City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp
The recent media coverage of Syrian refugees is representative of only a small fraction of the people around the world who are forced to flee their homes in search of safety and security. In 1991, our television screens were inundated not with images of Syrians wearing life jackets, stuffed onto boats, but with thousands of unnamed children, their bellies swollen with hunger. Back then, the Somali Civil War forced upwards of one million people from their homes; around 90,000 of those people ended up in a makeshift camp in eastern Kenya. So while the current refugee crisis is focused on Syrians, make no mistake: the refugee crisis is global and massive and it has been for a very long time. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult for our media to cover it in any meaningful, substantive way.
City of Thorns takes this ongoing and abstract crisis and makes it intimate and relevant. In its pages, we follow nine people through Dadaab, that same makeshift camp in eastern Kenya—which has grown so much that it has become the world’s largest refugee camp, home to over half a million residents. “A city made of mud and sticks the size of New Orleans,” writes Ben Rawlence. Today, the camp houses Somalis, Sudanese, and other displaced Africans. For every resident, the camp engenders, as Rawlence describes it, “a culture centered on leaving.” And, by definition, the camp is supposed to be temporary. Yet with the third generation of people now being born into Dadaab, there is little hope that any of them will ever leave. Many factors contribute to the camp’s longevity. In an attempt to understand those factors, Rawlence expertly weaves Dadaab’s intrusive policy and bureaucratic nonsense through nine individual lives to show how this camp and the global refugee crisis are an unjust, frustrating, and deeply human problem.
It is these individuals’ stories that make this book meaningful and different from other refugee coverage. City of Thorns focuses mostly on Guled, a young man who flees to Dadaab after narrowly escaping induction into the extremist group al-Shabaab. Soon his wife, Maryam, five months pregnant, joins him there, though she quickly begins to plan how to leave. The book also follows a pair of star-crossed lovers, Muna and Monday, who come from different countries and different religions, as well as Nisho, who was born in the camp and now has to care for his invalid mother, among others.
Rawlence, a former Human Rights Watch researcher, layers their individual stories with context about the political and social conflicts that have led to the global refugee crisis. A particularly absurd moment comes when Isha, a proud Somali woman who is shamefully forced to leave her home, finally finds her way to the registration office after days of waiting. She sits down to watch, unbelievably, a welcome video. In the video a man begins by saying, “Welcome to Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world. While in Dadaab you are under the protection of the Government of Kenya and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).” Rawlence goes on to articulate well what I myself was thinking: “This was the moment of encounter. The meeting point between the two contradictory arcs of the 21st century: the rule of law that had spawned the international humanitarian system, and its other legacy: the chaos unleashed by the end of the colonial project to subjugate and carve up the globe.”
Already, Rawlence’s narrative is an improvement on the tenuous and inconsistent media coverage we typically see. By grounding broad discussions about politics and conflict in personal stories, Rawlence brings something substantial to our public consciousness: a clear picture of this crisis as a human one, not to be ignored. It is a crisis where a woman who has just lost her home and everything she owns is forced to wait five days in the desert with little to no food to ultimately be ushered into a room where she can watch a welcome video.
As Rawlence writes in the prologue, the residents of Dadaab “believed that if only people came to know their plight, then the world would be moved to help, to bring an end to the protracted situation that has seen them confined to camps for generations.” While their faith is admirable, I think Rawlence’s point is that the relatively brief moments of attention that the media does pay this crisis only bring relatively brief, unsustainable, and ultimately useless flashes of relief—such as occasional increases in foreign aid or visits from Hollywood celebrities.
What this book is interested in is a permanent solution. As City of Thorns makes clear, the first step toward that is simply to see the problem. You can’t read this book and continue to ignore the refugee crisis. It has a face, it has friends and children, a job, a lover, a family. And while Rawlence writes that “the world can’t cope with more than one disaster at a time,” this book leaves you no choice.
The crisis is big and complex; there are a lot of different ways that people are suffering worldwide. But there is only one real solution: figure out a way to get refugees into safe and secure permanent homes. This means that countries like the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. need to start accepting more refugees more frequently. It means that people like you and I have to be willing to accept people with different beliefs and different ways of living into our communities. Historically, this has never been an easy thing for humans to do. To overcome our resistance, there must be a collective shift in consciousness. This seems to be Rawlence’s goal. He wants readers to think of themselves not as citizens of nation states, but, as cheesy as it may sound, as citizens of the world—a world where millions of people don’t have a safe place to live. By bringing us closer to a small group of displaced individuals, Rawlence makes it impossible to deny our commonality. To continue to distance ourselves from this problem is to deny our own humanity.