Book Review: Catherine Besteman’s Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

Catherine Besteman’s Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine (2016) arrived just when the European Union was on the verge of unraveling over disagreements provoked by massive refugee resettlement; the policing and removal of immigrants had become a central issue of the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States; Great Britain had just voted to exit the EU, in large part due to concerns over immigration; and the full impacts of deindustrialization and economic precarity were being felt in small towns and cities across the U.S. Besteman’s book offers a corrective to the many false assumptions that underlie policy making on refugees and immigrants, and that constitute the belief systems of many in the receiving countries where these people arrive. At the same time, it asks difficult questions about refugees and resettlement, and the communities where transplanted populations attempt to re-establish themselves. How do the displaced construct new lives and new futures in the wake of violence, loss, and cultural destruction? How do they understand their own agency in a context of displacement? And, importantly, how does their arrival impact the members of the existing communities in which they resettle? How are they perceived, and how do these perceptions shape the ways in which they determine their futures?

Making Refuge has its own origin story, as fascinating as the book itself. In the 1980s, Besteman conducted field research for her doctoral dissertation in a farming village in the Jubba Valley of Somalia. But shortly after she returned from the field, Somalia fell apart. Civil war and genocidal violence swept the country, including the Jubba Valley, consuming the village where Besteman had lived and worked. In the ensuing chaos, Besteman lost contact with her friends and informants in Somalia, who either were killed or became refugees, living in camps across the border in Kenya. Subsequently, Besteman published widely on Somalia and became an advocate for Somali refugees, but had no further news about the people she knew in the Jubba Valley. Flash forward 15 years, and some of the refugees from the Somali civil war have been allowed to resettle in the United States, some of them electing to move to Lewiston, Maine, not far from where Besteman teaches at Colby College. Remarkably, it is in Maine that she re-encounters relatives and acquaintances of her long-lost Somali friends. This fortuitous meeting launches Besteman on an engaged research project in Lewiston, which eventually results in the publication of Making Refuge.

 Besteman’s ethnography examines the phenomenon of refugees from a global perspective, on both ends of the refuge-seeking trajectory. Contrary to popular and official understandings, Besteman demonstrates that refugees are neither a temporary problem nor a docile, apolitical population dependent solely on humanitarian interventions. Rather, she argues, “Refugees appear to have become a permanent part of the contemporary global landscape…[R]efugees are a product of our current world order; their numbers are not going to diminish; and their persistent presence is a reality that the world must confront” (2016: 29). Her ethnography demonstrates that Somali Bantu refugees, at every point in the process of making refuge, are not helpless victims but active agents trying to shape their own futures.

The book is divided into three parts, each of which represents a different phase of the refugees’ experiences, and of Besteman’s own personal engagement with those experiences. Part I traces the history of that engagement, and of violence, war, and dislocation in Somalia, during the years when Besteman lost touch with her Somali friends. This involves an examination of life in a refugee camp, where refugees encounter and must position themselves to benefit from the power and potential of humanitarian aid. Uniquely, Besteman offers insight into what it feels like to be the beneficiary of humanitarian intervention, and the ways in which the humanitarian gaze requires particular kinds of identity performances from those it assists. In Part II, Besteman shifts to examine what happens when these beneficiaries of humanitarian aid move in next door. Here, Besteman moves her focus to the long-time, non-Somali residents of Lewiston, a working-class city that became the target of Somali Bantu relocation – a target chosen by Somali Bantu refugees themselves, often against the wishes of established residents. Besteman presents the competing and sometimes contradictory narratives about the Somali Bantu arrival in Lewiston, ranging from the racist and xenophobic to the inclusive and communitarian, to detail the range of local responses to the refugee “invasion.” This is followed, in Part III, by a consideration of immigrant “integration,” as Somali Bantu refugees narrate their own versions of their experience of relocation and resettlement. Again, critical to these narratives are the ways in which Somali Bantus conceptualize and articulate their ability to act as the architects of their own experiences and futures, rather than as the dependent objects of humanitarianism. Here, Besteman provides nuanced attention to the internal diversity of the refugee community, such that no single “refugee perspective” can be distilled – just as Part II demonstrated the internal diversity among non-Somali Lewiston residents.

Given the complex structure and long time frame of the book, Besteman had to draw on a variety of different research methods and techniques to prepare Making Refuge. In Part I, for example, Besteman draws on refugees’ oral histories and personal narratives to construct an account of life in Somalia during a period of extreme violence and disruption. In other parts of the book she relies on archival research, public records, and analysis of news accounts and other forms of media coverage; while in the more ethnographic sections she uses personal interviewing and extensive participant-observation to understand the situations she recounts. Throughout, Besteman’s approach is grounded in an engaged or activist anthropology, one that does not draw lines between academics and the “real world” – indeed, many of her insights were gained through her engaged, non-academic work in the communities of Lewiston. Besteman’s work is consistently concerned with both analytical insight and the ways in which her research – and indeed, this book itself – could impact the people and communities with whom she worked.

Besteman’s book offers a singular look at the realities facing local communities that include both long-time residents and newly arrived refugees – a circumstance that will become increasingly common in the United States and Europe, as violent conflicts (many of them provoked or maintained by those same nations) continue to displace populations around the world. How will we all find our way amidst this rapidly changing political and cultural landscape? Besteman grapples with these questions, suggesting that assimilation is not a one-way process requiring only that the immigrant “get with the program.” Instead, she argues for a kind of “mutual transformation” that requires everybody – refugee and non-refugee alike – to adapt to the changing world in which they live.

Making Refuge is one among a number of recent books dealing with issues of immigration, displacement, and global population movements. Many of these, like Besteman’s book, focus on migrants’ efforts to maintain or unify families in diaspora and to adapt to new local settings, as well as the role that law plays in obstructing or facilitating the unfolding of these processes. This includes such fine ethnographies as Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz’s Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed-Status Families (2016, Oxford University Press); Susan Bibler Coutin’s Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence (2016, Duke University Press); and Joanna Dreby’s Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families (2015, University of California Press). In its concern with refugees, violence, and the politics of humanitarian care, Making Refuge is in dialogue with an important trajectory of work by such scholars as Liisa Malkki (Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania; 1995, University of Chicago Press), Aihwa Ong (Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, and the New America; 2003, University of California Press), and Miriam Ticktin (Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France; 2011, University of California Press).

Eschewing jargon but not theory, and employing a range of methods in a long-term approach to engaged ethnography, Catherine Besteman has written a book that is powerful, persuasive, and illuminating, at once deeply intimate and broadly relevant. It will interest students of all levels, professional anthropologists, members of the media, and an educated non-academic readership. Anthropology students – from beginners to those in advanced courses – need to understand issues of global displacement in a changing world. Making Refuge is an excellent book for prompting them to think about these issues and their broader, ongoing ramifications, many of which are closer to home than they may realize.

Daniel M. Goldstein, Rutgers University

Reviewed in this Essay:

Besteman, Catherine. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.




About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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