Urgent stories of refugees from an eye witness

Spur Festival

Various venues, Toronto

April 7 to 10, 2016

Not all the news from the frontlines of the international refugee crisis is bad. British journalist Ben Rawlence spent four years in a 25-year-old African refugee camp, becoming an eye witness to a humanitarian crisis that few have observed so closely. Dadaab, a camp in the middle of the north Kenyan desert accommodating an ever-growing population of Somali refugees, was where Rawlence uncovered stories that spell out the tragedy as well as the glimmers of hope for displaced people whose inadequate, temporary accommodations have become home.

Both an investigative journalist and a fine storyteller, Rawlence has an urgent message to relate, encompassed in City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (Picador).

“Guled grew up in Mogadishu, playing amid the wreckage of the American helicopters shot down in 1993, the year he was born,” said Rawlence, relating one of the stories in his book for a session of the Spur festival in Toronto.  In 2010 Guled, an orphan, was captured by Al-Shabaab operatives in his school classroom and wound up as a teen patroller for the terrorist organization, seeking out those who failed to observe fundamentalist restrictions and targeting them for whippings. Eventually he was able to escape his captors and make the 644-kilometre trek to Dadaab, an unfenced small city of five suburbs where everything is built of thorn tree branches and found materials. The camp is surrounded by a 90-kilometre stretch of waterless desert.

“It’s a city of sticks and mud,” he said, where because of its designation as a camp, the Kenyan government forbids the use of bricks and mortar or concrete or the construction of anything as permanent as proper toilets. Refugees are also forbidden employment.

Working out of the UN compound in Dadaab, Rawlence interviewed more than a hundred people, while gathering statistics and reporting on the larger story of refugees. The crisis has escalated since 9/11, he said. “In the past, large-scale repatriation occurred. Today, countries are accepting far fewer refugees.” Repatriation for the several generations of Somalis now living in Dadaab becomes an ever-receding dream; only possible if peace is established in their home country. The refugee population meanwhile has grown from 100,000 to nearly 500,000. And with all the attention focused on Syrians, these Africans fear they’ve been forgotten.

On the upside of the refugee experience, for people who think of their lives in the future tense, the camp provides education, empowerment for women, a democratic form of governance and a lively black-market economy. “It’s the biggest market between Nairobi and Mogadishu, generating an estimated $30 million a year in transactions.” If governments were to legitimize this activity, Rawlence said, they could benefit from tax income.

Spur Toronto, a festival of politics, art and ideas put on by the Literary Review of Canada and Diaspora Dialogues, continues Friday night with a talk-show format in which podcaster Vish Khanna hosts discussions with festival speakers and authors.  A panel on LGBT media activism, moderated by Susan Cole, takes place Saturday morning at Hart House. The festival runs through April 10. For times, venues and program details, go to http://www.spurfestival.ca

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