As a doctoral student in the late 1980s, Besteman spent two years in Banta, a small village in southern Somalia. In a curious turn of events, over a decade later, refugees from the Somali civil war began to settle in Lewiston, Maine, a short distance from Colby College, where Besteman had become a professor of anthropology. Amazingly, a number of the refugees were from Banta, and Besteman was able to reconnect with them. This remarkable book is the product of that coincidence. It presents a vivid account of Somalis who survived their village’s collapse into ethnic violence and escaped by foot to Kenya, where they spent a decade in a dreadful refugee camp. Some were then lucky enough to be accepted for resettlement in the United States. Many of those were sent to Lewiston, where their attempts to make a new life were sometimes undermined by a careless U.S. bureaucracy, their own poverty and lack of education, and discomfort among locals grappling with the unexpected influx of several thousand illiterate Africans into their small New England town. Besteman eschews social science jargon to tell her story with great insight and empathy. Her book should be required reading for policymakers currently debating what to do with refugees from Syria.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.