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City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp - Ben Rawlence

This is a good book on an important topic. Dadaab is an enormous refugee camp with several hundred thousand residents, located in a desert area of Kenya near the border with Somalia. For nearly 25 years, Somalis fleeing civil war and famine at home have come to the camp – at this point, an entire generation has grown up there (and roughly 60% of the residents are children). Dadaab is mostly funded through foreign aid, but Kenya has always wanted rid of the refugees and made repeated attempts to repatriate them to the still war-torn Somalia. Refugees are not allowed to hold official jobs, for fear they’ll take them from Kenyans – the exception being “incentive” work, for tiny stipends – nor can they legally enter Kenya proper, so many spend their lives dreaming of being selected for resettlement abroad.

Rawlence followed a dozen or so camp residents for about five years, from 2010 to 2015, giving readers a window on how people make their lives in the camp and the impact of major events. Those we see the most of are young people who grew up there – Nisho, who works as a porter in the marketplace; Tawane, a youth leader aiming for a political future; and Kheyro, one of the few young people in Dadaab to pursue education – as well as Guled, who flees Somalia as a teenager after being briefly conscripted into al-Shabaab. Through their stories and others, the book provides a real sense of life in the camps, from the initial arrival to those who marry and start a family. (Which sounds like a terrible idea, but these are people whose lives have always been precarious.) One young man does make it to Nairobi, only to find life there no more secure than in Dadaab; meanwhile, a young couple faces death threats from both communities because she’s Somali and he’s a member of the camp’s tiny Sudanese minority.

This sort of material is almost guaranteed to keep readers’ interest, and though it’s certainly heavy I did not find it overwhelming; the individuals followed meet with successes as well as difficulties. For the most part it’s quite a readable book, written in a journalistic style, though the author could do with brushing up on his comma placement, which makes some sentences difficult to understand. And the story occasionally bogs down; over the course of several years, at times major events provide a common thread in everyone’s lives, while at other times the stories are quite disparate and the author focuses in on mundane events (presumably those he happened to witness). But he does a good job of weaving facts and statistics into the stories, and occasionally steps away from his subjects' experiences to document major events impacting the camps (such as the mass shooting at a Nairobi mall, which was wrongly blamed on refugees). Finally, while the author renders his subjects’ circumstances vividly, they aren’t completely fleshed-out as individuals, and I wondered how much language and cultural barriers (the author does not speak Somali) interfered. Rawlence also does not discuss how he selected his subjects; most of the book is spent with men, which does not reflect the camps as a whole, and I wondered what role Somali culture played in that choice.

Overall though, this is an important subject, and reading this book is a great way for those of us who live worlds away from Dadaab to get a sense of the human stories behind the headlines. I recommend it.