Nisho, 24, has never lived anywhere but a ramshackle mud hut inside the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab.
He works as a porter in the Kenyan camp’s grey market, hauling bags of potatoes and sugar by wheelbarrow. “My life is hauling a sack,” he says. The money helps pay a witch doctor to treat his mother, who has gone mad. Nisho ties her wrists to a neem tree to keep her from wandering away.
Nisho, who was born en route to Dadaab when his parents fled Somalia in 1991, is one of nine unforgettable characters at the heart of Ben Rawlence’s new book City of Thorns. The granular details of their lives are set against broader political forces — the 2011 famine, the rise of terrorism in Kenya and ongoing instability of Somalia — that keep people trapped in Dadaab. Their struggles are both ordinary and extraordinary, and they raise uncomfortable questions about the United Nations refugee system that is supposed to keep them safe.
Nisho, for example, finally catches a break during the famine. Turkey donates 14 camels to the camp to encourage impoverished men to marry. With such a dowry, Nisho is able to wed the girl of his dreams, Billai.
“Marriage was a bet on the future, on the next generation: maybe this one would be the one. The one that would make the change,” writes Rawlence.
The former researcher for Human Rights Watch writes intimately about lives in the camp — sipping goat soup, playing soccer, ducking Al Shabab terrorists, falling in love, arguing with neighbours and falling out with relatives.
His summarizes the motive for the book this way: “What happens when Angelina Jolie leaves the camp?”
“I wanted to give a much more intimate view of refugees to make the reader care, and fall in love with the characters and maybe even have them break your heart,” Rawlence says in an interview. “I want (Donald) Trump supporters to read this book. Whether you love or hate refugees, you need to know what life looks like from their point of view.”
Rawlence visited the camp of approximately 350,000 people repeatedly over four years, doing scores of interviews until he settled on his characters. Most residents told their stories openly, including women who had endured rape, starvation and loss.
“These people are pretty forgotten. The attention of a foreign who wants to imbue their story with significance is attractive. I’ve had more trouble getting Welsh farmers to speak.”
Rawlence was inspired to humanize the Somali refugees after reading John Steinback’s 1939 classic The Grapes of Wrath, about a family driven by poverty from their Oklahoma home, as well as Katherine Boo’s 2012 book on the slums of Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
City of Thorns is a powerful reminder of the failure of the current refugee system. Millions of Syrians are fleeing for their lives, but so too are millions of Africans, also displaced by war.
If they enter a “temporary” refugee camp like Dadaab, they may well be forced to spend their entire lives there, while world leaders argue their fate. They cannot obtain Kenyan citizenship, and cannot return to Somalia, without risking their lives. Only a fortunate few will ever be resettled in the west.
“We should be pushing other countries to take refugees and pushing those who have historically taken them to step up their numbers,” Rawlence says. “The system is broken.”
The system is broken, but not Nisho. He and the other characters in Dadaab are sparks of hope in the face of unimaginable hardship.
City of Thorns, Random House Canada, 400 pages, $34.
City of Thorns tells an epic love story gone wrong between Monday, a Christian and a former lost boy from Sudan, and Muna, a Somali beauty who grew up in the camp and had already been widowed and divorced by the time she turned 18.
Muna is so schooled in the liberal ideals of the NGOs that run the camp that she rebels by marrying Monday, knowing his religion will anger her clan.
Indeed, her relatives attack Monday while local Somali nurses plot to lethally inject their baby in the delivery room. The couple is forced to take refuge in special transit area of the camp for at-risk refugees. They would still be there today, hiding from Muna’s vengeful relatives, were it not for the author’s intervention.
“I eventually found out that their file for resettlement in Australia had been lost for three years,” Ben Rawlence said. “But if I hadn’t been there, they would have been left to rot.”