Insights From the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Editors’ note: This article is the second in a series on books by or about refugees.

Over dinner in Egypt, at a conference on refugee education, a respected and experienced colleague of mine called “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp” a highly accurate depiction of life in a refugee camp. I was intrigued.

I felt I had only skimmed the surface during my brief visits to refugee camps, both formal ones run by UN agencies in Jordan and informal settlements in Lebanon, where refugees must strike often-shifting and uneasy bargains with landowners and the government. Humanitarian workers who visit such camps (few spend the night) would hint to me about what goes on behind the scenes and how difficult it is for those who live there: dealing with local supermarkets who overcharge them; difficulties in entering and leaving formal camps; and the price of day-to-day subsistence. Crime outside the camps also exists inside them: extortion, prostitution, and theft.

Journalists generally go easy on the humanitarian agencies that serve refugee camps. Many journalists focus on the hardships refugees face and ignore the inefficiency and occasional corruption in the background, as humanitarian aid gets skimmed multiple times for profit and self-interest. On the other hand, some journalists go for the quick exposé, and do little to present an accurate, balanced picture.

“City of Thorns,” to my relief, did not tip to either extreme.  The author, Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, visited the Dadaab camp in Kenya seven times over a period of a year, spending a total of five months there. He interviewed hundreds of people. In the book, he portrays refugees both at their worst—selling drugs and pumping up the aid they can receive with fake ration cards—and their best, supporting education, civil society, volunteerism, and rule of law, however informal.  Humanitarian workers get similar treatment: Some are portrayed as steadfastly earnest and fair-minded, while others—especially the police—exploit the refugees.

View of the refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, November 2016.

Although Dadaab is in sub-Saharan Africa, the experience there echoes the refugee camps in Jordan. Even the political background is similar: In Somalia, a terrorist group Al Shabab, has pulled the country into civil war, driving its citizens across the border into Kenya.

Like Syrians, everyday Somalis seeking some semblance of a peaceful, stable life in the refugee camps are suspected of being terrorists, especially after the Al Shabab attack on a mall in Nairobi in 2013. The residents of Dadaab often go hungry and lack clean water and sanitation amid the harsh desert surroundings. They suffer when the sand transforms into mud during the rainy season. Likewise, Jordanian camp residents shiver through winter snows and have little protection from summer heat.

Education is usually on the distant horizon of residents’ lives—something they long for but have difficulty getting access to. Rawlence follows one young man, named Fish, who goes to Nairobi to study at a university. But the Kenyan police routinely shake him down for bribes and expect about 2,000 shillings ($22) each time they stop him on the street.

Although much of Rawlence’s book follows the threads of individual lives, he sums up the camp toward the end of his book:  “Ranged against the Kenyan desire to see Dadaab leveled was not just the law, but all the forces of human ingenuity and determination that had raised a city in this most hostile desert. Dadaab worked. It served a need, for the miracle of schools and hospitals and safety net of food, and for respite from the exhaustion of the civil war. It had become a fact.”

Dadaab was opened in 1991. The Kenyan government hoped to close it this month, but a court order has blocked that attempt.

Books about refugee camps do not have happy endings. A handful of people are able to resettle in Western countries. But in Dadaab, Rawlence writes, only about 2,000 residents a year are resettled, while about 1,000 babies are born each month. Most residents are stuck in a limbo that can last decades.

Responding to the educational needs of refugees and displaced persons requires a deep understanding of their mental and emotional states and the conditions they live in. “City of Thorns” helps to provide that understanding.

The first article in this series highlighted “Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis.”


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