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A handout picture taken July 23, 2011 shows Somali refugees waiting to receive humanitarian aid in Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp, situated northeast of the capital Nairobi near the Somali border. (© Ho New / Reuters/REUTERS)
A handout picture taken July 23, 2011 shows Somali refugees waiting to receive humanitarian aid in Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp, situated northeast of the capital Nairobi near the Somali border. (© Ho New / Reuters/REUTERS)

Review: Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns is an outstanding look at the world’s largest refugee camp Add to ...

  • Title City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp
  • Author Ben Rawlence
  • Genre Non-Fiction
  • Publisher Random House Canada
  • Pages 384
  • Price $34

In the wee hours of Dec. 11, 2015, during the photo op that has come to define the early days of the second Trudeau era, the new Prime Minister and his handlers arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport bearing killer smiles. They were there to close an image loop, one that began months earlier with the photograph of a three-year-old Syrian toddler named Alan Kurdi lying face down in the sand of the Turkish littoral. This un-erasable image, which travelled worldwide appended to the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsalik (humanity washed ashore), helped make the Syrian refugee crisis a central issue in Canada’s recent federal election. Preternaturally wired to meme culture, the Trudeau machine understood what their Conservative predecessors had somehow failed to: Images of dead children are worth a thousand “barbaric cultural practices” tip-lines. Is it too much to say that Alan Kurdi swung the election for Trudeau? That’s a question for future political analysts to answer. Regardless, in order to successfully complete this round of image Tetris, Trudeau himself showed up at Pearson International, hugging the first tranche of 25,000 Syrian refugees into residence-hood. Alan’s death was thus a plot-point that led to a cathartic denouement in a northern aerodrome, thousands of miles from the hell of Homs or Aleppo.

“This is a wonderful night, where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada is all about, we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations,” Trudeau said. It was as if a previous version of Canada had been instantly resurrected: Here was a country that offered a helping hand, a warm cuppa and a service-sector job in small-town Saskatchewan. The reupped Trudeau Liberals had wisely portrayed the Syrian refugees as people deserving of a home, while the Harper Conservatives had foolishly demonized them as a latent threat.

Indeed, these binary interpretations of the modern refugee – charitable case versus monster-in-waiting – go a long way to explaining perhaps the most seismic, epochal movement of human beings since we first climbed down from acacia boughs millions of years ago. What on earth is happening out there? The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) insists that there are as many people currently on the hop as there were during the Second World War. The numbers from Europe are astounding: The agency claims that over the course of 2015, 911,000 refugees arrived on Old World shores looking for asylum. Hundreds were cooked to death in trucks; thousands drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean. All in all, 3,550 people lost their lives – one out of every 256 refugees who made a run for it died in the attempt, lousy odds by any measure.

And yet, this is merely chaos’s tasting menu. Let’s pick a country at random: the Central African Republic. Since the outbreak of civil war in 2013, 1.5 million of the country’s four and a half million citizens have been dodging the sectarian horrors that have partitioned this vast, empty state into a Muslim north and a Christian south. (This population redistribution will, by the way, have a profound impact on how central Africa develops in the next several decades.) Meanwhile, the mountainous African redoubt of Eritrea bleeds 3,000 people a month into the baking heat of Sudan and beyond into Europe: a crisis at least on par with that of Syria. In Johannesburg, where I currently live, hundreds of thousands of Africans from across the continent make their home in this dazzlingly cosmopolitan city – only to meet sporadic, tacitly state-sponsored violence at the hand of nativist mobs. Joining this endless exodus are the world’s first (official) climate-change refugees, who are fleeing the sinking Marshall Islands for Tyson Food factories in Arkansas, an expat community that will within a generation reshape the demographics of this southern state.

The world is being reformulated, remodelled, remapped. One of the most prominent psychographic hiccups speckled across the new cartography are the refugee camps that house millions of the planets’ wanderers. As Ben Rawlence, author of an outstanding new book called City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp points out, these nowhere places serve as the Manhattans or the Londons of the New World Order – they are our urban shadows on the cave wall, our Cities of God.

Rawlence is a former Human Rights Watch researcher and the author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War, in which he first displayed his Barbara Ehrenreich-ish ability for documenting the lives of the desperately poor. His latest book concerns Dadaab, a sprawling network of wynds, souks, huts and lean-tos slapped down in the middle of Kenya’s eastern desert region. Dadaab is considered the world’s largest refugee camp, although Rawlence would never describe it as such. “Through the accumulated energy of the generations that had lived there,” he writes, “it had acquired the weight and drama of place. It was a landmark around which hundreds of thousands oriented their lives. In the imagination of Somalis, even if not on the official cartography, Dadaab was now on the map.”

Dadaab means “the rocky hard place,” and even that terse descriptor oversells its charms. It was inaugurated back in 1991, with the newcomers sleeping under the stars, hunting (and being hunted by) big game for supper. It was never meant as a permanent settlement – there is nothing nearby to support a significant population, and all food is driven in or airdropped by the UN and its zillions of affiliates. Dadaab’s numbers fluctuate according to the trajectory of the surrounding nightmare-scape, but its three administrative regions never house less than 150,000 people, the majority of whom are Somali, along with a smattering of South Sudanese, Ethiopians and even the odd Kenyan.

Rawlence spent five years on and off in this place, documenting the lives of nine residents as they scrabbled through the ups and downs of life on the fringes of the fringe. What’s so remarkable about his account is how he complicates the notion of “refugee” as a faceless, nameless condition. Everyone in Dadaab, he insists, is an individual; each resident responds differently to the lunacy that unfolds around him or her. Some, such as the youth leader Tawane, who speaks NGOese in all its clinquant absurdities, have learned how to navigate the labyrinths of the aid industrial complex. Others, such as Guled, give in to a fantasy life, and spend their time playing and watching football. Others are dodging Al-Shabaab back home, while still others are trying to get to the promised land of America with their sanity intact. Most practise Sufi Islam, although their real connection is to family and clan. When long-established mores are undermined, the social fallout can be catastrophic. Rawlence’s characters get married, they get divorced, they have children. Some of them run for it, and some of them face up to fears that most of us will never be forced to reckon with.

All Dadaabers are officially wards of the Kenyan state. But that doesn’t mean that they’re welcome. Depending on how the geopolitical wind happens to be blowing, they are either wiped from official existence or used as scapegoats for whatever terrorist atrocity has been perpetrated on Kenyan soil. (The government insisted that the Westgate Mall killers had spent time at Dadaab, despite there being no evidence to back this assertion up.) To admit that the camp exists in any real sense of the term is to undo certain political and national mythologies. “The status quo […] is dependent upon not recognizing the refugees as humans,” Rawlence writes. “Because to do so would be to acknowledge that they have rights. And to recognize those rights would be to occasion a reckoning with history that would be too traumatic. It would see the land that the camps occupy as ancestral Somali land. It would render the border that makes the refugees foreign a sham. And it would make the conditions under which they live a crime. Such a reckoning would tear the very [Kenyan] state apart.”

In this, the refugee city’s incoming tsunami – its nuclear bomb, its Godzilla – is the stroke of the bureaucrats pen. Its natural state is impermanence, and it can be instantly disappeared at a regional meeting or in a multilateral body’s conference hall. Dadaab, like all refugee camps, was built to be erased. While the residents ostensibly have rights, everything in their universe fluctuates according to distant whim.

Rawlence’s account of this febrile life is nothing short of superb. His City of Thorns seems to be modelled on Katherine Boo’s insta-classic Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and although Rawlence doesn’t quite possess Boo’s prose chops or mordant wit, he does compete round for round on embed and empathy. The detail he weaves into his nine intersecting narratives is so meticulously observed that his notebook stack must have resembled Tanzania’s not-so-proximate Mount Kilimanjaro. This is Refugees for Grown-ups – there are no pat bumper-sticker lines or cutesy take-aways, but a clear-eyed assessment of the immense, transformative migration that is leaving no corner of the Earth unchanged. Most importantly, he elucidates just how complicit the West has been in creating no-topias such as Dadaab, even while politicians make a great show of welcoming refugees at high-profile photo ops in distant airports.

As Rawlence writes, Dadaab is “a world with its own rules, its own boundaries and its own histories. Governed by the UN and the humanitarian agencies, it was a society weaned on food aid and the international vocabulary of rights. It was also a baking hot slum where new names had to be invented for every corner, where new legends were born.”

In other words, Dadaab is the real world. It’s where the word “nation” becomes a nostalgic head trip, while the term “citizen” has faded into meaningless. And if “nation” and “citizen” fray into nothingness in the Kenyan desert, will that disease not eventually spread worldwide? Are we headed to a Star Trek Federation of multiplanetary hug-a-thons? Or are we descending pell-mell into something much more sinister?

During his now famous photo op, and with boundless naiveté – or was it boundless cynicism? – Justin Trudeau insisted that he was showing the world what Canada was all about. Terrifyingly, as that same world sinks further into unimaginable violence and deeper under the ocean, he was merely touching the edge of a systemic and brutal reappraisal of what it means to be at home as a human. In the future, “home,” too, will mean something entirely different, and opening the door a crack will not be enough. The city of thorns will be the ur-city, and we’ll all be residents in some way or another.

Richard Poplak has just finished co-authoring a book interrogating the notion of “Africa Rising.” He lives in Toronto and Johannesburg.

Editor's note: Mount Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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