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Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine (Global Insecurities)
Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine (Global Insecurities)
Catherine Besteman
Duke University Press Books, 2016
352 pp., 29.95

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D. L. Mayfield

Do We Really Welcome Refugees?

“No one shall make them afraid.”

George Washington is not the first person to come to mind when we're talking about modern-day matters of immigration, but there he is. A man who knew his Scripture, Washington had a dream for himself and for others in America that came from Micah chapter 4: "for they shall sit every man under his own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid." Washington loved this verse, the Israel dream turned into the American dream. A place for every person to rest their head, to feed themselves and their families, to live unafraid. Have we forgotten that it is OK to long for this dream, not just for ourselves but for all of our neighbors, both near and far?

Who, more than the stranger in our midst, shows us how far we have to come in seeing this dream realized? Who else unveils our own strange ways, the flaws in our society, and yet also the kindness of humans? Refugees prove to be a very telling mirror when it comes to the questions we all ask ourselves in regards to neighbor-love. So many of us, longing to be justified, want to know exactly who is my neighbor, and what is my obligation to them? We find the answers in Scripture, or in political ideologies, or we busy ourselves so that we don't have to entertain the questions at all. But then sometimes the miraculous happens. Sometimes, the most unlikely neighbors move in next door.

When I signed up, more than a decade ago, as a volunteer to work with Somali Bantu refugees, I did not know that Human Rights Watch had identified the ongoing civil war in Somalia as "the most ignored tragedy in the world." I did not know that The New Yorker, in an article about Somalia, declared the country to be the "Most Failed State." All I knew was that each time I showed up with a few English worksheets clutched in my hand, it became increasingly clear that my new friends had more pressing needs to attend to. Many were experiencing the Western world for the first time: light switches, stairs, running water; credit cards with crippling interest; boxes and boxes of mysterious food in the grocery store. Non-literate and non-English speaking, these refugee families were given the requisite eight months of government assistance and were then expected to successfully assimilate into American culture—an expectation that has driven me to tears more than once in the years since.

Catherine Besteman understands my poor, overwhelmed heart. In Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees in Lewiston, Maine, she writes as an anthropologist who makes no pretense to an academic detachment from her subjects. Her detailed, contradictory, depressing look at Somali Bantu refugees resettled in a small town in Maine is a deeply personal work. In 1987, she tells us at the outset, she lived in a small village in the Banta area of Somalia, where people from a culture based on subsistence farming and kinship ethics occupied a marginalized position in a social and physical environment defined by "profound insecurity."

A few years after she left Banta, civil war erupted in Somalia. Besteman, desperate for news of her friends, was horrified to hear how violence and death had shattered the small and fragile communities she'd studied. One of the last letters she received from aid workers in the area before they fled the country contained the news that every child aged five and under in Banta had died from starvation, while others she'd known and loved had been shot and killed. This personal brush with tragedy informs the entire book. Besteman sees the entire refugee resettlement process, both pre-war and even many years after relocation in America, in the light of this trauma.

Almost two decades after her time in Somalia, Besteman attended a panel where Somali Bantu refugees were sharing their stories. She was shocked when she recognized several of the boys she knew in the village—now grown men, articulate and eager to share their experience of life in America. She learned that Lewiston, Maine (pop. 35,000), has become a hub of Somali and Somali Bantu resettlement. As Besteman began to explore the circumstances that led to the arrival of thousands of Somali refugees in the primarily French-Canadian mill town, she realized that a study of Lewiston would be an excellent framework for a much larger conversation on refugee resettlement policies, attitudes toward assimilation, and what defines both citizenship and success in the US.

In the first section of her book, Besteman goes into great detail about the living conditions in rural Somalia, the rise of conflict and violence there, and the history of the creation of refugees as stateless individuals. She explains how the people from villages like Banta came to be known as "Somali Bantu" and (along with the Sudanese Lost Boys) became of special humanitarian concern due to the persecution they suffered under the Somali majority during the war and afterward in the refugee camps. All of this led to the US eventually deciding to resettle 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees starting in 2004.

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.

In the last section of the book, Besteman writes about one of the first Somali Bantu refugees to graduate from college, a man who worked night and day to provide for his family and help his community. Currently he runs an advocacy program to help the Somali Bantu community navigate the various power structures (schools, prisons, social services) they come into contact with daily. It's such a small story in such a long book of trauma, but I treasure it, the fruit of a dream that should not be limited to a select few: safety, meaningful work, education. Every individual sitting under their own vine and fig tree, where no one can make them afraid. This is a dream that translates well to subsistence farmers, to a people oppressed by so many factors in so many places. My Somali Bantu friends have taught me that it's a dream we can all share, the same one that the prophets and the founders of America urged on us—a dream stemming from the God who created us all.

D. L. Mayfield has a book forthcoming from HarperOne, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.

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