In my experience talking to Professor Catherine Besteman—which I’ve had the pleasure to do in Maine and in Cape Town—it’s been no surprise that she views the world with the clear-eyed gaze of an anthropologist. That is, after all, what she is. So when she used the word “cosmic” to describe her chance reunion in Lewiston, Maine, with former residents of a war-ravaged Somali village, I wrote that word down. And underlined it.
The cosmically coincidental encounter 10 years ago, and the rekindled relationships that ensued, are the basis of a most remarkable story, one that Besteman tells in her recent book, Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. The story (see P. 20) is one of resilience and hope, fear and resentment, community and courage. And while she minimizes her role, the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology is at the center of this remarkable tale. Mentor, documentarian, friend, advocate, and archivist, Besteman has been a key part of the resettlement of the Somali Bantu in Lewiston. In writing her book, which she did somewhat reluctantly and at the urging of the Somali Bantu themselves, she ensures that the story won’t be overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
The saga of the Somali Bantu—innocent victims of the Somali civil war, incarcerated for years in inhumane refugee camps, resettled in the at-first alien world of America—is remarkable for its own sake. But against the backdrop of the displacement of millions of people from the Middle East, the much-documented suffering, and the resulting political upheaval, the story of Lewiston, Maine, takes on even more significance.
It is in this context that Besteman urges us to consider refugees as individuals who have been driven from their homes and countries through no fault of their own. Refugees, she says, should be regarded as more than a problem to be contained and left to someone else’s devices.
This is just one takeaway from the unlikely intersection of Somalia, Lewiston, refugees in Maine, and Colby—an overlapping of worlds that has seen students examine the forces that created this diaspora and work to help the Somali Bantu tell their story.
Please read the story in this magazine. Watch the videos produced by Milo Guillén ’15—one of Besteman speaking to the larger problems the Somali Bantu story illuminates, and another about Colby students living and working with African immigrants in Portland, Maine, in January—at colby.edu/mag.
Also read Kate Carlisle’s story about speech conflicts on college campus, which shows that this national issue is a Colby issue as well. And then come back to us (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your thoughts.
Because, as Besteman and the Somali Bantu in Lewiston show us—indeed, as a Colby education shows us—our world is shrinking, and ultimately its challenges belong not to someone else, but to all of us.
Gerry Boyle ’78, P’06