This week, in the second half of my conversation with Colby College anthropology professor Catherine Besteman, we talk about the immense challenges that Somali refugees face upon their arrival, and how they are helped through the extraordinary volunteer efforts of their fellow immigrants. We also discuss what the data reveal about whether refugees are a financial burden on the state, and talk about how to address the problem of xenophobia.
On this week’s show, I speak with Colby College anthropology professor Catherine Besteman. She has spent her career studying Somali society, both in Somalia and here in Maine, where many Somalian refugees have begun new lives after escaping civil war at home. Catherine explains the causes of that war and the violence it created, particularly for minority ethnic groups. Her explanation of why Somalis had to flee helps us appreciate that every refugee is dealing with trauma.
We begin a new series on refugee women in Maine with a conversation with Fatuma Hussein of United Somali Women of Maine. She describes the challenges of resettlement for refugees fleeing war in their native countries, which she experienced herself as a teenager. We talk about what kinds of help these new Mainers need to rebuild their lives, and how her organization collaborates with social service agencies to ease this overwhelming transition. She also addresses the presumption that refugees have a negative impact on the state’s economy and culture, and explains her vision for making Maine a more welcoming place of refuge.
An interview with Fatuma Hussein, the director of the United Somali Women of Maine. Fatuma describes the pervasive atmosphere of fear in the refugee camps where she lived for two years after leaving the civil war in Somalia. She spoke about the challenge of meeting the United States resettlement categories of family, when extended families are the norm in Somalia. She reported that the role of women in Somali culture has been changed dramatically by the war, life in the camps and the challenges of resettling in an entirely new culture. While, when she was little, the birth of a girl child was not celebrated, now, as Somali women have shown themselves to be the bedrock of their families through extraordinary upheaval, she feels that the status of women is improving. She said that Somali women on the whole do not see the hijab (head scarf) as a form of oppression (as many western women assume), but as a symbol of connection to a culture that they value highly. She also made the distinction between Islam which she feels tends to value women’s authority and rights, more than Somali culture itself. Ultimately she affirmed the courage of the Somali women who have come to this country with absolutely nothing and have found ways to protect and support their families in the face of overwhelming newness. She invites us to see Somali women through this lens.
An interview with business owner, Hussein Ahmed about his journey from Somalia, spending ten years in refugee camps in Kenya before ultimately ending up in Lewiston, Maine. Hussein describes the many challenges for families trying to stay together through the time consuming and difficult process of applying for resettlement in the US after 911. He describes the challenges of finding work in the US due to language barriers, cultural uncertainties and religious stereotypes. He also reports that there are religious restrictions in Islam on borrowing money with interest and how this can serve as a barrier for Somalis starting their own businesses. After working as an employment case manager helping refugees get jobs, Hussein ultimately opened his own businesses, running a store and also running a service to help Somalis communicate with their family members in Kenya and transfer money to them. He is optimistic that with modifications in certain banking practices, Somalis can become even more effective entrepreneurs adding to the future of the Lewiston-Auburn area in Maine