“I want the world to know both what I went through and how I was helped,” Abdi says. “Maybe then, we can prevent these tragedies from happening again.

Famine

When Abdi was born, his parents were nomadic herders. They tended livestock and always had more than enough. But drought destroyed their livelihoods and war their safety, so they sought refuge in Mogadishu. That’s where Abdi lived at age 7 when famine struck.

Children in Somalia sit in the sun as they wait for food, 1992.

“I will never forget what it’s like to be hungry,” Abdi said. “The pain is so excruciating you wish you would stop breathing. You think surely, death is better than living like this.”

At the time, Abdi lived with his mother, two sisters and brother. His father recently fled for their safety, and his mother had just given birth to his youngest sister. Abdi and his brother looked for food all day, but almost always came home with nothing. There was simply no food to be found.

“We would eat sand, sour tree bark – anything to ease the pain,” Abdi said, “but nothing helped.”

Abdi – as he documents in his book, “Call Me American” – was able to find some joy during this time in American movies. He found a friend with a video collection, and sometimes snuck away to watch.

“It’s funny looking back on it,” Abdi said, “but when we watched those movies, we always talked about the food in them. There were so many scenes that would begin with actors eating, but then action happened, and they would just leave their food. We simply couldn’t understand. How, when we were starving, could people just waste their food?”

As the days of famine passed, Abdi became sicker and skinnier, but his youngest sister, Sadia, suffered the worst. Abdi’s mother was so malnourished, she was unable to produce breastmilk. Soon, it became too much. Sadia passed away.

“I remember being a child and using a shovel to bury my own sister.” Abdi said. “I knew then what I know even more now: this was not fair. Sadia had a chance to be someone, but she died because there was no food. This is something that should never have happened.”

After Sadia died, Abdi thought for sure he was next. But then, help arrived.

Breakthrough

During the famine, the political situation in Somalia was complex, and initially prevented humanitarian organizations from getting food to people in urgent need. But finally, the World Food Programme (WFP) and other agencies were able to intervene.

Photo: WFP/Kabir Dhanji

A WFP staff member helps unload bags of USAID food in Mogadishu.

“I remember when WFP and the UN agencies first arrived,” Abdi said. “Those blue letters brought pure joy. We would chase the trucks happily down the street. It was like seeing a plane when you are stranded on a desert island.”

“At the time, my mother and sister were too sick to walk, so my brother and I went to the distribution centers alone,” Abdi continued. “The people there were shocked at how skinny we were – but they gave us food and medicine to get better. The food was delicious – rice, beans and porridge. Suddenly, my stomach pain wasn’t there anymore. And my mother was so happy. I remember bringing home food and watching her eat well for the first time in very long.”

“With the UN agencies in Mogadishu,” Abdi said, “I felt protected; I felt fed. I could finally go back to being a normal kid.”

An American Dream

After the famine, Abdi remained in Mogadishu until further conflict forced him to flee to Kenya. He once again received support from WFP at refugee camps there. After living in Kenya for five years, Abdi won the green card lottery and moved to the U.S. He currently lives in Maine and works as a writer and speaker while pursuing his degree at Boston College.

Photo: Courtsey of Abdi Nor Iftin

Abdi in Mogadishu before fleeing to Kenya.

Despite his success, Abdi will never forget what he’s been through – or the help humanitarian organizations like WFP provided during his time of desperate need. And with the U.S. being the number-one donor to WFP, Abdi is truly grateful for America’s role in his survival.

“American taxpayers helped save my life,” Abdi said. “Without their support, I might have ended up like my sister – a forgotten casualty of civil war. But I’m not. I survived to tell my story.”

Beyond meeting his immediate needs, Abdi said humanitarian support played a critical role in shaping his future and beliefs. He remembers receiving help from USAID in addition to WFP.

“Their assistance gave me hope,” Abdi said, “which gave me the resilience I needed to avoid joining extremist groups like Al Shabab to survive. It also inspired me to love America – even while surrounded by extremists that preached hate and chanted death to America. And I know I’m not the only one who was impacted in this way.”

“So, I want to tell Americans, thank you for your support,” Abdi continued. “The U.S. has always been a leader in humanitarian aid and continues to give generously today. Please don’t give up. You might not see the difference you’re making, but it’s there. You helped me – and countless other children of famine – survive. You gave me a chance to use my voice and tell my story, and that’s something I will never forget.”