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Book Review: Citizens of Nowhere by Debi Goodwin

kevin philipupillai

Cover of Debi Goodwin's book Citizens of NowhereThe eleven extraordinary young people profiled in Citizens of Nowhere have been teachers, social workers, mediators, and breadwinners. Journalist Debi Goodwin meets them as refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, and follows them through their difficult transition to life as first-year university students in Canada. They have each been sponsored to come to study in Canada as part of the Student Refugee Program run by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC).

Collectively, the camps in Dadaab are the largest refugee settlement in the world. Built to house 90,000 displaced people, they now hold upwards of 250,000, mainly from neighbouring Somalia. Camps which were supposed to provide temporary shelter for refugees before they could be resettled have instead become distressingly permanent, with many people living in limbo for years.

Goodwin builds a relationship with each student, meeting the families and friends they will have to leave behind as they move, alone, to various universities across Canada. There are wonderfully light moments, and the strength and dignity with which the students face their various challenges is incredibly inspiring. But this is not a happy story. The feelings of dislocation that come when trying to adapt to an alien culture are accompanied by the constant pressure to do well enough, quickly enough, to pull their families out of the camps.

Expectations are high partly because of the perception in the camps that everyone in Canada is “rolling in money” and that once they break through and make it here, they — and their families — are set. Only after arriving in Canada do they learn that this is not the case. It is here that the book offers a look at Canada through the eyes of some very intelligent newcomers. Some wonder why their new Canadian friends don’t seem to care very much about Canadian politics. Others wonder why, in a country so much richer than the ones they were born in, homelessness and poverty are allowed to persist.

The students also struggle with questions of identity, with each having to decide how strongly to hold to lifelong religious and cultural beliefs. Often there is an eagerness to try new things, accompanied by a deep reluctance to leave behind customs which remind them of home. Their views on the interaction between women and men in Canadian society are varied, as are their recollections of gender relations in the camps. More than one of the male students has had the word “feminist” used against him as a severe accusation, and more than one of the female students believes the hijab is a central part of her wardrobe.

As a journalist, Goodwin gains the trust of the students and reports their experiences and observations in their own words. As a mother with a daughter the same age as the students she is writing about, she becomes part of the story herself. For most of them, she is the only outsider who has seen them both as they used to be, young leaders in Dadaab, and as they are now, young leaders in Canada.

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