"Even though the myth of free cars seems ridiculous, rumors are
rampant that the government gives Somalis free cars as well as
vouchers for cars, car repairs, and gas, and blogs are full of
comments asking why Somalis have cars if they are refugees and receive
welfare. Reports in the paper of car accidents involving Somalis
always provoke a slew of comments that they should not be allowed to
drive at all."
One of the many sour notes of the most despicable presidential
election of my lifetime to date is one candidate's fanning the flames
of prejudice against immigrants. When flesh and blood humans are
likened to potentially poisoned skittles which voters are urged to
reject, in a nation where nearly all of us have distant or close
immigrant roots, something is not right. It is also very perverse how
lower level government officials (including a certain New England
governor) characterize immigrants as opportunists running to America
to live la dolce vida financed by undeserved welfare benefits.
So who are twenty-first century immigrants? What would entice
people to leave the known and familiar for a dangerous and uncertain
journey to a place with a different language, strange customs, and
(particularly in states like Maine) a frigid climate)? Of course one
can't generalize with such a large and diverse group of people. But
Catherine Besteman's Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees And
Lewiston, Maine gives an in depth portrayal of one group of newcomers
and the challenges they faced both before and after their journey.
What makes Besteman's work especially insightful is that she had
actually studied them in Somalia in 1988 before their troubles and
Far from the easy trek Governor LePage and his fellow
neoliberals portray, the Somali Bantus survived experiences that would
give Stephen King nightmares in their native villages and in refugee
camps. America provided its own daunting challenges including an
unknown language, an age based educational system that set many
children and teens up for failure, and an individualist, consumerist
way of life in direct contrast to their more communal life style. Add
in a system that treats them as problems to be solved rather than
humans with the desire and ability to direct their own lives and a
great deal of fear and prejudice on the part of the populace. You
have a pretty volatile mixture.
I know I learned a lot from reading this book. I found out how
naive I was about refugee camps. I'd known they were places of danger
and deprivation. But I'd believed they existed to protect vulnerable
people. Little did I know they are run by the rich countries and
their NGOs to control their movements, keeping them contained or
repatriating them, with an eye toward Not In My Back Yard. This is
especially pernicious since often government destabilization is thanks
to policies or arms sales on the part of these same rich countries.
One of the most heartbreaking things I read involved the final
screening before the trip to America. Screening was done with an eye
toward weeding out the nondeserving. Many families were split up. As
a parent I can't imagine having to decide whether to take some of my
children to safety and leave others behind or to keep the family
together under horrific conditions.
Making Refuge will not be everyone's cup of tea. The level of
scholarship (Duke University Press) will be daunting to many. But if
you have the interest and persistence to stick with it, it is a very
timely and enlightening read.
On a personal note, I have been thinking about the custom of folding
1000 paper cranes to make a heartfelt wish come true. The deep desire
of my heart is to get into the UMaine higher education student
development program. But cranes are devilishly hard to fold. Plus I
have no idea where I'd put all those birds. So my idea is to make it
up to 1000 books I've reviewed in my blog. I've almost made it up to
900 in a little over five years.
A great shout out goes out to immigrants and those who reach out to
Sent from my iPod