LEWISTON — Muhidin Libah still marvels sometimes at how easy it is to make soup in this country.

Back in Somalia, he said, he would have had to travel half a mile just to get water and then spend considerable time and effort heating it.

A dozen years after he came to Lewiston as a refugee, it’s still a wonder to Libah that there are restrooms everywhere he turns. Back in Somalia, the simple act of going to the bathroom meant another long walk.

“You would have to take your water with you,” Libah said. “And you would have to go out to the bush.”

Libah could recite all night the differences between life in Somalia and life here, but that wasn’t the point.

On Tuesday night, he was at the Lewiston Public Library with Catherine Besteman, author of the new book: “Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine.”

In the late 1980s, Besteman, now a professor of anthropology at Colby College in Waterville, conducted fieldwork in southern Somalia. In her book, she follows the trajectory of Somali Bantus from their homes in Somalia before the onset in 1991 of Somalia’s civil war, to their displacement in Kenyan refugee camps, to their relocation in cities across the U.S, and finally to their settlement in Lewiston.

Back in Somalia, social networks were keys to day-to-day survival, Besteman told her audience Tuesday night. So it was not a surprise that when refugees made the long journey to Lewiston, one of the first things they sought to regain were those networks.

They set up youth programs, citizen classes and literacy workshops. They shared child care, transportation and money. When one refugee ran into trouble, the others rallied to his aid.

“There’s really an ethic of caring for each other,” Besteman said. “I’ve had people in Lewiston say, almost longingly, ‘I wish we had those kinds of community structures.'”

If the refugees clung to their networks and to each other, few could fault them for it. The journey from their war-torn homeland to various points around the U.S. was a difficult one, with long stays at refugee centers not designed for comfort and convenience.

At the refugee center, Besteman said, the Somalis had to come to grips with what it felt like to become the object of a massive humanitarian effort. Suddenly, others were defining for them where they could go and what they could do.

Besteman describes the structure of the refugee camps as “dictatorial.”

“Refugees don’t have any democratic rights,” she said.

They are subject to numerous background checks, to multiple interviews and to the unhappy prospect of leaving loved ones behind. The long bureaucratic process of the camps, Besteman said, “is set up to winnow people out — not to bring people in.”

More than 50 people turned out for her talk, to the point where it became a standing-room-only affair.

Libah told the audience of the strange adjustment period that followed the refugees’ arrival in Lewiston. There were small things — the matter of what constitutes trash, the concept of schedules and the brief confusion between soda can tabs and jewelry — and there were larger issues. There was xenophobia and unfamiliar consumerism. Some locals were distrustful of the arriving refugees, Libah said. Others were simply confused.

“The people were asking, ‘What’s going on? Where are all these people coming from?’ Libah said.

Several of those in the audience bought copies of Besteman’s book.

Rilwan Osman, director of the Maine Immigrant and Refugee Service, is featured in the book and plans to pass his copy around to his five children, solving the problem of how to teach them about where they come from.

“I have wondered, what are they going to read about who they are and about their history?” he said.

One man, who has lived in Lewiston for 40 years, called the Tuesday night event “a wonderful example of anthropology at its best. It helps Lewiston to understand itself better.”


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