Each of the world’s 21 million refugees has a harrowing story to tell, and those stories usually go unheard. City of Thorns speaks up to remind us about the humanity and potential trapped hopelessly in limbo.
Kenya’s third-largest city isn’t technically a city at all. It’s a refugee camp that for two decades has been filling up with families fleeing Somalia’s civil war. The Kenyan government established Dadaab in 1992, with the aim of temporarily housing 90,000 Somali refugees. Violence, drought, famine and flooding in Somalia and other nearby countries swelled the camp over time. Now its population is about a half a million, comparable to that of New Orleans or the state of Wyoming.
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Author Ben Rawlence first visited Dadaab as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. A year later, he began what would become a series of visits to the camp to record the experiences of the residents. The result is City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, a combination of the author’s firsthand descriptions and reconstructions of the accounts Rawlence recorded in interviews with camp residents.
City of Thorns isn’t an easy book to read. The title references the thorn tree fences that surround and intersect the red sand of the camp and doubles as a metaphor for the myriad difficulties of the place. In the book, Rawlence describes a camp that has solidified and become permanent, but a city where overcrowding, disease and crime are commonplace. The United Nations Refugee Agency, which manages Dadaab, struggles to provide enough food and water. Health services are overtaxed. Residents are forbidden from working in Kenya, so they make money by selling their rations and finding a niche in the informal market.
Most of Dadaab’s residents live in a constant state of suspension. The Kenyan government does not want to assimilate refugees into the country and has long wanted to close the camp. In 2013, as an initial move toward camp closure, the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed an agreement with the UN Refugee Agency to repatriate Somali refugees. The problem is that it’s still not safe to return to Somalia, where al-Shabaab, a terrorist group aligned with al-Qaeda, controls much of the country. About three-fourths of Dadaab residents don’t want to return to Somalia. And many refugees were actually born in the camp and have never known another home. But the Kenyan government still wants to close Dadaab, even though the Kenyan High Court recently ruled camp closure unconstitutional.
Resettlement to countries like the United States, Norway or the United Kingdom is the dream in Dadaab, but it’s not usually a realistic goal. There are few slots available for resettlement, and shockingly not that many refugees in Dadaab are eligible. According to Rawlence, “The proper criteria for resettlement abroad for protection purposes under UN rules are a specific threat to life, not a generalized fear of war.” So only people who are specifically targeted by violence are likely to be selected.
Even then, the process often takes years. Monday and Muna are a married couple featured in City of Thorns, and both were targeted by extremists in Dadaab. They were selected for resettlement in Australia, and they went through all of the necessary interviews, paperwork and medical examinations. But their case stalled for 17 months due to a bureaucratic error. “The Australians had forgotten about the case: there had been a change of government, a rotation of personnel, they were full of apologies. For want of an email, Muna and Monday’s life had slipped through the cracks.”
Throughout the book, Rawlence leans into the hopelessness of the lives in Dadaab: “To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically, your thoughts constantly flickering between impossible dreams and a nightmarish reality.”
With no other options, some refugees make the extremely dangerous decision to sneak out of Dadaab and try to survive until they make it to Europe or elsewhere. Others just wait out limbo.
Fish was 8-years-old when he and his mother fled to Dadaab. Now in his early 30s, he sometimes lives in the city of thorns and other times escapes to find opportunities as an undocumented worker in Nairobi. Eventually, Fish becomes one of the first employees of an NGO trying to facilitate resettlements in partnership with the Kenyan government. But his hope is fragile: “No resettlement, no integration in Kenya, no life in the camp, no nothing … it’s disturbing you know. If UNYPAD (United Youth for Peace and Development) fails, I think the earth doesn’t want to hold us any more.”
By the end of City of Thorns, the fates of most of the characters are no more clear than in the beginning of the story. But more than anything, the book gives readers a personal context for the next time they hear about a refugee crisis or border issues in the news. Rawlence writes, “At a time when there are more refugees than ever, the rich world has turned its back on them. Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human. Instead, those fleeing the twenty-first century’s wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere are seen as a potential fifth column, a threat.”