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

[This article is part of the launch of Jadaliyya’s Refugees and Migrants page. To see the introduction of the page and other all other launch articles, click here.]


Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Catherine Besteman (CB): In 1999, I published Unraveling Somalia, a book about the political economy of identity and land tenure in southern Somalia. The book was based on field research I had conducted in the late 1980s. After the onset of Somalia’s civil war in 1991, I lost contact with the residents of the communities in which I had lived (the entire region had been devastated in the war, with many deaths and a huge population displacement). While I was finishing Unraveling Somalia, I knew that people from this region were displaced in refugee camps and that some had begun to come to the United States through the refugee resettlement system, but I had not been able to track down anyone I knew. A chance meeting in Lewiston, Maine in 2006, reconnected me with newly resettled Somali refugees I had known when I lived in Somalia. Following our reunion, I began working with the many immigrant Somali refugees who had moved to Lewiston, Maine (about an hour from where I live), and they were eager for another book that chronicled their experiences since the onset of Somalia’s civil war. In a sense, this book is a sequel to my previous book, but it is also based on an entirely different methodology and perspective.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CB: The book investigates what the refugee resettlement system feels like to those who have gone through the resettlement process. I tracked the experiences of people I knew in the 1980s in Somalia, starting with their displacement during the war, touching on their two decades in refugee camps in Kenya, and then concluding with their resettlement in the United States. I also investigate how the twin pillars of the US resettlement program—refugee integration and economic independence—structure the resettlement experience and how resettled refugees understand and grapple with these expectations.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

CB: As noted above, this book picks up the story of the experiences of people displaced from southern Somalia after the onset of the civil war, which is when my first book about Somalia ended. Making Refuge is rooted in a methodology of collaborative and engaged social practice. My perspective about ethnographic methodology and engaged anthropology had evolved a great deal over the two decades between Unraveling Somalia and Making Refuge, mostly as a result of an intervening period of fieldwork with activists in South Africa (which resulted in another book, Transforming Cape Town).

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CB: The book was written with Somali immigrants throughout the diaspora in mind, following David Graeber’s description of ethnography as a kind of gift. Additionally, I hoped the book would speak to immigrant rights activists and community activists who believe communities are made stronger through solidarity work. I hoped it would affirm their commitment to building communities of care, openness, and mutuality. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CB: I am currently working on two projects. One is a book about the emerging new world order that I call militarized global apartheid in which I argue that new regimes of labor and mobility control are taking shape across the global North in a militarized form that mimics South Africa’s history of apartheid (a short version of the argument appears in a 2018 Current Anthropology special issue on Cultures of Militarism). The second is an initiative and exhibition I am co-curating during fall 2018 called Making Migration Visible. The initiative includes an exhibition (Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks and Pathways) at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art featuring fourteen artists whose provocative work engages the theme of migration without using human representation. The initiative also features four months of affiliated events offered by over seventy partner organizations throughout the state of Maine on the theme of migration, including performances, poetry readings, lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions, film screenings, community conversations and dinners, pop up shows, and more, as well as a symposium on Art+Politics. We are interested to explore how art can bring communities together to engage difficult and contentious social issues.

J: What does the book have to say in relation to the current political climate regarding immigrants in the United States?

CB: The book offers many arguments relevant to our current context, including these three:

1) Although the current international humanitarian system for managing refugees is one of containment and disempowerment, refugees always find ways to assert agency in their struggle for self-determination. Mobility is a human right. Stricter border security and walls simply do not work.

2) People leave their places of origin for a variety of reasons, but there is always a global story entangled with local displacements.  In Somalia, the global story is the decade-long international support for an authoritarian military dictator who received one billion dollars in military and economic support from the United States and European countries to bolster his power, even while his regime faced insurrection. 

3) The popular assimilationist and melting pot narrative of immigration to the United States ignores the experiences of immigrants of color, who are entering a country defined by white nationalism and racism since its inception. 

Excerpt from the Book:

A Visit, 2011:

Jama and I arrive for a visit at Abdiya’s new apartment in the public housing complex on the edge of town, where she has recently relocated from her horrible downtown tenement, with its screaming tenants in the apartment above her, domestic violence incidents next door, and racist hostilities from other neighbors. Abdiya couldn’t wait to qualify for the public housing complex.

At her front door we are met by one, no, two, no, three, no . . . four little kids running into the entry from the adjacent room. No adults in sight. As we call for Abdiya, we hear footsteps on the second floor, then the stairs, and finally thirteen-year-old Nur appears. He has been left home with all the little kids, who we can now see number seven. Abdiya is on her way home from running errands with her husband and grown daughter, Nunnay, so while we wait I ask Nur about school. He tells me he loves English and has been working on expository writing and persuasive essays, and track, admitting, with a sheepish smile, “I’m slow.” “Well, you’re only a freshman,” I offer. “Yes,” he grins. I tell him I’ll look for him next year at the track and maybe he’ll even recognize me, referencing our interaction this past spring at a track meet when he was flustered by my greeting, unable to recognize me in the unexpected context.

Nur is one of the most soft-spoken boys I know. I recall his reaction when I gave him photographs of his father, whom he does not remember, and grandfather, whom he never knew. As he studied the photographs, he gently ran his fingers over his ears, forehead, eyes, nose, and chin, tracing his facial contours while comparing his features with theirs. His grandfather died in 1988 during our stay in the village; his father went crazy in the refugee camp and never made it to America.

Nur’s middle school years were punctuated by suspensions for a variety of supposed infractions, some so unlikely that at one point an exasperated social worker intervened with school authorities on his behalf. Abdiya had returned over and over again to the school to advocate for her son, finally throwing up her hands and telling me, “I can’t wait to get him out of there!” I noted with relief that he seemed to be adjusting well to high school.

Abdiya and her crew arrive in two vans, emerging with another baby, more little kids, her husband, and her adult daughter Nunnay. Because polygyny (marriage between one man and more than one woman) is illegal in the United States, Abdiya was initially resettled separately from her husband and cowife until they all relocated to live near each other again in Lewiston, where Abdiya babysits her cowife’s kids while the cowife attends school. Abdiya and Nunnay settle onto the rug, which is covered in potato scraps and lots of small broken pieces of plastic, while Abdiya’s husband makes himself comfortable on the huge U-shaped velour couch, as do Jama and I. The kids, who now number perhaps a dozen, play between the two rooms that together constitute the apartment’s first floor, cuddling in laps and then dashing off, giggling and reaching for the photos Abdiya wants to share with me.

Abdiya and Jama have just come back from their first return visit to the Kenyan refugee camp, where Abdiya’s son, Abdullahi, the baby she had when we knew her in Banta as a young divorcée, still lives since being rejected for resettlement. She had to leave him behind when she came to the United States with her younger children. The photos show a handsome young man standing in front of the small shop and tailor operation that he runs with the money she sends to support him. She recounts the wonderful visit they had, but also her shock at how much money she spent because everyone there is so desperate for help. Nearly frantic to find a way to make more money so she can send more to her son, Abdiya attends every job-training program she can find and applies for jobs everywhere but has not been able to find steady work. Her English is spotty; she lacks formal education; and she cannot replace the front teeth she lost in a car accident because she has no money for a dentist. I suspect employers reject her for these reasons, without bothering to recognize her intelligence and competence.

Jama tells me that something is terribly wrong with Nunnay. When Jama and Abdiya were in Kenya, Nunnay, who was home taking care of all the kids, had a breakdown. The older kids and other relatives repeatedly phoned them to report Nunnay’s problems: she couldn’t take care of the kids, was unable to control herself, was constantly breaking down in crying fits, leaving the apartment, wandering off, running away. “How many kids does Nunnay have?” I ask. This is the first time I’ve met her because she moved to Lewiston shortly before Abdiya left for her visit to Kenya. She looks so young—she can’t be more than twenty-four, twenty-five at the most. “She has seven kids and a husband but he’s not . . . supportive,” Jama delicately chooses the word. “He’s a bad husband?” I ask, bluntly. Yes, Jama nods, he’s a bad husband. Keeping things together for a bad husband, five little brothers and sisters, and seven little kids of her own was just too much.

It quickly becomes apparent that Nunnay is really a mess. She was hospitalized for a month after Abdiya’s return while mental health professionals tried to stabilize her. Many refugees are uncertain about whether Western therapy can help with Somali problems, like jinn and possessing spirits, but some try anyhow when things get really desperate. As we look through Abdiya’s photographs from her trip, a photo appears of Abdiya shaking the hand of an older man. It is the father of Abdullahi and Nunnay, whom Abdiya encountered in the refugee camp for the first time in almost two decades. Abdiya starts laughing, describing his formality at shaking her hand, but Nunnay bursts into tears. Jama says this happens all the time now, and they cannot figure out how to make her better. Abdiya had told me that after her husband in the camps went crazy, he beat her so badly that as a consequence she is partially blind in one eye, and I cannot help but wonder about Nunnay’s childhood in the camps, living with a brute. As Nunnay sobs, life continues around her. Abdiya tends to the little kids, who are now hungry, settling a few of them into sleeping positions in the middle of the rug for an afternoon nap after their snack. A few won’t quiet down, and she silences them with a rapid, threatening hand motion. Jama says quietly to me, “She is managing a lot. She takes care of everyone—all her kids, all her daughter’s kids, her mentally ill daughter, her cowife’s kids, her husband.” On top of her stressful life in Lewiston, she scrapes together money from occasional jobs and babysitting to support her son and his family in the camps. The burden seems unmanageable.

Once all the kids are more or less quietly resting, our conversation shifts to Abdiya’s citizenship test. She spent months studying. When I dropped by her apartment several months earlier to quiz her, I saw how carefully she was preparing by writing out all the answers over and over again in scrawling longhand to commit them to memory. To gain citizenship, refugees must be able to answer all the questions in English, which means that to prepare for the test Abdiya learned how to write in English and memorize all one hundred possible questions in English. I know that her desire for a job and to be able to visit her son fueled her determined approach to gaining citizenship. Resettled refugees are not allowed to leave the United States until they pass their citizenship test, which they can attempt only after living here for five years. Everyone I know is studying to gain citizenship so they can travel to the camps to visit relatives left behind.

Abdiya reports that the citizenship interviewer asked her six questions, which she gleefully and robotically repeats: “The Louisiana Purchase!” I have no idea what that means, but Jama intervenes to explain: “It’s the answer to the question: what did the U.S. buy from France?” Abdiya continues to list the other questions, still committed to memory months after she passed the test: “Who is the current president? What is the ocean to the east of the U.S.? John Roberts!,” which Jama translates as, “Who is the justice of the Supreme Court?” The final question is “Who is the father of our nation?,” which I ask her to repeat, astonished at the patriarchal framing.

Abdiya and Jama report that life in Kenya and Somalia is now worse than ever because of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which has taken control of southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab soldiers do not want anyone to leave Somalia and threaten those they catch on the road from the Jubba Valley to Kenya with beheadings. “They are cutting off people’s heads, like animals!” Jama says, in outrage. “Cutting off hands, legs, cutting out eyeballs. Why? It isn’t the religion. I know I’m not a mullah, but I know it’s not the religion.” A few days previously, when I was visiting Sadiq, his brother phoned to say he was recently arrested and briefly incarcerated by an Al-Shabaab member who disliked his cell phone’s ringtone. He was trying to figure out how to flee, as was Sadiq’s mother. She had tried to escape to Kenya but was caught and held by an Al-Shabaab member for three days. Her captor told her that if she tried to escape again he would behead her. Al-Shabaab is trying to use the local civilian population as shields and threatens everyone with beheadings if they try to escape.

Jama says those trying to escape now have to go north, nearly to the Ethiopian border, before heading west to get to Kenya since Al-Shabaab men started to heavily patrol the route from Banta. “I can’t understand why the rest of the world just lets this happen!” he says. “Somalia has so few people, just a few million. So many women and children are being hurt. Why doesn’t the rest of the world just step in and stop the madness?” Abdiya nods her head emphatically. I try to give a serious answer, mumbling something about the lesson from Black Hawk Down and how the United States does not want to intervene anymore. But, he protests, there were united opposition forces fighting then. There were armies then. Now it is just a bunch of kids with guns. They could stop it, easily. As the napping kids start to stir and we gather our things to leave, Nunnay is still sobbing.

[ . . . ]

The visit captures several dimensions of the lives of Somali Bantu refugees in Lewiston: the difficulty finding a job; the enormous challenges for women struggling to care for many children and husbands who do not contribute to domestic chores; the worries about children repeatedly suspended from school; the debilitating burden of traumatic memories; the overwhelming need to come up with enough money to support large families in Lewiston and beloved family members in the camps; the desire for citizenship in order to be mobile; the ongoing worry about relatives in the land of Al-Shabaab kids with guns; the great care and effort that people exert to support each other, such as Jama for his relative and close friend Abdiya, Abdiya for her married daughter’s mental health and her son’s financial health in the camps, Nunnay for Abdiya’s desire to spend a month with her son in Kenya, Abdiya for her cowife so she can attend school. Worry pervades home life and distracts already distracted parents, some of whom retreat into depression and withdraw from their children. Parental distraction means some boys gain greater freedom to slip out of the house and lose themselves in the street, and some daughters become overburdened with the domestic chores abandoned by their exhausted mothers. Marriages fray under the pressures of new chores, new expectations for gender roles, poverty, and new structures of family life. For someone like Abdiya, what do self-sufficiency and integration look like? How do Somali Bantu refugees in Lewiston define these two tenets of the U.S. refugee resettlement program?