Solve the problem of people displaced by war within three years. That was the wildly optimistic mission given to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees when it was created in 1951. More than 65 years later, its work continues, except that it now serves 13 million refugees, a staggering increase from the 1 million it was designed to serve after World War II.

Refugees have a distinct status under international law, quite different than that of other migrants. They have fled their home countries fearing persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or political views.

Somali Bantus, many of whom have settled in Lewiston, Maine, are refugees. An historically oppressed group, some of whose ancestors were exploited in the Indian Ocean slave trade, they migrated to the Jubba River valley in southern Somalia, where they lived as farmers. With the onset of the Somali Civil War in 1991, they were subjected to new waves of abuses, including rape, kidnapping and murder. Human rights groups reported that tens of thousands of farmers were killed in the Jubba Valley, which had become “one big graveyard.”

Some of those who escaped the valley began a long journey – 10 years, in some cases – that ultimately took them to Lewiston, Maine, where they have become part of Lewiston’s journey as well. Starvation and disease plagued the refugees as they traveled from Somalia to refugee camps in Kenya. Once at the camps they were subject to “banditry, assault, and rape.”

Catherine Besteman, a professor of anthropology, writes about this remarkable journey in “Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine.” Besteman, who lived in the Jubba valley in Somalia in 1987-88, published two books about her experience there after joining the faculty at Colby College.

Catherine Besteman

Catherine Besteman

In 2006, at an event at Bates College in Lewiston, Besteman was astonished to see some of her former villagers in a reunion that brought her “back into a relationship with the people from Bantu, 7,000 miles and 20 years away from where we first met.”

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.

Somali Bantus began arriving in Maine after the U.S. State Department in 1999 announced a plan to resettle about 12,000 people from that group. Once in the United States, they were free to locate wherever they chose. Some Somali Bantus opted for Lewiston, because it was “an affordable and livable small city with good public housing, safe schools, a very affordable cost of living, more financial support than in other cities, and (it had) the familiarity of a growing Somali community,” Besteman writes.

Limited employment and educational opportunities, the difficulty and time involved in learning English, and a requirement that they pay the U.S. government for travel costs worked against them. The refugees in Lewiston came to the “growing realization that they would be living in poverty in the land of opportunity.”

Adding to the challenges, the Somali Bantus’ arrival was bookended by two economic crashes: the end of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and the great recession of 2007.

The city of Lewiston received no transition support from the federal government, and it was as unprepared for the refugees as the refugees were for life in the United State. Unfortunately, some in Lewiston did not welcome the refugees and were openly hostile toward them.

Besteman writes “Making Refuge” as an “action anthropologist,” meaning the book reflects her academic observations and her close involvement with the people about whom she writes. This approach raises an important issue: Her perspective is influenced by her personal investment as friend, volunteer, grant writer, project organizer and mediator in the Somali Bantu community.

For example, the book criticizes social welfare programs requiring caseworkers to administer benefits according to eligibility rules. Besteman writes favorably of the government workers who follow their hearts and “work to subvert and maneuver within (the) system.” She claims those who refuse to do so are “the shock troops of neoliberal reform.”

Implying that social service workers who won’t subvert program rules are “shock troops” may be a little over the top. Moreover, if workers administered programs based on their personal feelings instead of the law, those programs would become fragmented and access to benefits would depend on the whim of individual bureaucrats.

Similarly, when interpreting domestic violence in the Somali Bantu community, Besteman describes husbands’ “reluctant use of violence against wives,” as if that reluctance somehow makes the violence more tolerable – or less criminal. Instead of commenting on the existence and consequences of domestic violence within Somali Bantu marriages, she cites another professor and writes that it “can sometimes be a call for community involvement to mediate a resolution” for the couple – a claim that would be hard to swallow in any other context.

Still, Besteman’s writing offers an in-depth and timely analysis of the Somali Bantu experience in Lewiston, now in its second decade. The refugees continue to make their future as a part of Lewiston, organically increasing their involvement in civic life by organizing classes on literacy, communication skills and citizenship. In a march down Lisbon Street in Lewiston, they properly claimed “Lewiston is our city too.”

With her unique perspective, Dr. Catherine Besteman will remain an important observer and participant in this collective future.

Dave Canarie is a Portland attorney and adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine and St. Joseph’s College.

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