Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp, stretching across the border of Somalia and Kenya and hosting, at the latest best estimate, around 330,000 people. And yet a lot of us have never heard of it. And those of us who have may have only heard the name uttered in the news reports when a Kenyan mall was the arena for a terrorist attack just a couple of years ago. During that time, this place that people have fled to in times of brutal wars in their own homelands, began to be seen as a breeding ground for fundamentalists. Dadaab became the brunt of the blame for anything bad that was happening in Kenya.
Ben Lawrence had already been researching in the area for a long time before this incident, though, and he saw a different side. Yes, the al-Shabaab terrorist cell had a presence in the camp. But it was a small one. What Lawrence discovered during his time there was that the majority of the occupants were genuine asylum seekers, fleeing death threats and fear and possible forced appropriation into the very terrorist cells they were now accused of being members. They’d fled from one unending horror to join another.
There is a paragraph in the final third of the book which perfectly highlights why Lawrence chose to write it:
“The status quo in Dadaab is dependent on not recognising the refugees as humans. Because to do so would be to acknowledge that they have rights. And to recognise those rights would be to occasion a reckoning with history that would be too traumatic. It would mark the lands 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 state apart. And so the refugees must, at all costs, be demonised.”
What makes this book so important and so timely, though, is that paragraphs such as this one do not only apply to Dadaab. Read over it again. Take out the direct references to Somalia. And then tell me that this isn’t exactly how refugees are being treated the world over at this very moment, on our shores as much as anywhere else. While Lawrence’s book may look directly at Dadaab, it shines a light on the rest of the world. It asks how we can put these refugees, these humans just like us, through the things we put them through. The boats. The detention centres. The cramped housing. The impossibility of employment. The abuse. The fear. The lack of dignity.
And while asking these questions, Lawrence also gives a little bit of that dignity back. At least to the nine people he focuses on in City of Thorns. He shows us that they are human. He talks about the big things, such as why they came to the camp and how the wars that surround them have destroyed their daily lives. But he also talks about the smaller things – their relationships, the way they eat their meals, the football teams they love, the fears they have when thinking of starting a family. He shows us that, if our situations we’re swapped, if we were simply born somewhere else, we could be just where they are today.
Any Cop?: There are millions of people in the world who need to read what is written in these pages. This message needs to get through urgently. But even beyond that, this is a wonderfully written and impeccably researched work of non-fiction. It’s just a shame that the people who choose to read it will probably be those who least need to hear what it has to say.