"City of Thorns" by Ben Rawlence

Deep in the desert of Northern Kenya lies the Dadaab refugee camp, where almost half a million residents live, unable to go back to their home in Somalia and unwanted by the Kenyan government. Dadaab is considered a humanitarian crisis. Only supposed to house a few thousand people for a few years, it has for over two decades grown into a city.

Ben Rawlence spent four years in Dadaab, witnessing first-hand the struggles of the people who call it home.  They ended up there trying to escape the civil war in Somalia but now it looks like many will never escape the desperation and difficulties.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, by Ben Rawlence, is a heartbreaking and intimate look at life inside Dadaab.  The nine stories are interwoven to give readers a well-rounded understanding of the political landscape that created Dadaab and the forces that keep people there. The lives lived in Dadaab are unimaginable for so many of us and this book shines a spotlight on the crisis that has been unfolding in Kenya for years, with no end in sight.

In the West, it can often seem like humanitarian crises come and go like trends. Civil wars, famines, natural disasters, one happens and it’s all that we hear about until another happens and then we forget about the first.  The thing is, just because we don’t hear about them anymore, doesn’t mean they have ended. 

Dadaab was created 25 years ago to help people who were fleeing civil war in Somalia. Over time, it also became home to people fleeing famine and drought. At one point, in 2011, over 10,000 people were arriving each month. The camp grew far beyond its resources could provide for. Each year, thousands of children are born in the camp and Dadaab is now starting to see a third generation being born there. For many, this is the only home they have ever known.  For a while, the eyes of the world were on Dadaab, with money and other resources pouring in, but time and shifting public attention has changed things. The global war on terrorism has put the camp back into the spotlight, but for different reasons. And what continues to get left behind are the people who spend their days in Dadaab.

In City of Thorns, Rawlence introduces us to nine people and their families who call Dadaab home. This includes Guled, forced to be a child soldier for Al-Shabaab; Tawane, who came to the camp as a young boy and is now a youth leader; Kheyro who knows that her education is the one thing that can help her escape the camp; Monday, a Lost Boy of Sudan, a Christian who married a Muslim woman; Nisho, a porter in the market who was born en route to Dadaab; and Professor White Eyes, born blind but later recovered his sight and became a successful businessman in the camp. Their stories, and many more, are combined to tell a story that is difficult and heartbreaking.  

This is an incredible book. While I’m familiar with Dadaab through newspaper and internet articles, this opened my eyes to what day to day life is like in a modern refugee camp and it is beyond anything I could have imagined. I was amazed at the way the camp economy took shape, the community that grew out of it, the way the multinational humanitarian organizations ran the camp, but mostly I was just heartbroken for the people who face life in these conditions. Refugee camps are meant to be temporary but for many, Dadaab is for life.

I think I would have preferred this book if each of the stories were told individually. By weaving them all together, Rawlence is able to tell a story that plays out chronologically and paints a big picture of the camp but I found that with so many stories between the main people and the secondary people, I was getting lost and often forgetting people and places. While reading the story of one person, I would be wondering what had happened to someone else. 

A little while ago, I read an article that stated camps like Dadaab will be the new future for refugees. As we watch the plight of Syrian refugees unfold before our eyes, it seems scary but true. This book will open your eyes to an experience that is happening to millions of people around the world.


  1. Wow it's daunting - the plight and the amount of people in the camp (s). It's scary. It's amazing the author spent 4 years there. a heartbreaker for sure.


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