Catherine Besteman, Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016, 352 pages, $26.95 paperback, $94.95 cloth, ISBN  0822360276.


In 2006, Catherine Besteman made a surprise encounter: When traveling to the nearby city of Lewiston in Maine for a panel presentation she was introduced to a Somali man. After talking to him for a while she discovered that he was a former resident from the village of Banta in the middle Jubba Valley of Somalia. The man told the startled anthropologist that many other villagers had moved to the old mill town of Lewiston. She knew Banta and its inhabitants very well. It was the place where she had lived when she conducted fieldwork in the region twenty years earlier. With the outbreak of the civil war in Somalia in the 1990s Besteman had lost track of the villagers, unable to find out what had happened to the people she had established close ties with during the two years she had lived amongst them. Two decades later, and 7,000 miles away from the village in the middle Jubba Valley, she was able to reconnect with the people from Banta who had been resettled to the US and had chosen to make Lewiston their home. The book is the result of the revived relationships with the surviving villagers. It is a powerful portrayal of the everyday lives of resettled refugees, depicting both the forces that act upon them, as well as the strategies they deploy to maneuver the humanitarian and social maze they find themselves in. Accompanied by a wonderful set of photographs, the book lends faces and stories to people whose individual struggles, hopes and histories are so often buried under accounts of refugees as nameless masses.

Making Refuge pieces together the stories of the villagers from Banta, tracking their movements from their family lives in Somalia, to the refugee camps in Kenya, their resettlement in the US, and their decision to migrate again to settle down in Lewiston, Maine. The core question the book poses is how people who have survived a war, lost everything, and endured terrible abuses manage to rebuild their lives in a new country. Besteman tackles this question with outstanding depth, giving insights into the many layers of social, political, and historical interaction that make refuge. The case of Banta is particularly telling: As part of the Jareer or Bantu minority, its inhabitants have historically been discriminated against for their slave ancestry, separating the farmers living in the Jubba Valley from the pastoralist Somali population. The stories in the book show that with the outbreak of the civil war and the inter-clan violence in the 1990s the Bantu minorities formed the weakest link in Somalia’s collapsing social and political equilibrium. Ostracised and despised by all five major Somali clans, they had no protection and were subject to uncontrolled dispossession, rape, murder, and expulsion. Their stigmatized status as outsiders even followed the Bantu groups into their places of refuge, where they continued to be abused, ridiculed, and excluded. Yet, despite the terrible injustices experienced by her interlocutors, Besteman is cautious not to paint them as utter victims. Instead she sketches the remarkable chain of events in the Kenyan refugee camps that propelled different Somali minority groups to unite under the newly created identity of  “Somali Bantu,” a label that enabled the minority groups involved to react to decades of racism and exclusion, whilst creating a narrative that allowed them to gain access to the sought after spots in the UNHCR resettlement program.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is its in-depth portrayal of the ambiguous bureaucratic and humanitarian processes that turn Besteman’s interlocutors from residents of the village of Banta with a rich array of social networks and historical narratives into helpless refugees in need of resettlement. In chapter one Besteman contrasts the humanitarian and media discourses surrounding the US government’s decision to support a large-scale resettlement program of Somali Bantus from the camps in Kenya with the refugees’ own perspectives. This move brings interesting new insights to the ways bureaucratic labels trickle down into people’s everyday lives. The author shows that US bureaucrats and UNHCR officials aimed to justify the need for the resettlement of the Bantus by depicting them as utter victims who had to be rescued from the premodern state of slavery they were subject to. However, the former Banta residents did not share these narratives of victimhood. In the sub-chapter carrying the telling name “Becoming Somali Bantus” Besteman shows that they perceived themselves as “architects of their group resettlement” by actively creating an identity that met the UNHCR’s expectations for clear labels, allowing officials to legitimize their worthiness as refugees. By shedding light on the narratives of the Somali Bantus who made their way to Lewiston as well as the technocrats caught up in the logics of the humanitarian regime, this chapter draws a fascinating picture of the ways refugeeness is produced, performed and negotiated on the ground.

In the remaining two chapters Besteman focuses on her interlocutors’ experiences as newcomers to Lewiston. She shows how the US authorities abandoned them upon arrival, offering no financial or social assistance to the resettlement process. Again, the Banta residents didn’t sit idle. In an attempt to enhance their chances of settling down in this new country Somali Bantu refugees scattered all over the US decided to migrate to Lewiston, where the rent prices were cheap and they were able to recreate some of the community structures that had been so essential to their lives in the Jubba Valley and their survival in the Kenyan refugee camps. The unexpected arrival of thousands of poor and uneducated refugees shocked the town’s residents and overwhelmed schools, social services and politicians who had to come up with responses “on the go.” Severely hit by the closure of the mills in the 1980s, Lewiston has had to fight many battles of its own: economic depression, the exodus of residents abandoning the place in search for work elsewhere and the slow disintegration of the inner city architecture. In these tense circumstances the Somali Bantu refugees were not welcomed with open arms. Instead, they found themselves in the midst of a media and public battle around the question of who could rightfully lay claim to the place. Despite the fact that many of Lewiston’s inhabitants had a history of migration themselves (particularly from French-Canada), there wasn’t much sympathy for the newcomers from Somalia who were commonly described as a burden to the welfare system and local community. In the second and third chapter Besteman tells the story of Bantu resettlement in Lewiston from different perspectives. Shedding light on the narratives of self-enchantment told by the city officials and the xenophobic notions articulated by local residents, as well as the struggles of those trying to push against these ideas and the views of the refugees carving out their own paths in this tense environment, the second part of the book offers a comprehensive picture of the dynamics of refugee resettlement and reception amidst the logics of what the author describes as “neoliberal borderlands.”

Some sub-chapters manage to flesh out these different perspectives with more depth and care for social detail than others. While Besteman creates a rich and nuanced picture of the Somali Bantu everyday struggles and strategies, the views of the city’s residents are rather sketchy, leaving the reader with an unfinished picture of their stories and experiences. Although Besteman successfully describes the array of prejudices and fears the town inhabitants hold against the Somali Bantus, I was missing a more ethnographically detailed description of the social and existential circumstances that allowed these anxieties to gain such a prominent place within the community. However, this is just a minor weakness of the book and does not decrease its overall strength. I share Besteman’s conviction that anthropologists need to pay much more attention to the intersubjective dynamics that make, remake, and sometimes even unmake, refugees. In a time marked by continuous talk about refugee crisis and a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments, Making Refuge forms an important contribution to a more nuanced understanding of displacement. Given the little ethnographically driven research there has been into the plight of Somali minority groups, the book also forms a significant historical document about a community in the making.


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Annika Lems is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Bern in Switzerland.