A Conversation with Ben Rawlence, Author of “City of Thorns” | The Center for Victims of Torture

A Conversation with Ben Rawlence, Author of “City of Thorns”

Curt Goering
Thursday, March 3, 2016

Curt Goering is CVT’s executive director

As the Syrian refugee crisis continues and governments reevaluate how they will respond to refugees seeking shelter and safety, news coverage has understandably focused on the plight of the families and individuals fleeing Syria’s nightmarish conditions.

But as my colleagues and I at the Center for Victims of Torture know all too well, refugees are in crisis in many locations around the world, including the huge, but often-forgotten Dadaab refugee camp complex  in Kenya. Many refugees there experienced targeted violence as well as indiscriminate atrocities of war before fleeing. Most of the refugees in Dadaab are from Somalia, with others from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and other countries. CVT has extended rehabilitative care to torture survivors in Dadaab since 2010. Many CVT clients, as well as a number of my colleagues, have lived in the camp their whole lives. The work they do to rebuild lives and restore hope is an inspiration to me, and their stories are important reminders of the resilience and hope that underlies the lives of refugees all over the world.

City of Thorns CoverAuthor Ben Rawlence spent years in Dadaab, getting to know some of the people living there and witnessing for himself what life is really like in the world’s largest refugee camp—a place built to accommodate 90,000 people but which hosts nearly 350,000 today, according to the UNHCR. His new book, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, explores the lives of those he befriended, those who feel forgotten. I had the opportunity to exchange emails with Mr. Rawlence about his work with people and their challenges that I and all of us at CVT care deeply about.

Curt Goering: The availability of ample and appropriate mental health care for refugees is always a concern for us. What was your impression of the need for mental health care in Dadaab?

Ben Rawlence: In my view the need is huge, so huge as to be almost unquantifiable. People don't even know that they need mental health care. A whole society has been traumatized. Not to mention the fact that living in the refugee camp is a traumatic experience in itself. The gap, if I saw one, was the processes for identifying and referring people who need counselling and mental health care. Often the community itself does not understand or value the need for mental health treatment

Curt: How do you feel your past work with Human Rights Watch influenced your writing, your approach to this topic as an author?  

Ben: Of course, the motivation for working for HRW and for writing this book come from the same place: a desire to raise awareness, bridge the gaps between different worlds of experience and agitate for some kind of (however remote) social change. In terms of method, I used the same approach of forensic interviewing but I applied that to peoples' everyday lives, rather than to the crimes or disasters that they may have witnessed. I was frustrated by the limits of traditional advocacy - the knocking on doors and the telling of case studies - and I wanted to create something with a larger emotional resonance. 

Curt: In our work, we are inspired every day by the resilience we see in survivors as they rebuild their lives. From your experience in Dadaab, what was an example you saw of resilience?

Ben: The whole book is about resilience - it is about how people cope in this extreme circumstance of the camp. It is a wonder to me how they do it. I am in awe of their capacity for hope against the odds. There is grace and redemption in that act of survival, even while it is tragic at the same time.

Read more about CVT's work in the Dadaab refugee camps.



We heal victims of torture through unique services and professional care worldwide.

Read More


We strengthen partners who heal torture survivors and work to prevent torture.

Read More


We advocate for the protection & care of torture survivors and an end to torture.

Read More