A new art show on the frontline of the refugee crisis

An exhibition on the Greek island of Samos hopes to inspire refugee crisis solutions

A Syrian refugee and his daughter near the Greek village of Idomeni©Yannis Behrakis

A Syrian refugee and his daughter close to the Greek village of Idomeni

Behind a white-walled cemetery on the Greek island of Samos, 1.6km from the Turkish coast, is a graveyard for young children who have drowned attempting to attain the sanctuary of Europe. Artificial flowers mark a row of nameless graves, identified only by numbers and the year 2016. Other gravestones marked “Syria” have names in Arabic, including a mound with three tiny graves on which a grieving mother has propped soft toys.

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Along the south coast, in a repurposed 1970s hotel, Tanja Boukal’s 3-minute video “The Youngsters and the Sea” captures the incongruous tranquillity of this deathly spot, with its birdsong and crickets. The film is spliced with harrowing text about three beneath-fives who washed up on Samos’s shores in January. In the artist’s insistent memorial, the hidden graveyard becomes a focus of contemplation and questioning. Her collage “Memories of Travels and Dreams” contrasts the secure tourist passage from the Turkish port of Kuşadası with the perilous and extortionate crossings at the hands of men and women-smugglers. Pictures of discarded clothing, tyres used as lifebelts and other traces of clandestine arrivals are arranged like postcards on a sea of blue, around an advertisement for a higher-speed ferry.

These new functions by Boukal, a Viennese artist born in 1976, type part ofA World Not Ours, a group show devoted to the worldwide asylum crisis, at the Art Space Pythagorion in Samos. The space was developed in 2012 by the Greek-German Schwarz Foundation from a derelict hotel on Pythagorio harbour, a picturesque waterfront of tavernas and painted boats. The €500,000 renovation struck some Samiots as a luxury amid Greece’s unending economic woes. Yet Peni Petrakou and Stelios Loulourgas’s elegant white cube draws guests, giving a fillip to a faltering neighborhood economy. From its panoramic back window, Mount Mycale in Turkey seems almost within attain.

The Art Space’s founder, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, a psychoanalyst from Athens whose husband’s wealth derives from pharmaceuticals, also hopes Pythagorio’s 7,000-year history can inspire solutions. The city’s golden age amongst the 8th and 6th centuries BC peaked below Polycrates the tyrant, host to artists, engineers and philosophers. Herodotus deemed the six-storey Temple of Hera “the greatest I have seen” (1 column nonetheless stands). The Sacred Way to it was lined with 6,000 statues. Museum treasures testify that such achievements came with the free flow of individuals, goods and tips from Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia — also sources of today’s refugees. Outdoors the Art Space is a statue of Pythagoras, the Samiot soon after whom the town was renamed, who brought geometry from Egypt, identified the maths behind musical tones and coined the term “harmony”.

An exhausted refugee arrives on Kos, in a photo from the series ‘Europa, Europa’, by Giorgios Moutafis

An exhausted refugee arrives on Kos, in a photo from the series ‘Europa, Europa’, by Giorgios Moutafis

1 of the biggest Greek islands, Samos, along with Lesvos and Chios to the north, has been on the frontline of the Mediterranean refugee crisis because 2015. Of much more than 1m irregular sea arrivals to Europe final year, 850,000 — mostly Syrians — came by way of Turkey to Greek islands, more than 800 dying en route. According to the island’s mayor, Michalis Angelopoulos, Samos saw 153,000 arrivals within a year — five instances the regional population. The controversial EU-Turkey deal in March reduce everyday arrivals from 1,700 to fewer than 20. But in the hillside above Vathy on the north side of the island, more than 1,000 folks — a third of them children — stay in an overcrowded, nominally closed camp ringed by razor-wire.

Tensions are increasing. Tourism accounts for 80 per cent of the island’s economy, but tourist numbers are down this summer by at least 40 per cent, visitors deterred by images of death and desperation. “The social tolerance of half of this society is exhausted,” the mayor told me. “We gave almost everything to a humanitarian effort municipality volunteers ready 4,000 meals a day. And central government does absolutely nothing.”

Still from ‘A World Not Ours’ (2012)©Mahdi Fleifel/Nakba Filmworks

Nevertheless from ‘A World Not Ours’ (2012)

The show’s curator, Katerina Gregos, attempts to tackle these tensions with global context. “EXIT”, a superb collaborative video installation, deploys a spinning globe and ingenious infographics to animate statistics on population flows, remittances and the “push factors” of conflict, urban density and climate alter, underlining the futility of Fortress Europe.

Gregos chose artists with lengthy engagement with refugees. Boukal volunteered in Lampedusa in 2007 soon after 1st finding out of the drownings. The US artist Sallie Latch interviewed arrivals in Samos for a sound installation. Excerpts were read by actors to a rapt audience in Greek and English. Three curatorial scholars provide guided tours. For Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, “it’s up to Greece to participate in the discussion, not just be passive to a wave of incomers”.

Memories of Travels and Dreams’ (2016) by Tanja Boukal, which contrasts the journey from Turkey to Greece of tourists with that of refugees

Memories of Travels and Dreams’ (2016) by Tanja Boukal, which contrasts the journey from Turkey to Greece of vacationers with that of refugees

Numerous Greeks are themselves descendants of refugees, which often creates unexpected wells of compassion. Numerous of these forcibly expelled from Turkey in the course of the war and exchange of populations of 1919-23, recognized as the Asia Minor Catastrophe in Greece, came to this island — memories stirred by Marina Gioti’s seven-minute video “Saint Marina”. Probing the loved ones history of an icon she inherited from ancestors who fled to Samos and then Piraeus, the function is a meditation on what is lost and saved in flight.

“My family’s story is everybody’s story,” Gioti says. In the 1940s the flow went the other way, as a third of Samos’s population fled to Turkey throughout the Italian and German occupations, numerous in rowing boats.

Pythagorio harbour on Samos with the waterside Art Space Pythagorion©Costas Vergas

Pythagorio harbour on Samos with the waterside Art Space Pythagorion

Two of the strongest exhibitors are photographers who do not regard themselves as gallery artists. “The Persecuted”, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Yannis Behrakis, is a huge-scale slide projection of photographs documenting final year’s refugee crisis for Reuters. But Giorgos Moutafis’s “Europa, Europa”, tiny black-and-white photos in light boxes, draws the viewer in closer. A new arrival kisses the European shore. Another on a ship’s deck resembles a deposed Christ, haloed by a white hood, with echoes as well of the transatlantic middle passage.

Moutafis took up photography 12 years ago “in a recovery programme for drug users”, and now operates only with refugees. With black-and-white photo­graphy he seeks “to place memories in your head”. “My grandfather did this trip from Izmir to Chios in 1922, in the Catastrophe,” he says. “Greeks and Italians went to America in the 1950s. In the financial crisis, Greeks are going to Holland and the UK. No one particular can stop it just like that.”

Utilizing low cost, disposable cameras, “you only have 12 exposures, so you have to feel,” he notes. “I want the viewer to keep and think, too. I do not want to inform them they know currently.” The final pictures are of the even much more treacherous passages from Libya to Italy that have resumed considering that the March deal.

Beirut-born Ninar Esber fled civil war to Paris at age 15, and this experience of reluctant exile informs her performance piece “The Blind Lighthouse”. Its red-dressed woman on a tower is portion seductress, portion Medusa. “People are attracted to Europe like Ulysses to the sirens,” Esber says, “but she is blind, she can’t guide them.”

By contrast, Mahdi Fleifel’s 2012 documentary A Planet Not Ours, shown in the open-air cinema, gave a profound insight into the compelling motives for flight. It is set in the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon exactly where Fleifel grew up. With a nod to Woody Allen, the film’s humour draws viewers by stealth into a nightmarish cycle that traps generations in camps, barred from jobs and with practically nothing to drop. By the time a single character makes a break for Europe via an unnamed Greek island, this audience, gasping with recognition, was rooting for him.

‘A World Not Ours’, to October 15, Art Space Pythagorion, Samos, Greece art-space-pythagorion.com

Photographs: Yannis Behrakis Giorgos Moutafis Mahdi Fleifel/Nakba Filmworks Costas Vergas

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Section: Arts

Author Profiles The &#039Traumatized People&#039 Living In The Planet&#039s Biggest Refugee Camp



Founded in 1991 as a temporary shelter for Somalis, the Dadaab complex in Kenya now houses nearly half a million refugees. Ben Rawlence profiles nine of its residents in his new book, City of Thorns.



This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. The Syrian refugee crisis has increased awareness of the desperate situations many refugees find themselves in. Our guest Ben Rawlence has written a new book about the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab complex in northern Kenya. It opened in 1991 as a temporary shelter for Somalis fleeing civil war. It’s now home to nearly a half-million people, testament to the reluctance of the world’s governments to offer safe harbor to those fleeing war and economic collapse. Rawlence says when tens of thousands of Somalis poured into Dadaab during a 2011 drought, they found a groaning, filthy, disease-riddled slum heaving with traumatized people with not enough to eat. Rawlence first went to Dadaab as a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Africa. He’s made seven extended visits, getting to know residents struggling with the limbo of refugee status, unable to return to homes they left but prevented from making new lives in a host country. Rawlence’s book explores the camp through detailed portraits of nine refugees. Rawlence is the author of an earlier book titled “Radio Congo.” He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book, “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.”

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Ben Rawlence, welcome to FRESH AIR. I’d like to begin by talking about one of the characters in the book. This is a young man named Guled who emigrated to this huge refugee camp complex in northern Kenya from Somalia. And he was in Mogadishu, which was – had experienced years of civil war. Tell us a bit about what happened to him in Somalia that led to his departure.

BEN RAWLENCE: Well, Guled was a young man born about the time of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, 1993, which is perhaps the last time that the world paid serious attention to Somalia. And he lost his parents young and grew up with a sister among the ruins, scavenging a living, trying to stay alive, also playing football with his friends and trying to go to school. Now and again there were sporadic attempts for primary schools to reopen and try and get pupils. And it was while he was at school, when he was 16 in 2010, that al-Shabaab militants arrived at the school gates, came in to his classroom, asked all of the boys to stand up and picked the seven tallest ones. And he was one of them. And he was taken to a training camp for three months and was conscripted into the militia until he managed to escape and got his way onto a bus, several-hundred miles south through Somalia, over the border into Kenya, into Dadaab, which was at that time, and still is, the world’s biggest refugee camp.

DAVIES: And you mentioned that he was captured by al-Shabaab. Tell us who they are.

RAWLENCE: Al-Shabaab is an extremist Islamist group. They have a formal alliance with al-Qaida. And at that time they were controlling large parts of Somalia. The amount of territory they control now has shrunk somewhat. But they are still a potent force. And the civil war in Somalia is largely between them and international U.N.-backed forces called AMISOM, which is an AU -African Union – peacekeeping mission.

DAVIES: OK, now, he goes from Somalia south into Kenya. Why does the Kenyan government permit him and other refugees to come to this huge camp?

RAWLENCE: Well, the Kenyan government is not massively excited about the large numbers of Somalian refugees that find their way to Kenya. It does have a legal obligation to accept refugees, as does every country in the world. It has tried in the past to limit that flow, but the border is essentially 600 miles of desert, so it’s impossible to police. Some people have been turned back, but large numbers have made it to Kenya over the years. And the camp originally was formed of 90,000 people who came when the civil war first broke out in 1991. And it’s grown since them with successive waves of people fleeing Somalia and also the natural growth of the population reproducing in the camp. So now we’re pushing half a million people living there in this kind of ramshackle city in the desert. But, as you say, Kenya is not that friendly to refugees, and it doesn’t let them work, and it doesn’t let them leave the camp. So they’re pretty much prisoners there.

DAVIES: So let’s talk about this camp. When Guled arrives in 2011, there is something like less than 300,000 people. That number would grow. What did the camp look like?

RAWLENCE: Well, the book is called “City of Thorns,” and the first thing that strikes the visitor is the whole place is stitched of thorns. The desert all around is made of these low-lying acacia scrub bushes, which are very spiny. And when the U.N.-issued tents to disintegrate, which of course they do after a year or two, most people stitch houses together out of these thorns and then cover them with plastic tarpaulins or sometimes with grass. Or sometimes they make walls – frames of sticks – and then mud them, and then put tin roofs on them. So it looks like a kind of slum in the desert, laid out in a grid fashion. And then some of the older areas of the camp that have existed for 25 years are much denser with these kind of narrow alleyways with tall, thorny walls that people walk between. In the dry season, it’s very hot and very dusty. And in the wet season, it’s basically a swamp. You can sink into puddles and up to your shoulders because there’s no drainage. There’s no permanent plumbing. There are no graded roads. So it’s a city of extremes.

DAVIES: And what do people do for sanitation? Where do they relieve themselves?

RAWLENCE: Well, the toilets in the camp are 99 percent holes in the ground. But there are some parts of the camp where new latrines have not been dug for many years. So there’s a shortage of about 35,000 toilets. So many families are sharing, you know, with one pit to two houses. It’s a mess (laughter) in short order. The running water comes from boreholes and taps. And no houses have their own plumbing. So people have to lineup with jerry cans. And you often see long lines of usually young girls with these big, yellow jerry cans waiting to fill them up at the taps every morning. And there are often fights of course over scarce resources.

DAVIES: So if you have these houses – makeshift dwellings made of thorns and canvas and toilets that are holes in the ground and water taps, the question occurs, since it’s been there for 20 years, why aren’t there more permanent houses? Why isn’t there a more-established system for sanitation and providing water?

RAWLENCE: Well, the Kenyan doesn’t want the camp to become permanent. It doesn’t want the refugees to get too comfortable. And in order for the U.N. to be looking after everybody, they have to go along with the fiction that the Kenyan government wants to propagate. So therefore they provide temporary solutions to everything. They are prevented from investing in permanent infrastructure. Interestingly, the U.N. came up with a form of construction for new houses which were these kind of soil bricks – bricks made of soil, not clay, because clay would have been too permanent. And they built a few test houses. And the Kenyan government came along and said, no, no, no, they look far too like real houses. You’re going to have to knock them down again. And we’re not going to allow you to build new houses out of these mud bricks. So they’re back to tents and structures made of corrugated iron sheets, which is an absolute tragedy, really. But this is a sort of living example of the politics of generosity, that, you know, many nations don’t want to accept refugees and don’t want them making a home there.

DAVIES: So this young man Guled, he’s – what? – 16 or so, actually has a wife back in Somalia. He arrives. How does he get fed? How does anybody get food there?

RAWLENCE: Well, there is a food distribution every two weeks of rations by the World Food Program – big warehouses, long lines of people. You go through and you get given several cups of rice or sorghum or maize – often maize from the United States because the U.S.’s main contribution to U.N. rations is in-kind donations. And then you get given a spoonful of salt, a small cup of oil. And then you get your little card stamped to prove that you’ve received your allotted amount. And then you go out through the doors. And right by the doors – to the exit doors to the warehouse – is a market where many people sell some of their food because if you want to have tea or you want to have sugar or you want to have something else – you can’t work. You don’t have any other means of getting currency, so the thing that most people do is sell a little bit of their food and they choose to go hungry for a day or two. And hunger is the price of any luxury that you might want.

DAVIES: Now, I’m sure most people would rather have a job than wait in a warehouse every two weeks for a bit of food. What are the restrictions on employment?

RAWLENCE: Yes, everybody’s desperate to work. And Guled was just like everybody else. He wanted a job. And there are no formal jobs for refugees. The refugees are not allowed to work. The only option really is to work as a volunteer for the U.N. and then you get paid a small stipend, usually around 70 or $ 80 a month. And the jobs that people do for the U.N. involve distributing food, working as nurses in the clinics, working as teachers in the hospitals, working as sanitation officials – all kinds jobs that are needed to run the camp. But they don’t really – you know, they pay something, but they don’t pay very much. The other option is to find a job in the black market. So to begin with, Guled tries portering, which is carrying food, carrying sacks of things in the market, carrying the food for families with many children where the sacks of food that they are given are too heavy for the family members to carry, so they employ somebody to shift a big sack of rice or maize or so on. So Guled tries to do that, but he’s quite a small guy. He’s not very strong. And he can’t lift them. So that’s the sort of entry-level job that you can do if you don’t have any skills or any connections. The rest of the black market to do with, you know, shops in the camps supplying all sorts of things – sugar and tomatoes and petrol and vehicles and all sorts of stuff – that whole economy that has developed is a bit more impenetrable. You need to have some kind of connections to get into that.

DAVIES: And there are clans, right? The dominant clans in Somalia are the dominant clans in the camp.

RAWLENCE: Yes, that’s right. It’s very much a family affair. Business is a kind of mafia, as we’ve seen in other parts of the world. But if you’re not from the right clan then, yes, it becomes even harder to make a living.

DAVIES: And there are markets of course because a city that big, there is trade. There are goods bought and sold. But most of it is these small dwellings, which I assume nobody can lock. How do people keep their things? I mean, is there theft? What do people do with money if they have it?

RAWLENCE: Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. I mean, some of the refugees – Tawane, one of the characters in the book, speaks very nostalgically about the good old days when you didn’t have to lock your door, when you could leave everything in your house because, you know, the old morals of Somalia were still active and you could trust people. And also the community was that much smaller and the camp was not so overcrowded. But these days, the camp is growing rapidly. It has grown with many more influxes of refugees. But people do lock their houses. You can – I mean, what a lot of the shops in the market, people have battered tin – opened out oil drums and battered tin sheets flat. And then of course there are metalworkers who have fashioned locks and latches, and you can buy padlocks. So there are ways of locking things. The buildings are still flimsy, but people do have padlocks and keys and so on. Money is an interesting one because for much of the camp the economy doesn’t really need cash. You are either bartering your rations for other goods – food and luxuries and so on – or else you don’t have money at all. You’re just eating your rations and that’s it. But Tawane, the businessman who I mentioned, over the years has gotten together little bits of money through – mostly through going hungry and invested it in businesses, and each of those has grown. And he ended up being quite rich. And what he did with his money was bury it. So when there were – there are one or two banks now, but before, when there were no banks, people used to just dig a hole and put their shillings or their dollars in the ground. And there were probably millions of dollars in the ground in Dadaab.

DAVIES: Ben Rawlence’s new book is called “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Ben Rawlence. He is a writer and a former researcher for Human Rights Watch in Africa. He has a new book about the world’s largest refugee complex in northern Kenya. It’s called Dadaab. His books is called “City Of Thorns.” Now, in 2011, when tens of thousands of people were streaming into Kenya, it was apparent that there was going to be a humanitarian crisis at the camp. And there were warnings among those who follow these things. Was there an immediate response?

RAWLENCE: No. I mean, this is one of the shocking things about the history of the 2011 famine was that experts – foremost among them Medecins sans Frontieres, Doctors without Borders – were warning of an impending disaster. All of the signs were there, but the internationals with the money were not moving quick enough. They were not unlocking the cash until too late – until really, the airdrops and the emergency food supplies didn’t really start flowing until the numbers in the camp were already way beyond what the camp could cope with. And there were these temporary cities outside – if you like, a whole other temporary suburb outside of the temporary city – tens of thousands of people piling up and waiting for help that was taking far too long to come.

DAVIES: You write, though, in discussing this moment, that aid workers didn’t stop to consider their own complicity in the coming disaster. What did you mean?

RAWLENCE: The role of the aid business in the famine is complicated. Part of the issue was that the World Food Program had been very slow to investigate corruption in Somalia, and the United States, as one of the donors to the World Food Program, had cut back its funding in Somalia because they were not happy with how the World Food Program was operating there.

DAVIES: And just to clarify, the World Food Program is an agency of the United Nations – right? – which…

RAWLENCE: Yes, that’s correct.

DAVIES: …Feeds people. And what was happening was that huge amounts of food that was going to Somalia and essentially being diverted to whoever – warlords or al-Shabab or something.

RAWLENCE: Yes, yes to both. That crisis had happened, so, a year or two earlier, and the U.S. had then cut back its funding to the World Food Program. The other issue was that the United States government had put sanctions on Somalia because it didn’t want the aid that it was giving to find its way to al-Shabab. So the Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations had made it very difficult for the agencies to operate in Somalia. And in a way, that was again part – that was for historical reasons because in the past, agencies had been very unscrupulous about how they spent their aid money. So because the aid agencies had not been rigorous in the past, they were now suffering from the cynicism of the U.S. government in response to this crisis when they actually really needed it.

DAVIES: Now, you add on into this the behavior of the Kenyan government and the local police – the Kenyan police there. There was an entire new area of the camp that was built and ready to be inhabited, but that stood empty during a lot of this crisis, right? Why?

RAWLENCE: Well, they Kenyan government didn’t want to admit any more refugees. So there was a whole new camp that had been built to decongest the old camp because the old camp was already so overcrowded. But the Kenyan government had been stalling, because they thought that if they allowed this new camp to be inhabited, it would act like a pull factor to encourage more refugees to come to the good life in Kenya. They had a very overblown idea of the comforts of the refugee camp. So it was for political reasons – they didn’t want to open this camp, which was shocking, really, because you had tens of thousands of people piling up in the desert, looking through the barbed-wire fence at this sparkling new camp with taps and boreholes and clinics and schools which were completely empty. So it was a real political mess.

DAVIES: So when tens of thousands of desperately poor and starving people were arriving in the area, and there wasn’t enough of an increase in the food program, and the new camp was unopened, what did conditions become like?

RAWLENCE: Conditions deteriorated very quickly. People who had come fleeing famine in Somalia often didn’t find respite in Kenya for up to 15, 20 days. I think at the peak of the emergency, it was taking around 21 days for new arrivals to actually receive food. So in that time, unless the other refugees rallied round and helped out the most vulnerable, people were still dying. And the nickname that the refugees themselves gave to one of these temporary suburbs while holding about 20 to 30,000 people, was Bulo Bacte, which means carcass dump.

DAVIES: And so when people started starving to death, media attention came, politicians came, celebrities came and the aid spigots opened.

RAWLENCE: Yes, exactly. As soon as the images of famine hit the TV screens, then the spigots opened, as you say. There were – the whole caravan arrived with lots of airdrops, with lots of media attention, and then celebrities after that too.

DAVIES: And that’s this complex which had – what? – between 2 and 300,000 people approached a half a million eventually.

RAWLENCE: Yes, very quickly the population expanded from, I think, 300,000 at the beginning of the year to nearly half a million by the end of it.

GROSS: We’re listening to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies’ interview with Ben Rawlence, author of the new book “City Of Thorns” about the world’s largest refugee camp, which is located in northern Kenya. After a break, they’ll talk about how residents of the camp, who often don’t have enough to eat, use Facebook. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Ben Rawlence, author of the new book “City Of Thorns.” It’s about the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab complex in northern Kenya. The camp, which is now the size of Atlanta, opened in 1991 as a temporary shelter for Somalis fleeing civil war. Its population has increased to nearly half a million people, including Somalis who have fled drought and fled the extremist Islamist group al-Shabab. The people in the Dadaab complex are unable to return home but are prevented from making new lives in a host country. Rawlence first visited the camp as a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Africa.

DAVIES: The big change that you describe in the book in the refugee complex came when security conditions changed. And that began really with the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers. They were, I guess, taken by a radical group, after a couple of years eventually released by al-Shabab, this radical Islamist group. How did the kidnapping of the two aid workers affect things at the camp?

RAWLENCE: Well, the kidnapping caused the U.N. to shut down all services. The phrase was suspension of non-lifesaving activities. So what that meant was the rations were continued to be distributed by refugee volunteers, and the hospital continued to be staffed but only by a skeleton staff. So everything else stopped – all of the sanitation activities, all of the income-generation activities, all of the counseling, all of the fuel deliveries for the boreholes, which pump the water, stopped. Pretty much the camp ground to a halt. So in order to fill the gap, the refugees themselves had to step up and run things. And the key figure in that process is a guy called Towani (ph), who’s one of the characters in the book. He was a youth leader who rallied the refugees to volunteer to do these services.

DAVIES: And did life go on? Did it deteriorate for most of the residents?

RAWLENCE: Life deteriorated quite quickly. The situation in the hospitals became quite critical. Their water shortages were very grave. The food continued as normal, but there was an outbreak of cholera right afterwards because the kidnapping coincided with the rainy season. And the capability to deal with the cholera outbreak wasn’t there. So for about four to five months, the camp was plunged into a real crisis. And the aid agencies issued several warnings, saying that, you know, life can’t go on like this. We’ve really got to turn things around.

DAVIES: Turn them around how?

RAWLENCE: Well, they said things should be turned around. What they meant was there should be more investment and the U.N. has got to get reengaged and get back into Dadaab and running services – that didn’t happen. What really happened was that a new model emerged where the camp was run by refugee volunteers. And the agencies realized that instead of paying expensive Kenyan or expatriate staff to run services that they could rely on cheap volunteers and pay them stipends. So while the services themselves are back and running, it’s not quite how it used to be. And although the refugees are happy because there’s perhaps more work for them, there is less depth of expertise. There are, you know, not so many foreign qualified nurses and so on that there need to be. So things have moved to a much more sort of shaky footing.

DAVIES: The other thing that happens here – and I – this was just unbelievable to me – was that food rations were cut. Who made that decision and why?

RAWLENCE: Food rations are still cut. They were cut twice while I was researching the book, and they’ve been cut again this year. And it’s partly a result of global cash shortages for the U.N. because there are so many refugees in the world now. The U.N. can’t afford to feed them all, and so it has had to come back. And that’s happened three years in a row now – 50 percent and 30 percent now.

DAVIES: Well, the impact of that is palpable, as you describe. And with your permission, I’m just going to read a bit here. You’re describing – this is late in the book – Guled after the rations were cut. And you’re describing – he says he was thin, his stomach ached. Every day, he gave his share of the food to his wife and the kids. And malnourishment showed in his face, which was even more gaunt than usual, and in his eyes which bulged looming white. The anxiety made him thinner still. And now right in the middle of his 23-year-old crown was a single snow-white hair. He was soon to be a father of three. In a matter of years, he went from childhood to middle-age, and it seemed as if his body had suffered through all the years in between. And you also note that Guled – you bought him lunch at – near the end of the book to read to him some of the description that you had written about him. And you write that when you were reading the passages about him, he had trouble staying awake because of the malnourishment. This is really…


DAVIES: …Heartbreaking.

RAWLENCE: Yes. The lack of food is really the kick in the teeth in my opinion because Guled is stuck in this camp. He can’t go back to Somalia. Kenya doesn’t want him. On paper, he is somebody who’s at risk and is vulnerable and should be a candidate for rapid resettlement by the U.N. to another country. But of course, because of this checkered past that he has with al-Shabab, there are innumerable security checks and everybody’s wary of accepting a former child soldier.

DAVIES: And to be clear, in case people didn’t hear this earlier, he was kidnapped by al-Shabab from his school and spent time in a militia…

RAWLENCE: From primary school…

DAVIES: Right.

RAWLENCE: …Exactly. Yeah, so he was kidnapped from his primary school. And he’s stuck in this camp. And we, the international community, are keeping them there and we’re not feeding him enough food. I mean, to me that is a crime, and that is the real kick in the teeth for these refugees who are stuck there, who – we’re asking them to believe that the camp has an end, that the camp is temporary. But all of their own experience is telling them that it’s permanent. So we can’t be surprised when they lose hope.

DAVIES: Ben Rawlence’s book is called “City Of Thorns: Nine Lives In The World’s Largest Refugee Camp.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Ben Rawlence. He is a writer and a former researcher for Human Rights Watch in Africa. He has a new book about the world’s largest refugee complex in northern Kenya. The book is called “City Of Thorns.” You know, this is – these are very compelling portraits of these lives in the camp. And they seem so desperate in many ways. And the war and economic collapse that created these refugees hasn’t stopped and shows no prospect of stopping, really. And the chances of a more enlightened, humane policy from the Kenyan government seem kind of remote, at least in the book. What should we learn? What can policymakers do that will make a difference?

RAWLENCE: There’s a lot that they could do. I suspect there’s not very much that they will do. I’m not all that hopeful about the responsiveness of international political systems. But what should happen is that every country in the world should take its fair share of refugees. Although Kenya is xenophobic and very hostile to these refugees, they are bearing a burden much larger than any other country. They’re holding, you know, close to a million Somali refugees, many others from other countries. So other nations should step up and share that burden. Some of them, of course, should be allowed to integrate into Kenya. And a much greater effort should be made to try and bring peace to Somalia and Syria and everywhere else. But in the short term, all should be opening our doors to more refugees.

DAVIES: And what about improving the camps and making – you know, giving them at least if not permit, more stable systems of sanitation and drinking water?

RAWLENCE: I think improving the camps is a good idea and should happen. And they should be much more habitable places with a minimum of water and sanitation and education and health care. It barely reaches the minimum at the moment. So getting a little bit above the minimum would be a good go. There are real barriers to that because of, A, budget constraints on the part of the U.N. B, the Kenyan government of course doesn’t want to encourage permanent towns. It doesn’t want to encourage any more refugees. But also, I mean, really, refugee camps are kind of outdated. They shouldn’t really exist anymore. The circumstances in Jordan now – Jordan is trying to encourage refugees to go to camps, but they don’t want to go because they know that these places are not temporary. They know that they’ll go there to fester, which is why they’re opting for the illegal journey to Europe instead. So I think really, what would be a better and use of U.N. time is probably arguing for the free movement of refugees and that refugees must be allowed to work and must be hosted wherever they end up. And then the burden is on other countries to also step in and share, share that population.

DAVIES: What are the chances of people in Dadaab being admitted to another country?

RAWLENCE: There are two main routes out of Dadaab, two main legal routes out of Dadaab. The first one is the U.N. quota system, which is the official, formal refugee system that we have in the world, which is broken. And the quota process takes around 2,000 refugees from Dadaab every year to Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia. But that doesn’t really get close to the birthrate in the camp, which is around a thousand a month. The other way out of the camp is a scholarship process. A few countries have offered university places to the top 10 boys and the top 10 girls who graduate from secondary school in the camp each year. Those are the only real formal ways to escape the camp to another life. So it’s no wonder, really, that increasingly they’re deciding – people are deciding that the illegal way to Europe, even though it’s far and it’s expensive, is a better bet than waiting for those very, very slim chances.

DAVIES: You know, you have this huge complex here, nearly a half a million people, created originally in 1991 as a temporary place. It’s, in effect, become permanent, although that’s s reality the authorities won’t recognize. But you have a lot of people who’ve been there for 20 years now, who came as kids, are now in their 20s, or who came as young adults and are now in – middle-aged. And I’m wondering how they view their lives differently from the newcomers who’ve arrived in the last few years.

RAWLENCE: Yeah, there are many different groups and generations in the camp. We are now onto our third generation in the camp. There are people who came to the camp as young people who are now seeing their children give birth in the camp. The newcomers who came, like Isha (ph), in the drought and the famine of 2011, many of them have gone back to Somalia when conditions improved. They were already used to living under al-Shabaab. They still had some land. They had a chanced of farming and maybe making a small living back in Somalia. So some of them have gone back. She herself has elected to stay in the camp because there is education there, and she wants her kids to go to school. And there was no secular education in the al-Shabaab-controlled area where she fled from originally. The more long-stayers in the camp, people like Tawane, who came when they were 7 and have grown up through primary school and secondary school and have pursued diplomas by distance learning in the mail like he has – he’s – up until quite recently has always viewed his life as on hold, as waiting to start. But he’s – as he sort of gets older now and he’s past 30, he’s starting to question that. And he’s starting to become a bit more hopeless, I think, as you see towards the end of the book. He’s more and more prone to kind of wild confusion about the future, whether he’s going to go back to Somalia or not. It becomes a very difficult fiction to sustain, this idea that, you know, life is out there in the future, and it’s waiting for me. The longer you stay in a camp, the harder that belief is to hold.

DAVIES: Do you think you’ll stay in touch with these people? Do you think you’ll go back?

RAWLENCE: I intend to go back, if anything just to say hi and give everybody presents. But I’ve sent them all copies of the book, and we’re all – we’re friends on Facebook. And we chat most weeks. So I expect so, yeah. It’s very hard to make those kinds of relationships and then just disappear.

DAVIES: Facebook – and I – you know, when we hear some of the difficulties that these residents endure, it’s hard to picture them being on Facebook. Is that common?

RAWLENCE: Yeah, most people have phones. They would rather not eat for a week and buy a phone than they would to miss out on being part of, you know, the global – the global thing that is Facebook. And Facebook plays a very interesting role in the camp, actually because on the one hand, people are connected with each other through their phones and through Facebook. This is obviously a new phenomenon, since probably the mid-2000s. Smartphones didn’t exist before then. And even now, smartphones aren’t that common. Most people are on their old Nokias, downloading things very, very slowly. But the other role that Facebook plays is in the diaspora, there are – communities exist in virtual form just as much as they do in reality. So there are, for example, Facebook groups of youth in Dadaab, where there are members in Sweden, in Australia, in South Africa, in Minneapolis, in Vancouver. And everybody’s posting and commenting in Somali and chatting away all the time. And the refugees, because their identity is very much under pressure, you’ll often find that they set up profiles of themselves where they say that their hometown is Ohio – you know, Minnesota or Miami or Los Angeles. And often, I’ll see, when I’m talking to people, that in their recent activity, they visited Disney World or Paris or… You know, they have a sort of creative approach to Facebook, which it allows them somehow to live out the dreams that they haven’t been able to achieve in the camp.

DAVIES: So it’s not that they’re – have security concerns about revealing who they are. It’s that there’s another life they want to be living, and they can live it on Facebook?

RAWLENCE: Yes, exactly. No, it’s not about security concerns. It’s very – it’s playful. It’s about – it’s an outlet for their frustrations, in a way. And often you might see Photoshop-ed pictures of them in Manchester United strip playing soccer or standing on top of a Ferrari and this kind of thing. So it’s – you know, it’s about trying to claim images which they have no real, realistic prospect of achieving in real life. But at least they can – they can create those images online.

DAVIES: You know, we were talking about, you know, how painful it is to see people malnourished. Are they trading monthly food rations for a phone bill?

RAWLENCE: Yes. I mean, the price of anything in the camp is hunger. If you don’t have a ready access to cash, you can’t generate income, the only thing that you can monetize is the food that you’re given. So that’s why there’s such a big trade in food rations. And that’s why, for example, Guled, the first thing he does when he gets his first rations in the camp is sell it in order to pay for a phone call to phone his wife. People regularly have to make that choice between being hungry and getting things that they want or they need. The main route to starting a business in the camp, to raising the capital that you need for – to start a shop or buy a motorbike to start a taxi business or something, is to go hungry for months – or even years, in some cases.

DAVIES: Well, Ben Rawlence, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RAWLENCE: Thank you.

GROSS: Ben Rawlence is the author of the new book, “City Of Thorns,” about the world’s largest refugee camp. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY’s senior reporter. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by Ellie Goulding, who first became known for electronic dance music. This is FRESH AIR.

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