Kenyan refugee stories memorable
AS international attention is riveted on the plight of Syrian refugees, some human rights activists have been expressing concern that the fate of many of the world’s longest-suffering asylum-seekers may be overlooked. Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, is one of those activists, and has taken his concern and turned it into a timely, unforgettable work of narrative non-fiction.
City of Thorns follows the lives of nine individuals in the Kenyan refugee camp of Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world. Established in 1992, it serves as a transitory home to half a million people, most of whom fled famine, civil war or terror in neighbouring Somalia.
Rawlence’s subjects — among them former child soldier Guled, schoolgirl Kheyro (who dreams of a further education in Canada), and intermarried and incompatible couple Muna and Monday — arrived at Dadaab at different times and under different circumstances.
Each one of them, however, shares a yearning for permanence, protection and dignity denied them in the overcrowded camp.
“Raised on the meagre rations of the United Nations for their whole lives, schooled by NGOs and submitted to workshops on democracy, gender mainstreaming and campaigns against female genital mutilation, the refugees suffered from benign illusions about the largesse of the international community,” Rawlence writes.
“They were forbidden from leaving and not allowed to work, but they believed that if only people came to know about their plight, then the world would be moved to help, to bring an end to the protracted situation that’s seen them confined to the camps for generations.”
It is this belief that keeps them going day after day, year after year, amid the tents and the mud and the thorns of “the groaning, filthy, disease-riddled slum heaving with traumatized people without enough to eat.”
In spite of the best efforts of the UN and the on-site NGOs, corruption, infighting and violence are rampant throughout the camp.
And although there are moments of joy — at the birth of a child, a football victory, or a religious celebration — they are invariably diminished by the indignities of life and the uncertainties of the future.
Just as writer Katherine Boo did in Behind the Beautiful Forever: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Rawlence keeps the harsh realities of camp life front and centre. His book, though, is more detailed and dense than Boo’s, and his subjects not quite as clearly drawn.
As a result, it takes some effort to not get lost in the detail and to clearly distinguish the separate, but oftenconverging, storylines and subjects.
But just as this book is not easy to read, it is not easy to forget. Nor should it be.
The nine subjects profiled in City of Thorns — and all their friends, family and neighbours crowded in there with them — deserve to be remembered, and after years and sometimes generations of suffering, deserve to be resettled.
It is time to end the buufis — a word coined in the camp to describe the longing for resettlement — of the people of Dadaab. By Ben Rawlence Random House Canada, 400 pages,
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.