Making Refuge

Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

Making Refuge

Global Insecurities

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 32 illustrations Published: February 2016

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Sociology > Migration Studies

How do people whose entire way of life has been destroyed and who witnessed horrible abuses against loved ones construct a new future? How do people who have survived the ravages of war and displacement rebuild their lives in a new country when their world has totally changed? In Making Refuge Catherine Besteman follows the trajectory of Somali Bantus from their homes in Somalia before the onset in 1991 of Somalia’s civil war, to their displacement to Kenyan refugee camps, to their relocation in cities across the United States, to their settlement in the struggling former mill town of Lewiston, Maine. Tracking their experiences as "secondary migrants" who grapple with the struggles of xenophobia, neoliberalism, and grief, Besteman asks what humanitarianism feels like to those who are its objects and what happens when refugees move in next door. As Lewiston's refugees and locals negotiate coresidence and find that assimilation goes both ways, their story demonstrates the efforts of diverse people to find ways to live together and create community. Besteman’s account illuminates the contemporary debates about economic and moral responsibility, security, and community that immigration provokes.


"Besteman eschews social science jargon to tell her story with great insight and empathy. Her book should be required reading for policymakers currently debating what to do with refugees from Syria." — Nichola van de Walle, Foreign Affairs

"Given Besteman’s unique perspective on the Somali Bantu community in Lewiston and her impressive scholarship on refugees, Africa and racism, it would be difficult to imagine any scholar having as rich and multi-faceted a frame of reference on the issue of refugees in Maine. ... Besteman’s writing offers an in-depth and timely analysis of the Somali Bantu experience in Lewiston, now in its second decade."   — Dave Canarie, Portland Press Herald

"Tensions between newcomers and established communities are as old as the US itself, and Making Refuge is a rich account of what is gained and what is lost in becoming American. Think of this book as your ringside seat to the birth of a new shared meaning of 'life the way it should be.'" — Faith Nibbs, Times Higher Education

"[S]cholarly yet accessible. . . . The book neither loses itself in despair nor politicizes what she treats as the wholly human drama that it is." — Jim Breithaupt, Bookslut

"It is 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." — D. L. Mayfield, Books & Culture

"The book is highly accessible, engaging, ethnographically rich, and written with real sensitivity, qualities that will resonate well with students. The book will also be useful to policy makers, NGOs, and refugee service providers." — Stephanie R. Bjork, American Anthropologist

"Besteman’s work would well deserve a spot in upper-level undergraduate and graduate syllabi focusing on some aspect of forced migration, refugee resettlement, peace and conflict studies, community-building in a world of superdiversity, and humanitarianism. Beyond the academy, voluntary agencies, also known as volags, currently in the process of resettling Syrian refugees in various parts of the U.S. could take meaningful lessons from this ethnography on how and where to allocate limited resources, ways in which the new arrivals could be made part of some of the decisions made on their behalf, and on adjustment paths that are mutually beneficial." — Lynn Valencic and Fethi Keles, City & Society

"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." — Annika Lems, Society & Space

"As an ethnographic study of both Somali Bantus and their forced displacement, this is a timely book. It serves as an excellent starting point for work on subjectivities in relation to refugee experiences, and can serve as an integral part of larger research projects on forced migration. The book is of importance in the current political context.... It should appeal to anthropologists, researchers and academics studying and working on the African diaspora, politics of ethnic divides in the region, refugee resettlement policies, and refugee integration policies. The book should also appeal to practitioners in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other government organizations involved in refugee status determination and resettlement." — Jay Ramasubramanyam, African and Black Diaspora

"Making Refuge is a superbly written, well-organized book with beautiful stories and photographs and sound but subtle theories that will make it a great book for undergraduates and graduate students and a must-read for anyone interested in refugees, human rights, the aftermaths of war and migration, race and ethnicity, and engaged anthropology." — Jennifer Erickson, American Ethnologist

"[A] rare portrait of displacement of both Somalis and citizens of Lewiston whose worlds change as demographics do in the small Maine town." — Jennifer Hyndman, Anthropological Forum

"Making Refuge is particularly relevant in a time when refugee resettlement is widely discussed, as it points to the flaws and contradictions of a system that expects refugees to be docile and thankful recipients of charity to gain resettlement but at the same time requires for them to become self-sufficient shortly after arriving in the country. Besteman offers many useful lessons to policy makers and those who provide services to refugees as well as students of immigrant incorporation." — Cristina Ramos, African Studies Quarterly

"Besteman goes beyond simply portraying the lives of Somali Bantus in Lewiston, Maine and instead shows how the ethnic group ‘Bantu’ was created, along with the construction and dispute of the Bantu identity, both by those described as Bantus and those doing the labeling. . . . The richness of the data makes the community really come alive in the pages of the book." — Bernadette Ludwig, Migration Studies

"Making Refuge deserves wide readership, both for its distinctive ethnographic foundations and salient conclusions. This timely work speaks to current controversies over refugees and resettlement with rich, data-driven analysis that shatters dominant narratives of integration and belonging." — Emily Frazier, African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review

"Making Refuge’s greatest strength is the rich fieldwork in which it is grounded." — Alejandro Ponce de Leon-Calero, Sociological Forum

"Besteman’s book is the fruit of years of engagement with the people about whom she is writing, across two continents, allowing for a rich and intimate account which is a pleasure to read, seamlessly mixing the stories of particular individuals and families, more general analysis, and conceptual insight. A great strength of the account is its multidimensionality: close attention is paid to policy-making and bureaucratic processes, but also to the lived experiences and agency of refugees, and how they navigate these systems."
  — Anna Lindley, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Making Refuge is an indispensable resource that adds layers of meaning to the refugee experience and is increasingly relevant in today's debates over immigrants, refugees, and globalization's worldwide impact." — Saulat Pervez, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences

“Powerful, persuasive, and illuminating, at once deeply intimate and broadly relevant. Making Refuge will interest students of all levels, professional anthropologists, members of the media, and an educated non-academic readership.” — Daniel M. Goldstein, PoLAR

"Making Refuge is the extraordinary story of an anthropological reencounter as the ethnographer discovers that villagers she had lived with in Somalia two decades earlier have become her neighbors in Maine after they left their war-torn country to seek asylum in the United States. Few studies have provided such a powerful albeit intimate understanding of the unexpectedness of globalization, variations in the experience of diaspora, and complications of resettlement in a sometimes hostile new environment."  — Didier Fassin, author of Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present

"The timeliest of books in these most troubling of times. The out-of-nowhere arrival of refugees and migrants at the doorstep of Europe and the United States—their sheer mass, the horrors of the journey, their inhospitable reception, the centrality of this to all that is political today—is the issue of our time. Catherine Besteman follows the journey of Somali refugees who resettled in the United States with brilliant insight and eloquence, and with the intimacy and soulful empathy that comes from years of acquaintance, both in Somalia and in the United States."  — Charles Piot, author of Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Catherine Besteman is Francis F. and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College and the author of Transforming Cape Town and Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Terms and Abbreviations  ix

Timeline of Events  xi

Acknowledgments  xv

Introduction  1

Part I. Refugees

1. Becoming Refugees  35

2. The Humanitarian Condition  57

3. Becoming Somali Bantus  77

Part II. Lewiston

Introduction  103

4. We Have Responded Valiantly  115

5. Strangers in Our Midst  139

6. Helpers in the Neoliberal Borderlands  169

Part III. Refuge

Introduction  205

7. Making Refuge  215

8. These Are Our Kids  243

Conclusion: The Way Life Should Be  277

Notes  291

References  313

Index  327
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