March 2016

Jim Breithaupt


An Interview with Catherine Besteman

Catherine Besteman is the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and has written the scholarly yet accessible book Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine, published this February by Duke University Press. The book neither loses itself in despair nor politicizes what she treats as the wholly human drama that it is. The focus, rather, is on the "people who help people" as she describes it and the "mutual transformation" that both the refugees and the residents of Lewiston, Maine undergo, beginning in 2004 after the US agreed to accept 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees in 2001.

The first of three sections of Besteman's book lucidly describes the historical background of nationalistic hegemony in the country that led to the declaration of Somali independence in 1960 and the installation of Siad Barre as president in 1969. With the collapse of Barre's government in 1991, any sense of stability quickly disintegrated as civil war broke out and violence against civilians, particularly in the Jubba Valley region, forced many villagers in Banta to flee. Those lucky enough to escape the violence made the dangerous trek through a semi-arid and hostile environment to Dadaab, a refugee camp in southeastern Kenya (now home to more than 300,000 refugees). As Besteman shows, being selected as one of the initial 12,000 refugees accepted by the US. required of the Bantu (and those posing as Bantu) the reinvention of family narratives and behaviors that conformed to the expectations and beliefs of the UNHCR or United Nations Refugee Agency and other NGOs. The path from Dadaab to Kakuma, another refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, where refugees were rigorously re-interviewed, to the United States guaranteed little more than anger, despair, and disappointment for the majority of the applicants.

Besteman next turns her attention to the resettlement of Somali Bantus in perhaps the most improbable of places, the small former mill town of Lewiston, Maine whose residents already suffered high unemployment after the decline of the town and a significant reduction in government aid before the arrival of the refugees. As the Bantus began arriving in 2004, after lengthy delays resulting in large part from the 9/11 terrorist attack and heightened suspicion of Muslims, Lewiston found itself wholly unprepared to accept a people from another land, many of whom were experiencing cold for the first time in their lives. Besteman's acute understanding of the dynamics of human interaction, informed by her professional background as the chair of the anthropology department at Colby College, is an honest appraisal of the myths and misunderstandings many of the residents of Lewiston, who saw the Somalis as charity cases rather than residents, harbored against the Bantu, while the Bantu in turn grew increasingly frustrated and angry with the town residents over their lack of acceptance and accommodation.

Still, through the collective efforts of the Somali Bantu leaders and community organizations in Lewiston committed to the resettlement of the refugees, Lewiston has become a model for other cities tasked with the challenges of integrating a diverse group of people. In the end, Making Refuge leaves the reader feeling that the balance lies with those who want to help with rather than hinder the resettlement of refugees in this small New England town. "In the end, they are people just like the rest of us," Besteman says. Still, she recognizes the challenges that lie ahead as refugee crises in the Middle East and throughout the world appear to have no end in sight. "Policies involving immigrants and refugees will be one of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century," she says in the introduction to her book.

The following questions were submitted to the author via email after a phone discussion on the upcoming publication of Making Refuge.

Among other things, you are an editor for [Duke University Press's] Global Insecurities series. What topics does the series include, and what place does your new book Making Refuge hold in the series?

My book and the book Owners of the Sidewalk by my series coeditor, Daniel Goldstein, are the first two books in the series. The series will publish books that explore experiences, understandings, and ways of talking about safety, security, risk, and danger. It includes books on war and violence, displacement, policing, terrorism, vigilantism, and more.

As a bit of background, could you explain how you came to Somalia prior to the collapse of Siad Barre's government in 1991? How did the time you spent in Somalia inform Making Refuge?

I first went to Somalia in 1988 as an anthropology graduate student to conduct fieldwork that would lead to my PhD. I intended to return to Somalia in 1990 for follow-up fieldwork, but was unable to return because of the civil war. The time I spent in Somalia living in the village of Banta during 1987-88 provides the backstory in the book for explaining how people from Banta experienced the war, fled to escape violent militias, got stuck in refugee camps for over a decade, and began making their way to the US after 2004, eventually relocating to Maine.

You are the President of the Association of Political and Legal Anthropology. I've never considered anthropologists to be "political" or "legal." What is the role and purpose of the association over which you preside?

Anthropological research often engages with politics and the law because so many anthropologists are interested in understanding the effects of laws, policies, political conflicts, political rhetorics, and political ideologies on peoples' lives. Anthropologists ask why things are the way they are: Why are there income gaps? Why are there refugees? Why is there poverty? How can we explain things like war, conflict, terrorism? These are fundamentally political questions, and these are aspects of life often managed through the law.

If you sorted the keywords of your text based on frequency, which word or phrase would appear at the top of the list? Why do you think that is?

Interesting question. I have no idea. Other than "refugee" and "refuge" I would imagine words like humanitarianism, precarity, borders, agency, and racism might top the list. These are the topics that occupy my intellectual life.

At the risk of begging the question, doesn't our need to create patrilineage and kinship boundaries as well as geographic boundaries foment if not racism at least hostility and resentment amongst groups of people who might otherwise live peaceably?

Not necessarily. Such structures of belonging do not naturally lead to conflict or tension. In fact, kinship systems are often used as mechanisms for de-escalating or deflecting conflict by offering ways to forgive, make amends, and engage in reciprocity. Throughout human history, human societies have been far more interested in peaceable living than in waging war; cooperation and collaboration are the reason humans have survived so successfully for so long. Geographic boundaries are a relatively new invention, and they foment racism when they are used as tools of exclusion and exploitation.

You speak a great deal in the first part of your book about hegemony as a destabilizing influence on poorer countries. Could you talk a little about the effects of the ambitions of nation states in Somalia, in particular the granting and removing of foreign aid once Somalia became "expendable"?

One interest in the first part of the book is to explore the sorts of global ties that enabled Siad Barre's government to become so powerful, well armed, and despotic. It turns out that his government was almost entirely supported by foreign aid, mostly from the US. This is a hugely significant fact in understanding what happened in Somalia -- how the country became so militarized, how society became so polarized, how democracy became so corrupted, and how the state government came to be defined as an entity that could manipulate foreign aid. When the US cut aid to Barre, his government immediately fell. This is not a coincidence.

How much of the post-9/11 immigration policy in the US is based on legitimate security concerns? Or has 9/11 become an easy excuse to deny resettlement of refugees in this country?

There is no link between 9/11 and refugees, so clearly the attempt to link them is, as you suggest, an "easy excuse to deny resettlement of refugees."

Following that line of thinking, the ways in which the Bantus shifted their narrative and ethnicity to gain refugee status is a highly sophisticated survival skill, isn't it?


I have been reading lately about the fate of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians in parts of Oregon and Idaho in the nineteenth century, an indigenous people who were stripped of their sacred lands and human dignity and reduced to a subhuman level of subsistence. These acts of inhumanity in Somalia are nothing new in the historical story of man's inhumanity to man. Or are they?

I suppose I would argue that every act of inhumanity is different and it is worth it to delve into the contexts that produce each one. There is nothing predetermined or natural or inevitable about such violence, so it is the task of historians and anthropologists and political scientists to explain what happened that caused otherwise normal men and women to commit atrocities against each other. Most humans will never commit atrocities -- to do so is to act in a profoundly unnatural way -- so we are compelled to investigate and explain violence rather than simply excuse it as a normal and inevitable part of humanity.

How did we get to this point where a people such as the Somalis are denied their identities and any chance of mobility and legal recourse? How is it that we define "power" in the 21st century?

I'll make three points in response to this question [ed. note: The author provided this answer in slightly altered form from a Q&A with Laura Sell on News From Duke University Press]. The first is that the violence in Somalia, like the violence in Syria over the past year, should make it clear that contemporary local or regional conflicts are usually the manifestation of events, actions, decisions, and linkages that are global in reach and origin. No place in the world is immune. Violence in Somalia -- or Syria -- is directly linked to policy decisions made by the leaders of other countries, to networks utilized by international arms dealers, to ideologies that link people across the globe, and so forth. Refugees thus are fleeing not just a local crisis, but rather are fleeing a place made unlivable by a toxic conflagration produced by global interconnections and factors. Refugees are ordinary people who led ordinary lives before war destroyed their communities. They are doing whatever they can to keep their families safe.

The second point is that state borders are the biggest danger to people seeking safety for their families after fleeing violence. Borders are meant to exclude noncitizens and to barricade citizens. A world order based on mandatory citizenship means ongoing limbo for those 60 million people who have had to flee the place where they hold citizenship. What is supposed to happen to all those people? Our current system for managing refugees -- granting temporary refugee status to some, warehousing some in isolated and impoverished camps, imprisoning some in detention centers, deporting some to unsafe places, funneling some into the most dangerous crossings in the Mediterranean Sea or the Sonoran desert -- is an inhumane and unsustainable system.

The third point is that refugees will not put up with the condition of mandatory limbo -- with staying put in detention centers and refugee camps in obedience to border patrols and constraints on their mobility -- but rather will simply move in defiance of efforts to contain them. Rather than insisting that such movement is illegitimate and illegal, the world will have to find a new way to enable refugee movement, protection, safety, and self-determination.

You speak in your book of the three concurrent themes of Somali Bantu resettlement, the third and most intriguing in my opinion being refugee bravery and courage. Could you talk about the obstacles that a refugee in Somalia faced in attempting to resettle in Lewiston, Maine?

Most refugees from Somalia who survived the flight to Kenyan refugee camps spent years and years there without any plan for where they could go that would be safe. Once settled in camps, refugees are not allowed to leave (except to return to their countries of origin) and are not allowed to work. It is an almost intolerable situation. Only one percent of people in refugee camps around the world are offered the opportunity to resettle legally in another country, so the hope for legal resettlement is slim for most. We like to think of refugee camps as places of refuge and care, but they are also zones of incarceration that exist to keep people contained and unable to move.

As recounted in the book, Somali Bantu refugees in the Kenyan refugee camps first tried to negotiate resettlement for themselves in Tanzania and Mozambique before the US finally offered a resettlement plan for those who qualified. In order to be accepted they had to pass background checks, many interviews, security checks, and medical checks, making them the most scrutinized refugees ever accepted for resettlement.

Those accepted for resettlement in the US were initially sent to dozens of different states, where they were offered modest initial assistance by resettlement agencies contracted by the US government. None were sent to Maine. Somali Bantus resettled in cities across the US made the choice to move to Maine, which they thought would offer them safety, security, quiet, independence, and the ability to recreate their systems of social support. So it was a long, long journey over a decade and a half to get to Maine.

Do you feel it is possible to understand Lewiston's initial reaction of hostility and suspicion of the Somali refugees without condoning their behavior?

Absolutely. Anthropological inquiry is often about trying to understand the world through the eyes of others, rather than judging people for the perspectives they hold. I tried very hard in the book to explain why some Lewistonians felt hostile to the arrival of unexpected immigrants and how the challenges of such sudden change produced a complex set of reactions and responses. While I would never condone racist or xenophobic attitudes, as an anthropologist it is critical to try to understand what animates such views.

Is Lewiston a case of "refugee resettlement gone wrong"?

No. To the contrary, the story in Lewiston is largely about what worked, not what went wrong. Lewiston's story is quite remarkable, and the city deserves accolades for how it has managed a decade of rapid transformation. One of the primary stories of refugee resettlement is that refugees receive hardly any direct resources from the government while they get settled and try to find jobs to support themselves, which means their safety, security, and ability to sustain themselves often depends on the help of host community members who welcome, teach, protect, and support them. At the same time, refugees are working valiantly after resettlement to gain linguistic, educational, and job skills. They organize themselves to support ill or debilitated community members, they pool resources, they form strong bonds of mutual support, and they depend on each other. Lewiston's story shows both of these systems of support in action.