Q&A with Catherine Besteman

Besteman S16 author photoCatherine Besteman is Francis F. and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. Her latest book is Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. 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. Besteman’s account illuminates the contemporary debates about economic and moral responsibility, security, and community that immigration provokes.

You lived from 1987 to 1988 in Banta, a small village in southern Somalia, working as an anthropologist. What initially drew you to this region? In your time there, did you realize that the region was in danger?

making_refugeI trained in graduate school as an Africanist and a specialist in political ecology, and Somalia was enticing because few ethnographers had worked there and because the government was attempting a massive land reform program with the support of US and European development agencies. For my dissertation research I settled into the small rural farming village of Banta to study the impact of the new land reform program on the farmers of the fertile and agriculturally important Jubba River Valley. The land reform program required people to register the land they used for farming or livestock herding with the government in return for a land title, which they could use to obtain credit from a bank. Economic theory suggested that access to credit and an individually held land title would encourage investment and technological improvements, which would result in greater agricultural productivity and thus income. My research was to investigate how the theory of land privatization was actually working on the ground.

In my research I learned that nearly all the land in most farming villages in the valley had been registered not by the people actually farming the land but by speculators from Somalia’s major cities. The speculators who held title to the valley’s agricultural areas expected to make money from the large-scale development projects planned for the valley by foreign investors and development agencies. The local farmers, understanding they were now working land legally claimed by powerful and wealthy people living in the cities, believed they would become landless laborers on land that used to be theirs. They knew that major transformations were coming, but they did not expect to be caught in a war zone.

After war struck, many of the Banta residents you once knew became refugees. By chance, you were reunited in 2006 with some of these refugees after they had immigrated to Lewiston, Maine. What was your reaction upon seeing them again?

It was a stunning reunion to rediscover friends from a tiny isolated village in rural Somalia located on the edge of the Sahara now living in a white, post industrial, predominantly Catholic town only an hour away from me in wintery Maine. It seemed unbelievable that many of the people now living in Lewiston as resettled refugees were my closest neighbors and collaborators during my year of residence in Banta. The little baby who lived next door to us in Banta is now a married father of two in Lewiston; the young boy whose father, an important village elder, taught me much of what I learned about community life in Banta is now the founder of a vital community-based non-profit in Lewiston. The young girl who used to keep me company while I wrote up field notes is now a married mother of eleven whose husband is a long-distance truck driver. Visiting with them and their families in Lewiston feels both astonishing and normal. Although we still laugh in amazement about the coincidence of finding each other again after all these years, I’ll never forget the knowing remark from my former Banta neighbor, Isha, when we saw each other for the first time in Lewiston after twenty years: “We knew we’d find you.”

Throughout the book, you discuss the lives and resettlement of a population you’re intimately familiar with. Was it challenging to separate your study of the Somali Bantu refugees from your own investment in their lives?

I do not separate my study from my investment in their lives: these are one and the same. Ethnographic research is often motivated by very personal interests, desires, and ethical commitments. The personal commitments that many anthropologists bring to their work do not make their work biased or somehow illegitimate, but rather make it more valuable, engaging, and honest. Anthropologists are human beings who form relationships with other human beings through their research and then write about those relationships. In other words, personal relationships are central to, not outside of, ethnographic research, and thus anthropologists write with the responsibilities, complexities, tensions, and contradictions inherent to those relationships very much in mind. For me, it is precisely the profoundly interpersonal and inter-subjective nature of ethnography that makes it so powerful and important.

There are obvious parallels between the Somali crisis and the current conflict in Syria. How does Making Refuge inform the current discussion of Syrian refugees? What should we learn from the Somali refugee situation?

There are three obvious lessons. The first is that the violence in Syria, like the violence in Somalia, should make it clear that contemporary local or regional conflicts are usually the manifestation of events, conditions, actions, decisions, and linkages that are global in reach and origin. No place in the world is immune. Violence in Syria – or Somalia – 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 lesson 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 – is an inhumane and unsustainable system.

The third lesson 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.

In the book, you examine how humanitarianism feels to its objects—in this case, refugees. What do you see as some of the biggest ways that the current refugee process fails in this regard? How can we improve these weaknesses?

The contemporary international refugee regime, by which is meant the network of international organizations and nonprofits that manage, support, and contain refugees, is oriented toward offering refugees protection against involuntary repatriation, offering refugees some forms of care (food, shelter), and prohibiting refugees from becoming a problem for states whose borders they may seek to cross. To its critics, the international refugee regime is about imprisoning, containing, and constraining people who have lost their right to exercise the rights of citizenship because they have been forced across an international border. So the first weakness to address is a reinstatement of refugees’ rights to self-determination. Refugees from Syria and elsewhere are currently exercising these rights by attempting to walk across Europe to destinations of their choice in defiance of border patrol policies attempting to keep them out. Refugees are not helpless victims who lack agency and initiative.

A second weakness is that the countries of the global north use the international refugee regime to keep refugees far away from their borders – requiring that refugees, most of whom originate in the global south, apply for asylum status in their first country of entry after fleeing. Countries in the global north mandate that many refugees must stay within the confines of refugee camps until someone decides where they will be allowed to resettle and barricade the southern borders of Europe and the US with patrols, walls, guards, and militias. Waging war on refugees through detention, deportation, drowning, and incarcerating is not a successful long-term strategy.

A third weakness is the failure to recognize that the pursuit of harmful foreign policies, such as the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies, or the foreign support for an unpopular and corrupt dictator in Somalia, will create a flow of refugees from regions destabilized by these policies. Interventionist foreign policy must always include an acknowledgement that human mobility is a predictable response to war and insecurity.

A fourth weakness is the management of refugee resettlement, where refugees face the prospect of building a new life with virtually no support structure. Massive – truly massive – resources are put into managing and policing borders but only paltry resources are devoted to assisting those whose lives have been utterly shattered by war. This strikes me as short-sighted.

You note that the soup kitchen in Lewiston is “the only place in the city, apart from Walmart, where adult white Lewistonians and Somalis come together every single day.” Should refugee integration efforts be encouraged? If so, how can those efforts be effective without suppressing refugees’ heritage and culture? 

The first task is to define what is meant by integration. I find it interesting that integration is often assumed to mean interpersonal interaction and cultural adaptation with the burden of integration being placed on the shoulders of the immigrants. Somalis in Lewiston are quite interested in integration, but by this they mean participating in policy decisions about things that affect their lives, having equal access to opportunities for education, jobs, and political representation, and feeling free from racism and xenophobia. Integration is not just about immigrants adapting to the practices and values of their new community; it also means ensuring that the community is a place where immigrants are safe, do not experience racism, have opportunities, have the right of self-determination, and are included in decision-making structures. Integration is a two-way street because it requires that everyone adapt. Concerns about sustaining heritage and culture diminish in importance when integration is understood as enabling equality, empowerment, anti-racism, democratic participation, and mutual respect.

You can order Making Refuge from your favorite local or online bookstore (print and e-editions available), or order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E16BESTE to save 30%! Mainers can catch Catherine Besteman reading from her book at Portland Stage on February 22. DC-area readers can see her at Busboys & Poets on March 31.

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