“No Words”: Refugee Camps and Empathy’s Limits

This is the first installment of Migrant Lives, Global Stories, a five-part series on the global migrant crisis presented in partnership with the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, which is dedicated to furthering the study of Jewish history in the broadest context. Read series editors Jeremy Adelman and Caitlin Zaloom’s introduction here.
Empathy will not close the refugee camps, nor will it aid refugees. So what will?

In 2009, Angelina Jolie visited Dadaab, which was at the time the largest complex of refugee camps in the world. “I wish more people could meet them,” Jolie says of the Somali families there, in a promotional video the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made about her visit. “Then they would have a stronger desire to help.” The voice-over plays while Jolie, in a black T-shirt and blue UNHCR baseball cap, waves goodbye to a group of children before climbing into one of the agency’s white trucks. The door shuts; she turns away; a man herds the children back from the car and the videographer. “Tsst,” he scolds, as a boy waves back at the camera.

It is impossible to produce an ethical account of a refugee camp that does not perform some version of Jolie’s appeal: if you know enough—if you see or feel enough, surely—you will do something to help because, clearly, something must be done. Jolie’s translator at Dadaab, Alideeq Osman, likewise feels that sharing his experience with the non-refugee public must serve some purpose. “It is now my sacred duty,” Osman writes in his 2020 memoir, Prison of Dust, “to do what I can for them from the outside because I know what it is like to feel locked away in a dust prison.” Still, woven through his memoir is an ambivalence about this project of representation as an impetus for empathy, and empathy as an impetus for action. “There are no words,” he admits, “to describe the real fear and horror inside each thirsty and hungry person that showed up, seeking refuge during the Somali civil war.”

Other authors also struggle with the inadequacy of language to describe refugee camps. “No movie, no picture, no book can show the extent of the tragedy,” Ali, a refugee from Iran, writes in the 2017 collection Voices from the “Jungle.” “You need to see it and live it!” The nickname given to the camp provides the title for the book, which was coauthored by 22 residents of the infamous French settlement (many of whom go by first names or pseudonyms) and a team of researchers at the University of East London. “Residents adopted the name ‘Jungle’ because, many said, humans could not live in such conditions,” the editors write. And yet, thousands did. In his book City of Thorns (2017), acclaimed British journalist Ben Rawlence follows nine individuals through Dadaab over several years, only to find himself “floundering” when briefing President Barack Obama’s National Security Council about the camp, unable to convince the NSC of the need for action if Dadaab was not a security threat.

Like Prison of Dust, these different, but intertwining, accounts of refugee camps can be read as reflections of the world as it is. But they can also be read as manifestations of the regime they describe: a regime of endless, liminal waiting for some, juxtaposed with near freedom of movement for others. To borrow a phrase from the Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, by attending to the “conditions of production” of these accounts—the circumstances that made them possible, but that also foreclosed other possibilities of their being—we may move toward a different ethic of reading refugee camps, one that rebuts empathy as panacea. One that understands the interdependence of refugeehood and citizenship, of camp and “real world.”

The present essay is itself the product of a relationship that crosses camp borders, making visceral questions about the conditions that make our collaboration possible, while also giving it limited and unequal form. Teferra writes from Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya, while Reed writes from Oxford, in the United Kingdom. We initially met two years ago, through an online oral history course, and since then have collaborated on a series of projects. Most of our correspondence occurred on WhatsApp, where we wrestled with the impossible tension coursing through any account of life in a refugee camp: What is the purpose of representing refugees and camps to non-refugee audiences?

Osman, the Calais Writers, and Rawlence all gesture toward empathy as an answer to this question, even as they implicitly acknowledge its shortcomings. Likewise, authors Namwali Serpell and Maria Tumarkin, in a recent exchange, take up the limits of empathy as a response to literature. Empathy, Serpell observes, is “intrinsically beset with a certain grotesque power dynamic.” But if empathy fails to root out, and even reproduces, inequality, what alternatives are there?

One alternative, Serpell and Tumarkin suggest, is “vibration”: a resonant connectedness, which opposes the self-referentiality of empathy. Empathy is Angelina Jolie, claiming that if people outside camps knew more, they would do more, without interrogating why it is that some people remain in camps for decades while others travel to and from those same camps in gleaming white cars, video crews hanging on every word. Vibration, on the other hand, demands not that non-refugees imagine ourselves as suffering others but rather that we come to terms with our collective relationship to refugeehood and the conditions that produce it.

More so than empathy, vibration can be conceived temporally, as movement and relation in space and time. And while we are accustomed to thinking of refugee camps in space, as space, narrativity demands that we also think of them in time. That is, refugee camps are not simply spaces where certain people live; they are timelines where entire lives take place, where people are born and people die. Importantly, as Sudan reminds us in Voices from the “Jungle,” this is no benign waiting: “You can’t feel the same as a refugee, I think … I think that all refugees have lost some of their original personalities.”

Here, a paradox. The rhetoric of encampment suggests temporariness; as we write, the Kenyan government is demanding the closure of the camp where Teferra has lived for more than a decade. The very temporality of Voices from the “Jungle,” which refers to the camp in the past tense, hinges on the violent closure of the settlement in 2016. Encampment, the editors write, was “just a moment” in authors’ life stories. And yet, thousands of refugees remain in Calais, clustered within smaller and less visible encampments.

The ostensible temporariness of camps thus obscures their permanence: Kakuma, where Teferra lives, turns 30 this year; Palestinian refugee camps have lasted more than half a century. This permanence is grasped best in the narratives of everyday life offered by Osman and Rawlence, which follow childhoods and adolescences, schooling and work, fighting and feuding, entire lives lived within the confines of a camp. As Teferra’s own research in Kakuma shows, one can write histories of individual refugee camps that span more than a quarter century.1

Can these extended narratives, occupying both space and time, transgressing borders between camp and the “real world,” move us from emergent empathy to something more like vibration? Can seeing refugee camps not as discrete spaces, but as shapers of lifetimes, offer more like a capacity to see not ourselves in others but ourselves in relation to others?


“We Forgot Our Names”

By Brigitta Olubas

Alideeq Osman lives in Pennsylvania now, where he is a social worker and a student at Shippensburg University, slated to graduate this winter. In another life—another dimension, as Osman puts it—he was a resident of Dadaab. During his 21 years there, Dadaab was the largest complex of refugee camps in the world (second largest, as of this writing).

Prison of Dust, Osman’s memoir, begins when, at the age of five, he flees with his family from Somalia to Kenya. As they set out, his mother tells her children that they are going on a trip. She urges them not to worry; they will return home “when the fighting stops.” The rift between the “pseudo prison that is Dadaab” and the freedom of the “real world” structures the memoir, which follows Osman from an early childhood in Somalia, through his time in the camps and, finally, to resettlement in Alaska and then Pennsylvania.

The book’s narrative arc, from family life in Somalia, to Dadaab, to the United States, also charts the conditions of possibility of this memoir, written after resettlement and self-published and printed in Monee, Illinois. Unspoken but ever-present is the question: If Osman had not made it out of the camp, would his memoir exist?

Arguably not. Osman’s memoir exists because of his resettlement to Pennsylvania—a resettlement that placed him among the tiniest minority of refugees. City of Thorns is the work of a British journalist, made possible in no small part by his passport. In Voices from the “Jungle,” researchers and academics from the University of East London explicate, contextualize, and interpret refugee authors’ contributions.

All these books (and this essay) are written at and across the border dividing refugee and non-refugee, camp and “real world.” For those of us who live, work, study, grieve, celebrate, love, and die in refugee camps, the camps’ existence is inseparable from the inhospitality of the “real world” and the reluctance of that world to hear our stories on their own terms, except once we have left the camp, or worked in collaboration with an outsider. Even as the statistical probability of resettlement remains minuscule, the hope that our narratives increase that probability, securing us a future outside the bounds of the camp, is too strong to resist.

For those, on the other hand, who will probably never find themselves in a refugee camp except as passport-bearing visitors, thinking about the circumstances that made these books possible illuminates our own entanglement in a system that can seem distant. Writing by refugees and about refugee camps can show us the complicity of non-refugees in the systems of bordering that structure all our lives. In other words, by taking seriously the material conditions that make certain forms of literature possible, we can move past empathy to relationality, to an interrogation of why it is that some of us write from inside the camps, and others from outside. It is no accident that Osman’s memoir was written after resettlement, that the Calais Writers collaborated with a UK university, or that Rawlence is a non-refugee British citizen—or that this essay is by someone living in Kakuma and a graduate student at Oxford. Likewise, decisions about the distribution of secure citizenship and refugee status are just that—decisions.

As Refugees’ Voice, from Afghanistan, writes in Voices from the “Jungle,” “If you think about it, people are not only looking for humanitarian support; people are looking for political support.” Ali, from Iran, makes the point more explicit: “These people are victims of the third world, and the third world exists because there is a first world!”

Can seeing refugee camps not as discrete spaces, but as shapers of lifetimes, offer more like a capacity to see not ourselves in others but ourselves in relation to others?

Can metaphor be used to traverse the divide between the Third World and the First, the refugee and the non-refugee, the camp and the rest of the world?

Metaphors are inherently relational; they rely on the reader’s knowledge of one thing to communicate something about another. Prison, cage, jungle, city, safe haven, warehouse, soulless artificial settlement: these are a handful of the metaphors that authors use to make refugee camps thinkable to people who will never experience them firsthand.

Granted, a refugee camp may be like these things. But it is not these things. And that is where metaphor runs into the limits of cross-border conversation and representation. Relying on metaphor to make refugee camps thinkable for US or European readers betrays something fundamental about how camps work. It is precisely their unthinkability that sustains camps as places where refugees can be kept contained and circumscribed. It is their unthinkability, their impossibility, that obfuscates the necessary threat they pose to a world of restrictive citizenship and bordered nation-states.

As Rawlence discovered when he managed to break through stereotypes about violence, accuracy did not always inspire action. “I had fallen into the liberal lobbyist’s trap: if the youth were not at risk of being radicalized, then the NSC didn’t need to worry about Dadaab after all,” he writes. “The refugees could be safely forgotten.”

The refusal to read refugees outside of the scripts of national security subscribes to its own metaphoric logic. Refugees are invaders, Europe is a fortress, the southern US border is (or should become) a wall. Every person seeking refuge is subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion, their narrative, their body, transformed into “evidence” meant to (dis)prove the “legitimacy” of their claim to safety.

Such atomizing suspicion and interrogation—fueled, for instance, by “pragmatic” calls to distinguish more sharply between so-called economic migrants and real refugees—is not the only possible, or even the only existing, response to refugees. There is, in UNHCR practice, something known as prima facie refugee status, which grants refugee status on the basis of conditions in a person’s home country.

This formal status is generally used in situations of mass displacement, where requiring every individual to prove their refugeehood would be an absurd undertaking. Indeed, according to the UNHCR, most refugees have such prima facie status.

However, no system exists (other than mass and voluntary return programs) to act on that status. That is, once refugees have been classified as such and have waited in camps for a “solution” to their displacement, there is no system to move them toward leaving. Access to resettlement or asylum often depends on the ability of refugees and asylum seekers to justify their claims individually, within frameworks determined by international organizations and national governments.

The disjuncture between someone’s experience and the narrative demanded of them in order to secure resettlement or asylum can be, literally, the difference between life and death. And as the three books discussed here make clear, there is always a gap between the complex texture of human experience and the rigid template of refugeehood.

As long as such restrictive policies on refuge and asylum persist, so, too, will this narrative economy in which refugees are always compelled to justify their presence, to constantly make their experiences legible to those with power over their lives in our grossly unequal, unevenly bordered world. Accounts of refugee camps necessarily participate in this narrative economy, in which expressions of individual suffering of the proper type and form are currency. All the authors considered here are part of this economy; it is inescapable.

All, too, have moments of ambivalence about their participation in this regime of justification. Each, at some point, finds that “there are no words,” as Osman puts it. In these instances of hesitancy, we see the unequal interdependence of refugeehood and citizenship, Third World and First. We see that the scripts of refugeehood are inadequate, but also that they are contingent—notions of who can be a refugee, and how, change.

But this contingency depends, at least for the present, on our ability to secure a world in which accounts of individual suffering are not what separates those condemned to life in a camp from those lucky enough to leave. And that, for the present, requires that those of us who are not refugees or asylum seekers, but whose governments hold power over those who are, recognize the ways we exist in relation—in vibration—with distant others. Rejecting our current regime of punitive justification seems as good a place as any to start.

For those of us who are refugees and asylum seekers, conversely, we might seek out and develop spaces for our narratives to be taken seriously, on our own terms, by those in power—a process that, as memoirs like Osman’s attest, is taking nascent shape.


This article was commissioned by Jeremy Adelman and Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Gerawork Teferra, “Kakuma Refugee Camp: Pseudo-permanence in Permanent Transience,” Africa Today (forthcoming).
Featured image: Aerial View of Ifo 2 Refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya (2014). Photograph by the United Nations / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)