Guest post by Yael Schacher, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies, University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on US immigration, refugee and asylum policy. She is currently revising her doctoral dissertation, Exceptions to Exclusion: A Prehistory of Asylum in the United States, 1880-1980 for publication. 

Review of Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine by Catherine Besteman (Duke University Press, 2016).

Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine by Catherine Besteman is a nuanced study of the immigration of Somali Bantu refugees to Lewiston, Maine between 2005 and 2015. Besteman first met many of the refugees she profiles while doing anthropological fieldwork in the Jubba Valley in Somalia in the late 1980s.  She analyses their evolving conceptions of ethnic identity in response to wartime violence, humanitarian intervention, and neoliberal resettlement programs. Besteman also captures various perspectives of the Somali Bantus— their progressive advocates, town officials, and American neighbours— on the meaning of refuge. Though she does not underestimate American nativism – which has become increasingly visible in the context of the current administration – Besteman’s focus on refugee adaptation and resilience is all the more important in the age of Trump.

Besteman devotes the first section of the book to an account of social conditions in Somalia’s Jubba Valley and in refugee camps in Kenya. She argues that although there were clear inequalities and divisions between jareer (hard hair) and jileec (soft) Somalis in the 1980s—a legacy of slavery and colonial labour policies—the arming of Darood clan-members by Siad Barre’s retreating militia in 1991 brought unprecedented violence (including extortion and kidnapping) to the Valley. Thousands of farmers were killed while defending their food reserves and thousands more fled to refugee camps in Kenya. The refugees Besteman profiles spent over a decade in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, where rape was rampant and where jareer were maltreated by the jileec majority (who controlled paying camp jobs). Besteman argues this maltreatment cemented a particular ethnic identity, as did the development of a United States resettlement program geared towards a discrete group of African refugees deemed as of “particular humanitarian concern” (69). As a result, in 1999 the designation “Somali Bantus” was born; Besteman notes “Somali Bantus seemed to offer a perfect profile of innocent victims whose history resonated with American shame about slavery and pride about the civil rights era” (69).  Besteman argues that the refugees in the camps adopted this identity. Adolescent men who came of age in the camps (and were later to become community leaders in Lewiston [once relocated to the US]) were inspired by their Kenyan teachers, who told them they looked Bantu and taught them the history of Bantu migrations and of their connections to Bantus elsewhere in Africa. Prior to the war, Jubba Valley villagers who carried the jareer label did not speak a common dialect, share a common kinship system, or even subscribe to a common history. But these young men arrived in America with a firm sense of themselves as a persecuted minority requiring Somali Bantu (rather than Somali) representatives. Other refugees in the camps were more instrumental in their narration of victimized Bantu identities during the arduous post 9/11 resettlement vetting process.  Besteman sees this invention of identity as a form of refugee agency “ignored in the scholarly…focus on ‘bare life’ and disempowerment” (79). Once the refugees were in Lewiston, Besteman writes, the salience of Somali Bantu identity came “in and out of focus” depending in part on whether people thought they would “get better services and more resources from claiming that identity or from allying with Somalis” (231).

The second and third sections of Besteman’s book are devoted to analysis of settlement and integration of Somali Bantus in Lewiston. This was a secondary settlement: most of Somalis had been officially resettled in other American cities and then relocated to Lewiston, a city distinguished by its low cost of living and safe schools.  Lewiston was also a postindustrial city with an almost completely white population that was struggling economically. The short term federal aid provided to newly resettled refugees did not get transferred to Maine when the Somalis moved there from their initial states of settlement. Lewiston’s city institutions were slow to include Somali Bantus in their programs: a downtown development project denied grant applications by Somali Bantu community groups, hospital staff opposed a one-day-a week clinic for Somali Bantus, and the public school system did not support new programs that targeted only refugee children. This reluctance stemmed from local complaints about refugees getting special treatment. Besteman sees the initial popular and institutional response to the Somali Bantus partly as a product of a “neoliberal definition of refuge” that offers nothing beyond the opportunity for legal border crossing (115, 136-7).  Besteman here provides a much needed extension of the history of American refugee resettlement policy into the contemporary era of a retreating welfare state. Most historical scholarship has focused squarely on the Cold War era when federal aid to refugees was more generous. A product of that Cold War era assistance is a perception that refugees do not come to the United States to work but only to collect welfare (142-154). Besteman shows that beneath complaints by long-time white residents about Somalis draining the city’s resources were prejudiced beliefs that Somalis destroyed their own country and were now coming to destroy the United States.

But Besteman also shows that there were “helpers in the neoliberal borderlands” (169) who pushed against prejudice, for a broader definition of refuge, and for considering Somali Bantus as full –fledged community members.  Besteman especially focuses on a downtown shelter that provided food and clothes, an afterschool homework tutoring program, and the implementation of caseworker support. Besteman also shows how exclusive and neoliberal paradigms influenced Somali Bantu adaptations. Adopting a corporate model of community engagement, Lewiston agencies used focus groups. Somali Bantu resented that only select community members were invited to attend these focus groups and there was a lack of free discussion about their concerns at these meetings. Yet young adult Somali Bantus also mastered the competitive grant writing skills necessary to form a youth association with the goal of encouraging the pursuit of education, rather than the falling into poorly paid manual labour in response to pressure to achieve self-sufficiency.

Controversies about Somali refugees in Maine are alive today. Many relate to women’s rights. This year state legislators have proposed additional provisions criminalizing female circumcision in Maine, while others claim such laws are unnecessary, counterproductive, and nativist. Besteman does not address this issue, but does discuss efforts of the Somali Bantu youth association to insure that early marriage does not prevent young Somali Bantu women from getting an education. Given Besteman’s assertion that “citizenship status, for the Somali Bantu I know, means the legal right to mobility,” it is not surprising that the Trump administration’s travel ban has evoked concern and protest among Somali Bantu in Maine (284).  In general, though she analyzes the way “blackness” mattered in marking Somali Bantus as foreign in a white city and in the appeal of “popular culture’s black urban ghetto aesthetic” for Somali Bantu boys, Besteman writes very little about religion in this book, which made me wonder about how Islam figures in the making of refuge. There is very little discussion, for example, of the role of religious leaders or institutions in negotiating the neoliberal landscape and rising Islamophobia. Besteman’s focus on the young generation gives the book an optimistic tone, though she acknowledges that nativism was politically ascendant by the end of her study’s time frame.

Besteman’s book provides a good overall history of the Somalian civil war, humanitarianism in Kenya, and American resettlement policy while keeping the stories of individual refugees (and some of their supporters) at the forefront.  Perhaps most useful is Besteman’s intimate sense of change over time and place, having known her subjects for decades and been a participant-observer in pre-Civil War Somalia and in contemporary Maine (as she teaches at college there). Besteman’s methodology and analysis will appeal not only to anthropologists, but also to scholars of immigration and ethnic studies.   

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Shacher, Y. (2018) Book Review: Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/07/book-review (Accessed [date]).