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What it’s like to call the world’s largest refugee camp home

Established by the U.N. in 1991 to house Somalis fleeing their civil war, the Dadaab refugee camp complex in eastern Kenya has grown into the largest in the world. Some call it a humanitarian disaster, but to its half-million residents, it is both their last resort and their home. Judy Woodruff talks to Ben Rawlence, author of “City of Thorns,” an inside look at stories of survival in Dadaab.

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    The newest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf takes a most intimate look at one of the world's oldest refugee camps administered by the United Nations, originally established in 1991 as a temporary haven for Somalis fleeing their civil war.

    Author Ben Rawlence recently talked to Judy Woodruff about his book "City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp."


    Ben Rawlence, welcome.

    BEN RAWLENCE, Author, "City of Thorns": Thank you.


    So, we're hearing a lot about refugees these days, but you are writing about a group of refugees we hear almost nothing about.

    What drew you to Kenya? What drew to you this camp?


    Well, for nearly 10 years, I worked for Human Rights Watch.

    And I first came to Dadaab, this refugee camp, in 2010. And the place just blew my mind. It was a complete shock to me that I hadn't heard about it before, and, in fact, that this place should still exist. At that time, it was 20 years old. And now it's 25 years old.


    It started out as something much smaller, refugees — one group of refugees. It's grown into something much bigger and, frankly, much worse.



    I mean, Dadaab is the world's biggest. The Somali refugees came in 1991. Since then, Somalia has descended into different phases of a civil war, and there have been waves of refugees, more and more coming, until it peaked in 2011, with around half-a-million refugees living in this one place.

    It's a bit like New Orleans. It's that many people, but spread over 30 square miles. The tents are made of — or the houses are made of tents or sticks and mud. And it's — there's no permanent structures. So, there's no plumbing. There's no concrete. There's no running water.

    It's a humanitarian disaster still, even after 25 years. It's constructed on temporary lines, and yet it's become permanent.


    It's people living in conditions it's almost impossible to imagine. And yet you write about how there's organization there. There's structure there.


    Well, you can deny a city permanent structures, but you can't deny people the right to associate and to make societies.

    And, of course, that's what's happened. People have made their own soccer leagues. They have fallen in love. There are many love stories in this book.


    There are.


    The people have had children. And then, sometimes, those children have had children. So we're now on to three generations.

    And, of course, they're going to school. There are hospitals. There's a market, a black market, lots of smuggling and so on. So, people have nonetheless made a life for themselves.


    You picked just a few individuals to write about. And you tell their stories in a very powerful way. Why did you choose these individuals, these people?


    Well, firstly, I was trying very consciously to sort of break open the media ennui, if you like, kind of — you see the eyes glaze when you talk about refugees and famine, because we think we have seen it all before.

    We think we know what a refugee camp look likes, with these lines of tents and so on. We see Angelina Jolie and the celebrities doing their thing. But, actually, what was interesting to me is, what happens when she goes? What's daily life like for all of these people?

    So, I wanted to really give you a ground-eye view of what goes on. And I chose those nine through a long process, really. I started with about 50 people, and then nine made the cut.


    The world is — has virtually forgotten about this place, if it ever knew about it. What do you want people to take away from this?


    Well, the first thing I wanted to do was to make you feel, to make you care about the people stuck in this place, because, certainly, they feel forgotten. In large part, they have been ignored by the international media.

    So, to get beyond the headlines, to actually see — make you see these people as humans, with all the normal struggles you would imagine, of trying to find a job, make a living, things like that, to try and bridge the gap, to make people feel connected, that these are not just numbers, but these are faces. These are real people with hopes and dreams.

    And if we start thinking of refugees more in those — in those ways, hopefully, then we can start seeing a bit more intelligent policy, a bit more humanity at the political level as well.


    And we're looking at the faces of a few of the people.


    Yes, these are the some of the people in the camp. This is my friend Nisho, the taller guy. And Mahat is his young sidekick.

    And they work as porters in the market. They load and off-load the trucks that come in smuggling goods from Somalia and also a lot of the food rations, because they're not allowed to work. Refugees can't leave. They can't work. So they have to find these informal jobs, scrabbling a living as best they can.


    What is it in these young boys and everyone else that gives them the strength to keep going? What is it inside them?


    Well, that's one of the questions that drew me to write about the place in the first instance.

    I couldn't understand, how do you put up with this? You know, why are there not some kind of mass riots and protests and burning down the U.N. office and so on? But people do put up with it because they have no option. They can't go back to Somalia. Kenya doesn't want them. The resettlement system, where countries share the burden of refugees through the quota system, is completely broken, because the birth rate in the camp, for example, is 1,000 a month.

    The international community takes around 2,000 a year of people from Dadaab. So that's why people are choosing the illegal route to come to Europe or elsewhere, instead of waiting for the formal legal process.


    What is the future for them? What's the hope for them?


    I'm afraid the reality is, it's pretty bleak.

    I see no real solution for Dadaab. And as long as there's no international solution or political solution, the camp will continue. These people will be stuck in limbo.

    As I said, we're now on to our third generation of people living in this situation. And this is one city. There are many other temporary cities like this in Ethiopia, in Sudan, in Yemen, these cities that are going on and on, which is why I think we need to hear about this place. We need to understand it. And then we need a Marshall Plan for refugees that people have been talking about.

    We need to fix this broken system, but the world has gotten a bit harder, I think, a little less generous.


    Well, Ben Rawlence, you certainly shine a light on to what's happening there. And more people will know about it as a result of the book.

    It's "City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp."

    Thank you very much.


    Thank you.

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