Students integrate work from featured OBOC author Ben Rawlence into course about immigrants and refugees

October 1, 2016

Story by RCAH student Christina Igl.

Michigan State University and the East Lansing community embarked on their 15th annual One Book, One Community program with the 2016 theme, “Faces of Migration: The Human Experience.” The two novels delve into the personal stories of people on migrant journeys. Both Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario and City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence explore the present day issues of migration. In late August, Nazario visited freshman RCAH students to talk about her novel and kick of their first year in RCAH.

Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Stephen Esquith, incorporated Ben Rawlence’s book into his senior seminar "Immigrants and Refugees" this semester. Seventeen students read about the lives of nine people in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab. The camp is located in the northern desert of Kenya and is home to approximately half a million people. Rawlence, a former researcher for The Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa, spent 4 years getting to know residents of Dadaab and compiling their stories into what would become City of Thorns.

Both the individual stories and larger analytic framework drew Dean Esquith to include the book into his curriculum. He also accounted for the opportunity his students would have to meet Ben Rawlence during a series of One Book, One Community events including an author talk at the East Lansing Public Library on Wednesday, September 14. Senior RCAH student, Alexa White, attended the event with three other senior seminar classmates. She was inspired by the book’s connection to the refugee crisis and wanted to hear Rawlence’s perspective on the current issues.

White was particularly interested in hearing about what the nine characters are doing since the book was published. “Their lives continue after the story and that’s important because they are more than just characters in a book. It’s not right to stop thinking about them after you close the book. They still have to deal with their situation and suffer through it even though we are not reading about them anymore,” White said.

White valued the experiences of reading the book meeting the author as well as getting her book signed. Both City of Thorns and Rawlence’s talk changed her perspective on refugees. Her previous understanding was shaped by politicians and news media, but not personal stories. “You can’t make a connection with the image of refugees on the TV. There’s nothing to connect with. You can’t connect with numbers! Ben’s book humanizes refugees and makes you want to get to know the refugees already in the Lansing community.”   

RCAH students also got the chance to meet Noor Ali, a sophomore in the College of Engineering at Michigan State and former resident of a refugee camp in Dadaab. After meeting Ali at Rawlence’s talk, Dean Esquith asked him to attend his senior seminar the following week. Ali brought humorous stories of culture shock upon arriving in the US, solemn memories of his family’s struggles in Dadaab, and perspective on living as a refugee.

Ali read City of Thorns and even knew two of the characters portrayed in the book. He expressed that the book was an accurate representation of life in Dadaab. “[Rawlence’s] wide elaboration on the subjects like politics in the area is really accurate and portrays the struggles the refugees go through in their day to day life,” Ali said. He also spoke about the importance of education within the camps. He thought, “I can make it, you know, out of this camp.” For refugees in Dadaab, including Ali, education is their way out of Dadaab. Ali discussed how the lack of resources such as books, classroom space, teachers, and even electricity hindered their ability to learn. He says, “It is true most refugees are not educated and have no basic human necessities, but that doesn’t mean that they are not civilized. They are just victims of circumstance and they are failed by their governments and are victims of war and violence.”

Ali’s observation circles back to seeing refugees as individual people with individual experiences and journeys and ties into what Dean Esquith hopes his students learn from the characters in City of Thorns. Dean Esquith says, “The lives of refugees, like the lives of many people today, are a combination of small joys and great hardship.  Refugees show an extraordinary resilience in the face of these hardships in order to make a better life for themselves and to take some pleasure in the fleeting moments of friendship and accomplishment in their lives.”

Dean Esquith goes on to say, “There are certainly examples of frustration, fear, and sadness – we read about them throughout City of Thorns.  Yet despite all this, they demonstrate a capacity to bounce back and hold on.  This is quite admirable from my point of view and a lesson we can all benefit from.  They deserve our gratitude and of course all the help we can give them.”

Header image provided by City of East Lansing.