Ben Rawlence, writer: “Living in a refugee camp imposes a kind of limit on the possibilities of life”
Dadaab Refugee Camp has existed in Northern Kenya desert for 25 years. It was originally created to provide shelter for 90,000 Somalian refugees who fled their country during the civil war in the 90s. Currently, it contains over 500,000 people and is the biggest refugee camp in the world. Despite its long history and huge size, we don’t hear much about Dadaab. In 2010, the British writer Ben Rawlence visited it for the first time as part of his work for the Human Rights Watch. He went back in 2011, beggining an exploration of the place over a period of four years. This research resulted in City of Thorns, a book that presents the reality of Dadaab refugees through the lives of nine of its inhabitants.
Laura Medina Alemán y Noelia Martínez Castellanos
Cosmopolita Scotland – How does the perception of belonging to a community change from living in a camp as opposed to being settled in the host country?
Ben Rawlence – Living in a refugee camp imposes a kind of limit on the possibilities of life – you cannot let your mind rest, you cannot settle, you cannot invest or plan for the future. In a host country you have a level permanence, and a level of equality that is different – you can move around freely, you can probably apply for travel documents and leave the country even. That kind of freedom is unimaginable in the camp.
CS – How should the refugee drama of those who have been displaced into camps be portrayed internationally?
BR – Well, one attempt is to describe that life in the book City of Thorns. I would like to see films about life in the camp, fictional, drama films, based in those places just as films can be set in any other place. Treating individual stories with the same weight and attention as other stories, other human lives is what I would like to see.
To the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it is a ‘nursery for terrorists’; to the western media, it is a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort. (extract from Portobello book’s website)
CS – What is the social impact that City of Thorns is aiming for?
BL – It has a humble ambition, just to bring people a little bit closer together. To show readers this insight into life in this place, so that it is harder for the stereotypes to stick, and easier to see these people as human, just like us, despite their different circumstances. I do not hope for major policy changes because I know that that is not possible – in that sense the book is an exploration and exposition of all the reasons why big change cannot happen.
Photos of Ben Rawlence and City of Thorns book from Portobello Books.
Header photo: An aerial view of the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab by Andy Hall/Oxfam (CC Licence with some rights reserved)