Initiatives Place, Displacement, & The Politics of Housing

Dadaab is a Place on Earth: Interview with Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi

Temporary housing in Dadaab

Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi is a professor at Gallatin and is organizing and participating in the event, “Dadaab Is A Place on Earth: Architecture in the Twilight of the World’s Largest Refugee Camp,” on April 18th, 2017, 6:00-8:00 pm at 20 Cooper Square, 2nd floor. I sat down with her for a brief interview about the event and the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
More information on the event can be found here:

Can you tell me briefly about Dadaab and the history of the region?
In 1991, the UNHCR and the government of Kenya established a refugee camp near the village of Dadaab, Kenya, to accommodate a massive influx of refugees after the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in Somalia. This settlement, established for 30,000 refugees, has since expanded into five settlements in a permanent humanitarian complex housing half a million refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, and aid workers. Dadaab is situated in a borderland between Somalia and Kenya and it is a part of Kenya that’s ethnically Somali. It’s a much less developed region than the rest of Kenya.

Why do you think it’s so important to look at Dadaab right now?
Due to restrictions on mobility, work, and education, refugees in Dadaab have become dependent upon humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the political climate in Kenya, following recent terrorist attacks and the perception that Kenya’s refugee burden has not been equally shared (exacerbated by international aid efforts made on behalf of Turkey, for example, in the wake of the Syrian refugee influx), has prompted the Kenyan government to take action to close the camps in the lead-up to the national elections. It is unclear whether that will actually happen, but it’s important to understand the real humanitarian crisis that would happen if the camps are actually decommissioned. At this stage, the camps have been there for 26 years—there are a lot of people living in a marginal space. They are being systematically marginalized by the international community, by the states around them, including the state that they came from, and by a broader lack of understanding of what’s going on. I think that because of these things it is important—urgent—to actually see the space and to have a critical perspective on it.

What was your interest in Dadaab and what did your work focus on? Also, how does the camp connect with the urban?
I’m a historian of art, architecture and urbanism. I was interested in the politics of aesthetics and the architectural history of Dadaab. The Dadaab refugee complex—which houses the third largest population grouping in Kenya, after Nairobi and Mombasa—has not been widely seen, architecturally, geographically, or historically. I have been interested in learning about the ways that architecture and territory enact politics in Africa through aesthetic terms and forms.

It was important to me to go to this site and study it in the way that one might study a city. But it also became important to me to understand not just how we see Dadaab, as a place on earth, but why we should see it, why we don’t see places like this, and what it means for all of us to not see places like this.

In terms of thinking about Dadaab as an urban space, it’s important to understand delineations of social and political space. The question of camp and city is often predicated on what something looks like. You see this robust marketplace and you think “city.” But in this case it’s important to acknowledge that the robust marketplace is all informal.
It’s important to understand the difference between the camp and the city. One way to do this is by looking at how spaces are formalized. The Dadaab settlements have been formalized in that the UNHCR has planned the camps and has drawn its lines on pieces of paper. However, those lines don’t actually exist except in that people have built something—a fence or a wall—at those lines.

This architecture has the paradoxical effect of making the camp’s geographical borders both more fluid and more etched in the landscape at the same time. Through the architecture, you can see a clear division between people who have settled around the edges and people who are in the camp, but this line has been drawn by a humanitarian operation and materialized through built form.

Who are the speakers on the panel for this event and what do you think each of them brings to the discussion?
The inspiration for this event came from my colleague, Alishine Osman, who grew up in Ifo Camp in Dadaab and is now resettled in the US. He was in the first class that graduated from Ifo Secondary School. I met him while taking oral histories as part of my scholarly research, and did many interviews with him. We wrote an article together to be published soon for Perspecta, the student-edited journal at the Yale School of Architecture. In the article, I think we have been able to articulate a dialogue on Dadaab, which highlights the perspective of refugees there. Alishine now works in the social service industry in the United States as part of broader work on immigration reform.

Ben Rawlence has written an important book: City of Thorns. His book has been very meaningful to me. He treats the people and the space of Dadaab with great care, with intellect and intelligence. I’ve been impressed with the way that he’s used his thinking in the service of a humanistic vision that has clarity and meaning.

Samar Al-Bulushi is completing her Ph.D. at Yale. She studies the security state apparatus in East Africa and relations between the United States and Kenya. Scholars often focus on existing nation-state delineations and Samar’s work underscores how crucial it is to cross those borders. She knows Dadaab with a scholarly intimacy very different from my own.

Professor Rosalind Fredericks will be moderating. Her scholarship on urban infrastructure is a very important rewriting of the parts of cities that may seem invisible. Since one of the elements of this panel is to try to bring into view something that has been structurally invisible, she will be able to provide key insight into that.

Finally, it’s very meaningful to me that Professor AbdouMaliq Simone will be making remarks on the panel. We are extremely lucky to have him here at Gallatin to bring his thoughts on Africa, cities, and human life into this discussion.

The event “Dadaab is a Place on Earth: Architecture in the Twilight of the World’s Largest Refugee Camp” will take place on April 18th, 6-8 pm at 20 Cooper Square, 2nd floor.

For more information and teaching materials related to this event, please see: