On Sept. 21, 2013, armed Islamic extremists laid siege on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Scrambling to end the violence, Kenya's military made blunders that dragged the siege into a multiple-day standoff. What could have been settled with less horror and fewer lives lost instead resulted in 67 dead and more than 175 wounded.
While the extremist group Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, an embarrassed administration fumbled to sidestep its missteps by redirecting the public's attention to Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya.
In 2010, as a researcher for Human Rights Watch, author Ben Rawlence first arrived at Dadaab. A year later, he made the first of seven visits to observe and document the experiences of the refugee camp's residents. His "City of Thorns" is immediately reminiscent of Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers."
Describing the psychological topography of the camp, Rawlence writes, "The geography of a refugee camp is about two things: visibility and control — the same principles that guide a prison. The refugee camp has the structure of punishment without the crime. The crime is implied. … The refugees, docile, disempowered, do as they are told; they hesitate before authority and plead for their rights in the language of mercy."
This is not a snapshot of terrorists-in-waiting; these are stories of people who are barely surviving.
Dadaab was formed in 1992 to contain 90,000 refugees desperate to escape the Somalian civil war. Nearly 25 years later, it has evolved into a city that's home to half a million refugees and is the responsibility of the Kenyan government and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. The vast majority of residents come from Somalia, fleeing famine and terrorism. Others hail from the Sudan, the Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi. People trade their names for ration numbers, surrendering themselves to "the faceless bureaucracy of the U.N. system."
In light of the contemporary crisis, "City of Thorns" serves as a cautionary tale. Rawlence's portrait of nine Dadaab residents offers a stark counterpoint to the rhetoric that too often speaks for refugees. All arrive in search of a better life, but this unifying factor is lost on governments, eager to dismiss refugee camps as crucibles for terrorism.
Rawlence's disappointed reaction to his report to the U.S. National Security Council highlights the danger of a debate without nuance.
"The terms of the conversation seemed to allow for only two kinds of young people: terrorists and those at risk of becoming one." Painstakingly chronicling life in the camp, Rawlence nobly dispels these myths at a time when all refugees are met with deep skepticism. This is a vital book at a critical moment in global history.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. She lives in Brooklyn.