Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Catherine Besteman. 2016. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees in Lewiston, Maine

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Catherine Besteman. 2016. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees in Lewiston, Maine

Article excerpt

Catherine Besteman. 2016. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees in Lewiston, Maine. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 336 pp.

Catherine Besteman, an anthropologist at Colby College, writes an engaging and timely account of the challenges that Somali Bantu refugees face in their incorporation into American society. Besteman's longstanding connection to the Somali Bantu community began when she conducted fieldwork in Banta, Somalia, for her PhD dissertation in 1987-1988. Almost twenty years later, and after being unable to reconnect with her old friends for years because of Somalia's civil war, she reunited with some of them who had relocated to Lewiston, only an hour away from her own home. This encounter led her to immerse herself in helping them in their new lives in the US and to write this rich ethnography, in which she examines the important question of: "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?" (p. 4).

Making Refuge starts with an evocative description of farming life in Banta before the war and an explanation of how race and ancestry became crucial identity markers when the civil war came to the Jubba Valley. In the 19th century, thousands of slaves from Africa's east coast were brought to Somalia to work on plantations owned by Somalis. This created a categorization differentiating both groups in social and physical terms: the jareer ("hard hair") are those of slave ancestry, while the jileec ("soft hair") are the ethnic Somalis. This ethnic differentiation also proved to be key in the Somali Bantu resettlement in the US: during the civil war, and after losing their lands and many loved ones, thousands of Somali Bantus fled to Kenya and lived in the Dadaab refugee camp, where they again endured violence and racism from other Somalis. Here they began constructing their Somali Bantu identity in contrast to that of ethnic Somalis and then helped for their refugee resettlement when they were identified as extremely vulnerable inside the camp. Understanding this context helps the reader better grasp the challenges faced by Somali Bantus who start a new life in the US and the importance of their own identity once they settle in Lewiston.

The book is then divided in three parts in which Besteman focuses, first, on issues of humanitarianism and how these discourses constrain and burden those who receive aid and who wish to retain agency over their own lives. …

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