Ever since the civil war erupted in Syria back in 2011, I have taken an interest in the lives of refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs). Technically, these two groups are defined in different ways. A refugee is a person who has fled their home, crossed an international border, and cannot return because they fear their lives are in danger. An IDP is in much the same situation, except they remain within their own country. In 2022, there were 35.3 million refugees and 62.5 million internally displaced people forcibly displaced worldwide.
Almost always, these people are the victims of war and are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Civilians caught in the crossfire of conflict, they flee their homes with a target on their backs. Those with sufficient resources will attempt to relocate to a safer region within their own country or to another part of the world. Those who lack resources will often travel by foot. Usually, there will be a point where they can travel no further. Either they have reached the end of the road within their own country or they have entered into a bordering country that has detained them.
In either of these situations, if permitted, the United Nations will establish camps where the displaced people are provided with basic shelter (usually in the form of tents) and food rations. Most of these people intend to stay in the camps for a short period of time, but often end up trapped there for years because they are stuck in a diplomatic gray zone. They have no land to call their home, but the conflict prevents them from leaving the camp.
Prior to the war between Israel and Hamas, there were 629,000 IDPs sheltering in 150 UNRWA (United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency) installations across the Gaza Strip. This conflict will result in hundreds of thousands more people being classified as IDPs or refugees. I want to use my platform to talk about the plight of refugees and IDPs because they are often the forgotten collateral damage of these conflicts. Long after the fighting has ended, their lives are disrupted, dismantled and displaced in ways that can be hard to fathom.
Therefore, rather than academically describe what their life is like, I have written a short story of historical fiction called City of Thorns. I hope it helps you to understand what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. This story is based on the circumstances of what it’s like to live in a UN refugee camp. Even though the narrative is specific to the Dadaab camp in Kenya, their reality could be applied to anyone who has had to flee their home due to violence. I hope after reading this story, you might donate to the World Food Program. They need the money now more than ever to support the millions of displaced people around the world.
City of Thorns
In December of 2015, a 27-year-old woman named Muna Osman had boarded a plane headed for Nairobi, Kenya. Muna had recently graduated with a degree in international law from Cambridge University in England. She had applied for and received a post working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, otherwise known as the UNHCR. Muna’s job was to negotiate with governments concerning their treatment of refugees. Muna would meet with high level government officials and try to convince them to provide more resources so that refugees could get back on their feet and be reabsorbed into society.
With the Syrian crisis at a fever pitch, the world was focused on the issue of how to resettle refugees from Syria throughout Europe. However, Syria is just one of many refugee crises going on in the world today. Perhaps the most daunting of all these crises are the refugees who are trapped in Kenya.
Beginning in 1991, Somali citizens began fleeing into Kenya in response to the Somali civil war. Some 90,000 Somalis fled south to Kenya and were placed in the area known as Dadaab. The concept of the refugee camp in Dadaab was to provide temporary shelter for displaced Somalis, who would return to their home following the civil war. But that’s not what happened. Every time the violence seemed to wind down, the reprieve was only temporary with the violence quickly flaring back up.
As a result, the people who lived in this refugee camp found themselves in a state of limbo. Kenya refused to allow these people to become citizens of their country and the refugees weren’t eager to return to Somalia where they could be killed. Their only choice was to wait. Muna was four years old when her family fled the violence in Somalia in 1992. The thing she remembered most about her arrival in Dadaab is that it was located in the middle of nowhere. It’s just miles and miles of endless desert.
After being registered as a refugee, UN aid workers provided Muna’s family with a tent. Eventually, this tent began to wear down and became tattered from being exposed to the elements. The tents provided by the UN are only designed to last six months, so most of the refugees in the camp had to abandon the tents in favor of a more permanent structure after 1-2 years.
The most common plant in the desert of Dadaab is the acacia bush, which has long branches with thorns on them. Muna’s family created walls for their shanty by gathering these branches together and covering them with mud, grass and tarps. The practice of building these shanties became so common among the refugees that the camp started to look like a slum in the middle of the desert and became known as the City of Thorns.
Muna’s parents, like many other Somalis, were convinced that they would only have to remain in the camp for, at most, a year. But the civil war in Somalia was much longer and more protracted than anyone expected, causing one year to turn into five years, which turned into ten years. By 2001, the fighting had died down in Somalia and a new provisional government had been established.
However, this new government was unwilling to repatriate the Somalis in the refugee camp for fear they might enhance the violence. Rather, they would look at everyone on a case-by-case basis, which meant that Muna and her family were stuck in the City of Thorns with little hope of ever leaving. Their despair was greatly compounded by the fact that the conditions of the camp over the last 10 years had grown increasingly unbearable.
By 2001, the population of the Dadaab camp had grown to more than 130,000 people. During the summer, it was not uncommon to deal with temperatures in excess of 105 degrees. Muna’s most distinct memory of living in the camp was how putrid it smelled. When you have 130,000 people living together in tents and shanties with no running water, clearly nobody is able to properly bathe.
Furthermore, there is no plumbing in this camp. Your toilet is a hole in the ground, which is sustainable during the dry season. Where this lack of sanitation becomes a real problem is during the wet season. When it rains in Dadaab, the ground turns into a swamp and anything that has been buried underground will rise to the surface. In fact, the puddles are so deep that Muna once saw a man step into a puddle and sink down to his shoulders so that only his head was still above ground.
Because there is literally sewage in the streets, it is very easy to get sick in the camp. When one person catches a disease, it can spread very quickly because everybody lives in such close proximity. Muna contracted tuberculosis when she was six and thankfully some doctors working with the UN were able to get her the necessary antibiotics to recover. Like everyone in the camps, Muna’s family was very dependent on the UN for everything. Since the Kenyan government declared that none of the refugees living in the camp are allowed to work, that means that 130,000 people are dependent upon the UN World Food Program for their sustenance.
Every morning, Muna would stand in line for hours to fill a big, yellow jerry can with water. This is the only water her family would have for the entire day, which was heavily laden with bacteria. At the same time, Muna’s father would stand in line in front of a massive warehouse owned by the World Food Program. Each family is given several cups of rice, sorghum or maize, a spoonful of salt and a small cup of oil that is all precisely measured.
A family of four receives about 1000 calories a day or 250 calories per person. By contrast, most Americans consume 10 times the calories in a single day. To make matters worse, the UN depends on refugees to hand out the rations. It is not uncommon for these volunteers to press on the scale and give you less than your daily allotment, keeping the extra for themselves.
Food is the currency in the City of Thorns. Because food is such a scarce resource, it has the greatest value to the people who occupy the city. For instance, say a resident wants to start a taxi business. The chances are this resident has no money to fund this venture. However, if he’s willing to go hungry and sell his rations, then he can save to purchase a motor bike. This means he will have to sell his food every other day for a period of months to earn the money for the bike. In this way, anyone in Dadaab can create a better life for themselves. The price they must be willing to pay is hunger.
Muna’s father wanted to create a better life for his daughter. He did not want her to be stuck in the camp for the rest of her life and so his goal was to have her set free. The opportunity to achieve this goal came in 2003 when Canada announced that they would begin sponsoring the top 10 boys and the top 10 girls attending the secondary schools that had been formed in Dadaab. Not only does Dadaab have schools, but it also has hospitals, social services, even banks. If Muna was one of the top 10 girls in her class, then she would become a full Canadian citizen and be allowed to attend college in Canada free of charge.
Muna’s father figured that this was his daughter’s best chance for escape. She was smart and capable, she just needed enough food to concentrate and do well on her studies. Her father and her mother went hungry so Muna could be well fed. Their investment paid off. When Muna took the scholarship examinations in 2005 at the age of 17, she received the third highest score in her class.
Muna applied and was accepted to the University of Toronto to major in international studies. Muna’s parents were so proud of her that they traded a week’s worth of rations with a baker in the city who provided them with a small cake with candles. The day she left from Dadaab to move to Canada, Muna cried all the way to the airport. More than likely, she would never be able to see her parents again.
When Muna arrived in Toronto, it was like she had been transported into a completely new dimension. She had to adjust to a completely different way of existing. For instance, sleeping in a bed. She was used to sleeping on the ground and had never slept on a mattress. The concept of a pillow just seemed pointless. For the first few nights, she was unable to get comfortable and just stared at the ceiling.
A big aspect of her discomfort was the temperature-controlled buildings. She was used to dealing with the elements and now her skin was having trouble adjusting to the air, which felt artificial. Muna also had to learn how to use a computer, which was more difficult than she had anticipated. Being a slow typist, she determined it was easier to write everything out by hand.
Eventually, Muna adapted and excelled. Many young people in college lack the motivation to work hard. That wasn’t a problem for Muna. She graduated at the top of her class and applied to study international law at Cambridge University in England. They gave her a full ride along with a living stipend, which is rare for international students. When António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, came to speak at a university conference, Muna was introduced as one of their star students. Antonio gave Muna his card and said, “When you graduate, call me. I’ll have a job waiting for you.”
Muna made that phone call and moved to the UN European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in 2013. When she arrived, Muna was given a briefing on all the major refugee crises taking place throughout the world, including the City of Thorns. In the eight years since Muna had left Dadaab, the situation of the refugees had become immeasurably worse. Due to the various conflicts in both African and Middle Eastern countries, the population of the camp had ballooned to more than 300,000 people. Furthermore, the United States had cut its funding to the World Food Program that feeds the people in Dadaab.
The cuts were the result of certain congressional legislators who deemed the food distribution to be mismanaged. For instance, the World Food Program was handing out food in Somalia, which was now back in the midst of a civil war. Unfortunately, some of that food was being siphoned off to al-Shabab, a terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda. Clearly, the United States did not want to be seen as supporting the actions of terrorist cells with food donations, so they punished the World Food Program by cutting their funding. Unfortunately, this action had dire consequences for the residents of Dadaab, because with twice as many people and half as much food, the suffering rose to the level of a crime against humanity.
Muna was surprised when she was not assigned to work on the legal side of obtaining better treatment for the refugees of Dadaab. They told her that her skills were needed elsewhere for the time being. That all changed when Somalia descended into severe famine. As the trickle of refugees exploded into a torrent, the City of Thorns absorbed another 200,000 people. By 2015, the Dadaab refugee camp was housing 500,000 people in an area designated for 90,000.
Incredibly, with the influx of all these people, the rations were cut again by the World Food Program because the United States believed that terrorist cells were forming inside of Dadaab. Furthermore, the Kenyan government was becoming increasingly hostile towards the people living in the camp. They were cutting off the water supply and police were raiding the camps in an effort to crack down on terrorist activity.
The UN High Commissioner had gotten nowhere in trying to negotiate with the Kenyan government and now he was sending Muna, who he hoped might be able to talk some sense into them since she had lived in the camp. While Muna was in the air, travelling to Kenya, she received word that cholera was spreading rapidly throughout the camp. Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine that can cause such severe diarrhea that it leads to horrible dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Untreated, cholera can result in death.
From the moment Muna arrived at the Kenyan government offices, she knew her presence would do very little. The cabinet minister who was supposed to meet with her postponed the appointment to the next day. The next day, the cabinet minister said he had to postpone again. A week later, when he finally met with Muna, the cabinet minister told her in no uncertain terms that they had every intention of sending the refugees away. There was nothing to negotiate. When Muna asked where they would all go, he said, “Not here.” In other words, they were going to send them back to the countries from which they had fled, which meant they would return to bloody civil wars where they would likely be killed.
Muna left the meeting and called Antonio, the high commissioner, to let him know of the looming humanitarian crises. Muna was supposed to board a plane later that day and return to Geneva, but instead, she hired a driver who drove her to Dadaab. After nearly 8 hours on the road, she arrived on the outskirts of the City of Thorns. It had been nearly 10 years since she had exited the gates to leave for Canada. The conditions were so much worse than she remembered.
As she stood on the outside of the chain-link fence that caged in the refugees, Muna could see how the influx of people along with the reduction of resources had taken a horrific toll. Most of the people walking around looked like holocaust survivors. They were gaunt and thin, with sunken eyes that lacked hope.
Off in the distance, she could see a funeral procession carrying dead bodies through the street. Clearly, these people had died from cholera. As this scene unfolded in front of her, she hadn’t noticed a little girl who had approached the fence. The girl said nothing, but simply stared at Muna through the chain-links. Her eyes were begging Muna as if to say, “Is there anything you can do for me?”
Muna took two fingers and slid them through the opening in the fence and touched the girl on cheek and in that moment Muna began to weep because there was nothing that she could do except hope that the people of the world might one day join together and say, “Enough is enough and we will allow this suffering no more!”
I hope that you might feel moved by this story to say, "Enough is enough!" I believe those of us who have been blessed with freedom and resources have a responsibility to support those who are the most vulnerable. Please give what you can to support those who have been displaced by the violence and conflict. Every little bit helps and it lets them know that there is hope and that someone out there does care about their plight: Donate to the World Food Program today!