City of Thorns
City of Thorns is a magnificent and disturbing depiction of life inside Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp.
Author Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, has the privilege of unusual access to this sprawling
refugee camp, which is normally closed to journalists. He uses it as a force for good by bringing the reader along with
him. Through skilled storytelling, Rawlence shows the rest the world what people experience when they live through war
or famine and flee their own country, only to wind up in a situation that itself constitutes a kind of hell on earth.
Rawlence does a superb job bringing into close focus the lives of nine compelling individuals who live in Dadaab, depicting
through their individual sagas what it means to be a refugee at this moment. He also illustrates the rampant corruption
and danger that besets these refugees even inside the boundaries of the camp that is supposed to provide them with safe
haven. And he shows how refugee camps themselves can sometimes lead to further radicalization and destabilization, when
mismanaged or improperly funded.
The author calls us all to task for creating such a situation in which to warehouse the vulnerable. It is a life unimaginable
to the inhabitants of most developed countries, and by sharing these stories Rawlence succeeds in personalizing one of the
most important challenges of our time, casting a powerful spotlight on the dilemma of how best to answer the refugee crisis.
- Helen Thorpe and Alan Taylor
2017 finalist judges
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Excerpt from the book
“Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition
as fully human. Instead, those fleeing the twenty-first century’s wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere
are seen as a potential fifth column, a threat. Each year too few are officially referred by the UN and given asylum in
other countries…. No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent: not the Kenyan government
who hosts it, not the UN who must pay for it, and not the refugees who must live there. This paradox makes the ground
unsteady. Caught between the ongoing war in Somalia and a world unwilling to welcome them, the refugees can only survive
in the camp by imagining a life elsewhere. It is unsettling: neither the past, nor the present, nor the future is a safe
place for a mind to linger for long. To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically, your
thoughts constantly flickering between impossible dreams and a nightmarish reality. In short, to come here you must be