City of Thorns

Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp

Publisher: Vintage Canada

To charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it's a "nursery for terrorists"; to the western media, it's a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort.
     Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, in the midst of the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other. Its buildings are made from mud and its citizens survive on rations and luck. Over the course of four years, Ben Rawlence became a first-hand witness to a strange and desperate limbo-land, getting to know many of the individuals who have sought sanctuary in the camp. Among them are Guled, a former child soldier who lives for soccer; Nisho, who scrapes together an existence by pushing a wheelbarrow and dreaming of riches; Tawane, the indomitable youth leader; and schoolgirl Kheyro, whose future hangs upon her education.
     With deep compassion and rare eloquence, Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine individuals to show what life is like in the camp and to sketch the wider political forces that keep the refugees trapped there. Lucid, vivid and illuminating, City of Thorns is an urgent human story with profound international repercussions, brought to life through the people who call Dadaab home.



“Where once writers made myths, now increasingly it’s the writer’s job to unmake the myths created by modern media. City of Thorns is a clear-eyed account of people living in limbo, unable either to go forward or back they must make their world where they find it, a testament both to human frailty and human resilience. To read their stories is to think ‘there but for the Grace of God.’ By recounting the stories of a few Rawlence sheds light on all the stories of all in the refugees in all the camps that will never be told. As timely as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.”
Aminatta Forna, author of The Memory of Love

“At a time when Western governments are obsessing over migrant flows, City of Thorns offers unique insights into what prompts people to abandon their ancestral homes in the first place and the dreams that send them questing for a better life. Researching this book can’t have been easy. Ben Rawlence is to be congratulated not just for his accessible writing style, but for his modesty—he is never, thank God, the focus of events—his pluck and determination.” —Michela Wrong, author of Borderlines

“Ben Rawlence tells the story of the vast, sprawling, ramshackle, and notorious collection of hovels and shacks that is Dadaab. Breaking through the caricatures of this refugee camp as smuggler’s paradise or terrorist haven, Rawlence takes us into the lives of those for whom Dadaab is home. Compassionate and powerful, this book gets to the heart of the tragedy of Somalia, and the struggles that face those displaced by war and want in eastern Africa. To better understand the current crisis of migration in our modern world, start here.” —David Anderson, professor of African History at Warwick University

City of Thorns is a powerful and timely reminder of how unresolved conflicts, from Somalia to Syria, have contributed to the unprecedented global refugee crisis. Ben Lawrence’s intimate, vivid portrait of the forgotten refugees in Dadaab is a much needed effort to close the humanity gap between the West and the rest. A must read.” —Kim Ghattas, BBC correspondent and author of The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power

City of Thorns is a brilliant if haunting book that reveals just what it means to be numbered among the countless tens of thousands of refugees whose existence has been shattered by conflict, who survive with nothing, cast adrift from tradition and security, obliged to cobble together shadow lives from the detritus of memory and lost dreams. It is at once both an intimate story of redemption and hope, a prayer for the innocent, and a damning universal indictment of all those whose monstrous acts and vainglorious ambitions unleash the dogs of war.” —Wade Davis, author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

“The saga of Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, the City of Thorns of the title, reveals the sort of intersection between humanity’s greatest nightmares and triumphs that seems to belong more to fiction than to the real world. That Rawlence has managed to capture so much of this unlikely city’s chaos and confusion in a narrative that is very nearly impossible to put down is an achievement in reportage that few have matched. Dadaab’s half a million residents could not have asked for a better champion than this researcher for Human Rights Watch, and while the facts and figures he shares are stunning, it is the nine individuals whose stories he focuses on who give the book its heart. Their nearly insurmountable struggle for the most basic of human dignities, the right to work and love and live in peace, will make readers yearn to know more about the politics of international aid and the rights of refugees. Comparisons to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012) are spot-on. Rawlence has written a book that just might change the world or, at the very least, awaken readers to one criminally forgotten corner of it. A tour de force.” —Colleen Mondor, Booklist (starred review)

“To us they are just numbers, a plague upon our fine lives. But refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants are names, lives, sons, daughters, lovers, people full of hope and grit. They are victims of global politics and wars, but each one is an individual, good and bad. In this book Ben Rawlence has given us a complex tapestry of refugee life without romanticising it. It is like a Brueghel picture in words. The powerful should read it. But they won’t because that would be to look at unbearable truths. An eloquent testimony by a writer with heart.” —Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
“[A]n outstanding new book. . . . Rawlence is a former Human Rights Watch researcher and the author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War, in which he first displayed his Barbara Ehrenreich-ish ability for documenting the lives of the desperately poor. . . . What’s so remarkable about his account is how he complicates the notion of ‘refugee’ as a faceless, nameless condition. Everyone in Dadaab, he insists, is an individual; each resident responds differently to the lunacy that unfolds around him or her. . . . Rawlence’s account of this febrile life is nothing short of superb. . . . The detail he weaves into his nine intersecting narratives is so meticulously observed that his notebook stack must have resembled Kenya’s not-so-proximate Mount Kilimanjaro. This is Refugees for Grown-ups—there are no pat bumper-sticker lines or cutesy take-aways, but a clear-eyed assessment of the immense, transformative migration that is leaving no corner of the Earth unchanged. Most importantly, he elucidates just how complicit the West has been in creating no-topias such as Dadaab, even while politicians make a great show of welcoming refugees at high-profile photo ops in distant airports.” —Richard Poplak, The Globe and Mail
“[A]n indispensable account. . . . [Written] in strikingly novelistic prose. . . . Rawlence’s reportage inspires outrage.” —Chicago Reader
“[A]n important book because it shatters the de-personalizing label ‘refugee’ and focuses discussion of refugees on the people themselves. . . . He eloquently shows that those who flee their homeland in fear of losing their lives are people who have the same aspirations, and who face similar challenges, as anyone else, but they do so in an almost unimaginably more difficult and desperate environment. Rawlence lets people speak for themselves and tell their own stories in this powerful book. . . . Rawlence’s writing makes clear that it is time to propose oversight, standards and reform of these camps, where rape and other violent crimes are commonplace and people are dehumanized. Solutions won’t be easy, but the problem has long been known, and now it is time for action.” —Portland Press Herald
“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, StarTribune
“Weaving the underlying history and politics into the stories of individual residents, he renders the uncertainty, poverty, hunger, and powerlessness experienced by the refugees concrete, immediate, and moving.” —Science
“Rawlence’s City of Thorns is a deeply disturbing and depressing portrait of the violence, destitution, fear, sense of hopelessness and neglect in which a large number of the world’s estimated sixty million forcibly displaced people now live. . . . Remarkable book. . . . Like Dadaab itself, the story has no conclusion. It is a portrait, beautifully and movingly painted. And it is more than that. At a time when newspapers are filled with daily images of refugees arriving in boats on Europe’s shores, when politicians and governments grapple with solutions to migration and erect ever larger walls and fences, it is an important reminder that a vast majority of the world’s refugees never get as far as a boat or a border of the developed world.” —Caroline Moorehead, The New York Times
“A vivid, haunting portrait of Dadaab. . . . Each refugee’s story makes the heart sink and head pound in frustration, anger, and despair. Rawlence tells their stories with brutal honesty and deft poignancy.” —Kirkus Reviews

“By combining his own experiences with interviews with residents of Dadaab, he makes the human rights crisis—rarely covered in the media—vivid and immediate for readers. . . . These and other telling stories will resonate with readers long after they finish the book. . . . This is a compelling examination of the tragedy of a place where one ‘can only survive . . . by imagining a life elsewhere.’” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Magisterial [and] vivid. . . . [City of Thorns] chronicles the lives of people trapped in soul-eroding tedium, yet it moves like a thriller.” —Jill Leovy, LA Times