All people should have the right to pursue happiness. This is a truth that seems to be self-evident for both Americans and Buddhists alike. America promises to protect the personal freedom in which happiness can be pursued, and Buddhism offers a spiritual framework. Both approaches are highlighted in Call Me American, a memoir by Somali immigrant Abdi Nor Iftin, who describes his harrowing, heartbreaking, and uplifting journey from Mogadishu to Maine in search of this basic right.  

Iftin grew up in a country torn apart by civil war. As competing factions destroyed his homeland, the then-schoolteacher found solace in American movies and learned English. The shifting powers in Mogadishu often made his language skills a capital crime, but Abdi felt compelled to share his story, secretly reporting on the horrors of the war between the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabaab and government forces for a National Public Radio segment. This ultimately connected him with Sharon McDonnell and Gib Parrish, a couple that heard about his plight and provided logistical, financial, and emotional support along the way, ultimately serving as his host family in America years later. Upon arriving at their home, Iftin writes in his memoir, “A sculpture of Buddha sat quietly on the floor. I didn’t know who Buddha was, but I soon learned Sharon and her family believed in Buddhism.”

This line piqued my interest. Compassion is central to Buddhism, but it is something that can seem abstract, a concept more than a practice. Yet here was an example of a Buddhist family practicing compassion in the truest sense of the word: by extending themselves fully in the aid of another. It made me want to know more about Sharon and Gib, both as Buddhists and as Americans. When I reached out to Abdi to ask about interviewing them, he said, “Buddhism was something I heard of, but I never knew Americans could be Buddhists. I watched and learned from this family, and I was so impressed with the kindness, love, and compassion Sharon, Gib and their kids exercised.” Their interview is a prescient reminder that our country has thrived thanks to its openness, and that we can’t restrict our borders without closing off the best part of ourselves.

How did you hear about Abdi, and what about his plight inspired you to reach out?

Sharon: In 2009, we lived in northern Vermont, and I was teaching at Dartmouth College. Abdi was featured anonymously on a Public Radio International program called “The Story” with Dick Gordon. He is a born storyteller—I could smell the gunpowder in his tale. He was anonymous because if he had been caught speaking English and reporting on Western radio, he would have been killed. That is how much it meant to him to tell his story of surviving in a country that lacked a functioning government.

Gib Parrish and Sharon McDonnell

There is always a lot of background as to why something or someone touches and inspires us and then how it becomes important and actionable. Having lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I knew how dangerous it would be for Abdi  [who already had been threatened to drop his nickname, Abdi the American, which he was given because of his ability to speak with an American accent]. Or, I could say it was because my son was at college, and the notion of a young man about his age being wasted felt intolerable. I knew that foreign news bureaus were being disbanded and that places like Somalia would go quiet with no one reporting on them. And, I had been working with graduate public health students about how to promote “citizen journalism,” which is meant to give local people the means to tell their own stories and have them heard more widely. Abdi’s radio stories pushed a lot of buttons.

Why did you ultimately decide to aid him to the extent that you have?

Sharon: Really, all I did was write a letter to the radio show to thank them for finding and supporting Abdi and citizen journalism. In the last line of my note, I said something like “if there is anything I can do, let me know.” It’s a throwaway line, right? They sent my note to Abdi, and he wrote me back, and this began a conversation that we have maintained to this day. You have to meet Abdi to know that there are few people in this world more open-minded, generous, and intellectually interested in life. When people express wonder at how deeply our family ultimately got involved, I tell them that each new step forward followed a previous step that was built on friendship and shared interests.

What makes me laugh is to read Abdi’s book and see how much the minimal financial support that we provided meant to them. Let me say that I didn’t want to be some rich American just sending money. I provided money when it seemed like the most useful thing to do, but I never sent money out of guilt. In fact I didn’t send that much money, and sometimes I felt a bit guilty that I couldn’t. But I know that Abdi and [his brother] Hassan came to know that they were not alone. For example, one night I talked to them on the phone for hours when they thought the police might come and haul them away for deportation. There was so much I could do nothing about. 

Gib: Sharon often told me stories about Abdi and her correspondence and friendship with him, and I gradually got to know him. So when Sharon decided to help him financially and, ultimately, to offer him a place to live when he arrived in the United States in 2014, I “decided” to help, too. My contribution has been to be Abdi’s friend and occasional guide to making one’s way in the US, from opening a checking account to stacking firewood.

Sharon: Gib is being modest. He is the best person ever to learn how stuff works here in the US. My family was remarkably good-humored about the idea of providing support for Abdi and Hassan. Our daughter, Natalya, walked him all over town to make sure people met him and knew where he lived. She introduced him to all of our neighbors and even the policemen.

It is amazing how many things are obvious to us as natives. But to see them fresh from the eyes of a generous outsider has been wonderful. I remember explaining that the leaves on the trees would change color and fall off, that snow would fall, and that the mail-person would come to leave important papers in our box. It is all miraculous when viewed from the outside.

Did your Buddhist background influence your actions at all?

Sharon: My background is a potpourri of spiritual influences, which I think is truly American. I am a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Maine’s Portland Friends Meeting, and I have studied Buddhism as a meditator, retreat junkie, and avid reader since I was 13. Pema Chodron and Jack Kornfield have been excellent teachers for me, because both of them approach the serious issue of spirituality with from an experiential rather than academic angle. I call myself a Quaker Buddhist.

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I find guidance from the Quakers for social action, where it is taught as pragmatic steps, and the community supports me. Each week, we have an hour-long meeting where we stay quiet. In that meditative silence we try to find our “center,” where divinity (as each of us knows it) resides. From Buddhism, I have another practice that I can bring to my quiet time at the meeting. It gives me a light touch to deal with the clatter and seductive drama playing in my mind.

Another important guide to making compassion actionable for me was Ram Dass and his 1985 book with Paul Gorman, How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service. We have to be very careful with our urges to “help” other people. I need to gently probe my intentions to see how attached I am to being a helper, and I have to make sure that I am not trapping another person into needing my help so that I can feel good. Both the person helping and the person being helped are bigger than those roles.

Has this whole process informed your practice or taught you anything about compassion? 

Sharon: Compassion comes when I stop thinking about myself. Forgetting myself is grace. During Abdi’s journey—at every step—I reached out to people that he knew or that are friends of mine. We networked our way to success and formed “Team Abdi.” Team Abdi found ways to send funds, advocate for Abdi with reluctant immigration officials, and help with endless paperwork. I could go on and on with the names of others who stepped up and offered assistance. I wonder who helped whom? I, too, was and continue to be the beneficiary of this compassion. 

A friend recently sent me an email I wrote in 2014 to other Team Abdi members, as we were fretting over his upcoming interview at the U.S. Embassy to Mogadishu for the Diversity Visa Lottery. I think it best explains what I learned about the nature of compassion:

I was cleaning the chicken coop today, a job I like better than you might think. It’s all real in a chicken coop. All the metaphor is concrete and amusing. I treat these chickens well—not extravagantly but decently. I cannot save the world of suffering chickens through these particular chickens but I can acknowledge that they deserve it and I do my part in the ecosystem. There is something in how this all adds up in my mind that speaks to why it makes any sense to pick one Somali refugee and say, “Come, we will try to help.” It is not a program or even a project, it is just one live being that would be better off secure and able to work within his capacities and nature.

How has this experience shaped your view of America and its current attitude towards immigration?

Sharon: Being a refugee usually means you cannot work, you cannot go to school, you cannot participate in the world, and life is not safe. Before coming to America, Abdi managed to reach Nairobi, Kenya. At the time we thought, “Now he will be safe and can go on with his life.” Wrong. Most doors were closed: his life was less dangerous, but it was still hopeless. Hopelessness is dangerous. Why should we in America have so much hope for our families, yet so many in other parts of the world have none?

Through Abdi I have met many immigrants living in my area, and I appreciate how complex their lives are legally, culturally, and economically. As a country, we have not clearly articulated our immigration policies. We need to do that. We have government agencies with little or no guidance and mixed messages. Chaos is not policy.

But at the local level, if there are immigrants—or “people from away,” as we say in Maine—living in your area, go visit them. Talk to them at restaurants, go to English language courses and offer to have conversations with students, invite them to your home. Relocating can be scary for them. Ask people working in programs for immigrants (teachers and social workers) to connect you with someone that will enjoy the opportunity.

Gib: My experiences with Abdi and his long journey had made me much more aware of the plight of millions of people around the world who seek to escape danger and persecution and find safety, peace, and a better way of life. America is a country of immigrants. Most of the current administration’s immigration policies don’t recognize the humanity and actual motivations of immigrants seeking a better life in America. Immigration policy should be based on compassion and understanding, not fear-mongering and hatred.

Sharon does consulting work in public health and epidemiology and teaches public health to graduate students. Gib has worked in public health since 1982. He has been interested in Buddhism since the mid-1990s. Call Me American was published in June by Penguin Random House, and is available at your local independent bookstore.

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