Kenyan refugee sto­ries mem­o­rable

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - ARTS & LIFE -

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.

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