Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine (Global Insecurities)
Duke University Press Books, 2016
352 pp., $26.95
D. L. Mayfield
Do We Really Welcome Refugees?
Making Refuge explores the various ways Lewiston has responded to the influx of Somali refugees. One section ("We Have Responded Valiantly") highlights how the city officials describe their own role in creating programs and services from scratch in "an environment of severe economic constraints and social hostility." Another section ("Strangers in Our Midst") details that social hostility, outlining the ten most common myths about the refugees, both humorous and heartbreaking to behold (all Somalis keep chickens in their kitchen cupboards, for example).
Besteman is particularly keen to point out the harm in the simplified humanitarian message portraying refugees as helpless, grateful, apolitical people. Later in the book, building on this critique, she makes one of her most sobering points: "the very people who must present themselves as dependent recipients of charity in order to gain resettlement must, within the space of a few weeks, become economically independent and productive residents who make no demands on their American host communities." She takes time to interview "Helpers in the Neoliberal Borderlands," as she calls them; social service providers and community activists caught between a government which professes to provide services for the most vulnerable but then faults those who want to access those same services.
She clearly admires the social workers, day shelter operators, and community police officers who strive to connect with the refugees and ensure that they receive the same access to benefits as anyone, but she finds their relational approach to problem solving (as opposed to political action) to be largely ineffective. The second half of the book highlights the work the Somali Bantu refugees have done to advocate for themselves, and chronicles both the enormous challenges they face and their hopes for their future in America.
It's a devastating read, full of complex geopolitical realities, crushing social revelations regarding race and poverty in America, the seemingly insurmountable problems the Somali Bantu in particular face, and a general public prone to nasty blog comments and xenophobia. But perhaps I am too close to the situation to review this book in an objective manner—after all, I am one of those do-gooder types that Besteman describes.
I admit that I have found myself, more often than not, indulging in a sense of hopelessness when it comes to the plight of refugees, both globally and those resettled here in the supposed promised land. Both the conservative anti-immigrant rhetoric and the vague goodwill proclamations of the progressives fill my stomach with a cold sense of despair. Arguing about literal and metaphoric walls (either building them up or tearing them down) seems oddly esoteric in light of the challenges of daily life in America for recently resettled refugees. My mind shifts toward Washington's vine and fig tree. Where are the job creators looking out for unskilled and non-literate workers, providing a living wage for those with limited English language abilities? Where are the landlords willing to rent to large families, to broker different cultures and customs, to fight for the right of affordable housing for all? Where are the teachers and police officers and social workers going above and beyond to ensure that refugees receive access to the services promised to them by our government? Both Making Refuge and my own anecdotal evidence gathered in living with Somali Bantu refugees for the past decade confirm that, here and there, this practical work is being done, but there is still much ground to cover.
A primary goal of anthropological fieldwork is to gain an understanding of how people make sense of their world. Besteman discovered that, despite the hardships they faced, the refugees in Lewiston found much to value, celebrate, love, and enjoy in life. This thread of resilience is evident wherever Somali Bantu refugee communities are to be found. I once asked a Somali Bantu friend which place had been easier for them, the camps or America. My friend paused for a long while. "Both places are hard," he finally told me. "Both places are very, very hard." This isn't the answer I wanted to hear, of course. And while it is true that many (if not a majority) of refugees do attain self-sufficiency, there is something to be said for listening to the voices of those who have been least successfully acclimated, according to resettlement agency standards.