- Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine by Catherine Besteman
Making Refuge explores the question of how people whose entire way of life has been destroyed construct a new future for themselves. In this beautifully written book, Catherine Besteman argues that in the process of trying to rebuild life, refugees and those who host them transform each other. She shows how refugees and their hosts are affected by the slow border crossings of all kinds that accompany human mobility. The book is highly relevant at a time when the hosting of refugees is debated extensively across the world. The renewed interest in the hosting of refugees has been sparked by the fact that Europe, the continent whose historical events led to the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention, is facing tremendous challenges providing refuge for the refugees at its borders today.
The focus of the book is on "Somali Bantu" who aim to establish new lives in Lewiston, Maine. Besteman describes the process by which many different groups "became Bantu" when resettlement to the United States became an option for them. She describes how the Italian colonial authorities may have been the first to use the term "Bantu" in the 1930s to distinguish the riverine farmers from the pastoralist Somalis. Yet the Somali Bantu were not an actual group, but consisted of a range of widely divergent communities, many with a slave ancestry from Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Kenya. The Bantu then became a group worthy of resettlement in the US resettlement scheme due to their particularly oppressive past and minority status in Somalia, making them a good objective of relocation from the region. Besteman shows how the strategic actions of both various Bantu leaders and those working for the UN and Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 90, No. 2, p. 549–552, ISSN 0003-5491. © 2017 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of The George Washington University. All rights reserved. [End Page 549] donors on resettlement, solidified the case for resettling them as Somali Bantu to the United States. With this she reclaims the figure of the refugee as an individual with political agency, which is far too rarely done in academic texts on refugees.
The book offers important perspectives on the transformations and border crossings taking place as a consequence of this group's arrival in Lewiston. This happens in three ways, reflected in the three parts of the book: the first discusses the process of becoming refugees, the second describes the reception in Lewiston from the perspective of the hosts, and the third the process of making refuge in Lewiston from the perspective of the Somali Bantu.
The first strength of the book is that Besteman's interaction with those who came to be known as Somali Bantu, started long before they arrived in the US and in Lewiston. As a young anthropologist, Besteman lived in Banta in Southcentral Somalia in 1987–1988, just a few years before the collapse of the Somali state. There, she conducted extensive fieldwork for her doctoral research while her photographer husband engaged in taking pictures of the community and way of life. Within three years after their departure, the village was consumed by civil war and they never managed to go back to Banta. Almost two decades later, Besteman is reunited with some of the people she knew from her stay in Banta and their neighbors in surrounding villages, when she meets them in Lewiston. Sharing everyday life in Banta before the war and having access to the many pictures of life her husband took, Besteman has an in depth understanding of the entire way of life that has been destroyed and an extremely valuable tool to inspire people's memories of that time. She also knows many of those who lost their lives in the war or during flight and can relate to the life histories she is being told on a deeply personal level.
A second strength of the book is that in Part 2, Besteman presents three different perspectives on the arrival of Somali Bantus...