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Letter From Maine: New in Town

Somali refugees began arriving in Lewiston, Maine (pop. 36,000) six years ago. Word spread that Lewiston had good schools, a low crime rate and cheap housing — and the Somalis began arriving in droves.

rain huts in Somalia

Huts in Somalia.

Most diaspora Somalis are in constant touch with people back home, by telephone and e-mail and much needed hawala (money transfers), and they follow events there closely. The big news recently has been the growth of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist movement that originated in Mogadishu's neighborhood Sharia courts, which had emerged to fill the vacuum left by the state's collapse, sixteen years ago, after the overthrow of the longtime dictator, Siad Barre. The I.C.U. amassed a formidable militia and last summer won control of Mogadishu from several contending clan warlords (some of whom the C.I.A. had backed, disastrously, on the ground that they were "antiterrorist"). The I.C.U. has since gained control over most of the country. According to American intelligence, the I.C.U. is providing a haven for Al Qaeda.

In Maine, the first Somalis I asked about the I.C.U. were enthusiastic about its achievements — reducing crime, opening Mogadishu's port for the first time in years, encouraging foreign investment. But one man, a former teacher, sitting in a fast-food restaurant in Lewiston and listening to a friend extoll the new rule of law, smiled sadly and interjected, "Do you think they will give back our houses in Mogadishu if we go and ask?" His friend fell silent. Many Somalis are skeptical of the idea that the I.C.U., because it is Islamist, is pan-Somalian. The movement, they say, is strongly associated with the Hawiye, a major clan. And the repercussions of the fighting, which has been intense recently, and may soon explode into regional war — Ethiopia and Eritrea are backing opposing factions — are felt directly inside the refugee community. In one case I heard about, the Lewiston relatives of a man who had been killed by the Islamists learned that one of the killers was now living in the United States.

Forgetting the civil war got more complicated for many people in Lewiston after the Somali Bantus started showing up, two years ago. Somalia, for all its clan strife, has often been cited as an example of one of the few relatively homogeneous nation-states to emerge in Africa from the colonial period. Everybody spoke the same language, and shared the same ethnicity, culture, and religion. The Bantus were the principal exception. They were the descendants of slaves brought to southern Somalia from farther down the East African coast, and they are, on average, more "African-looking" than ethnic Somalis, who have thinner features and straighter hair. Emerging from chattel slavery in the early twentieth century, most Bantus became subsistence farmers in two river valleys in the south. (Seynab Ali and the other organic farmers are Bantus.) They speak a local language known as Af-Maay-Maay, and have developed their own exuberant form of Islam. Second-class citizens in every sense, they were not provided with schools, health care, or other services, and remained largely preliterate.

When civil war broke out, the Bantus had no weapons, no mobility, and no protection—but they did have food. They were robbed, raped, and murdered en masse. Those who fled languished in refugee camps for a decade or more. In 2003, the United States began to admit twelve thousand Somali Bantus as refugees. Most were resettled in major cities and some started searching for a place that seemed more hospitable. For many Bantu families, that turned out to be Lewiston — there are roughly five hundred Bantus in town now — even though the Somalis already there were, at least by extension, the very agents of the catastrophe they were fleeing.

"Here there is a government," Abkow Ahmed, a soft-spoken thirty-five-year-old Somali Bantu, told me. "There are rules and regulations. Everybody has a role. It is safe." Abkow Ahmed spent thirteen years in a camp in Kenya before he and his family arrived in Boston, in early 2005; in December, they moved to Lewiston. He works nights as a production fryer at a plant that makes doughnuts for Dunkin' Donuts shops. Abkow Ahmed told me that the Somalis in Lewiston had welcomed the Bantus and helped them get settled. "We all know what happened in Somalia," he said. "We know who we are. We know who they are. But nobody can do anything to us here."

Besteman, Catherine. Unraveling Somalia: Race, Class, and the Legacy of Slavery. University of Pennsylvania Press (1999).

The smooth surface of relations between Bantus and Somalis in Lewiston began to change last January. On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Bates College hosted a panel on "Recent Shifts in Lewiston's Refugee Population," with the participation of four newly arrived Somali Bantus. Catherine Besteman, a professor of anthropology at Colby College, in Waterville, fifty miles north of Lewiston, was invited to make opening remarks. In 1987 and 1988, she and her husband, Jorge Acero, a photographer, had lived in a Somali Bantu village called Banta, in the Middle Jubba Valley, and she wrote a book, published in 1999, called "Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery." After the dislocations of the war, Besteman spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to track down some of the families she had known in the Middle Jubba. She had since moved on to other topics. When she arrived at Bates, she was introduced to the other panelists, and after a few minutes she found them gaping at her and exclaiming, "Catherine!" "It was a true goose-bump moment," Elizabeth Eames, the chair of the Anthropology Department at Bates, said.

"Three of them were from Banta," Besteman told me. "They didn't recognize me, because they didn't know I was blond. I always kept my hair tied up there. And I didn't recognize them, because they were just the little kids who followed me everywhere, and now they're grown men. But as soon as I said that I'd lived in Banta they said, 'Catherine! We're looking for Catherine!' "

Stunned, she gave her introductory speech. Then each of the men told his story. They were harrowing narratives of cruelty, loss, and escape; two men talked about seeing their fathers murdered. Afterward, Besteman and the Bantu wept together. They made plans for a meeting of the entire Lewiston Bantus community. Besteman and Acero would present a slide show of his photographs from Banta.

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This article originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine on December 11, 2006 and appears here with permission from the author.





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