Not that Gwen Murphy would tell anyone. She pushed the idea away as soon as it came. But the refugees were starting to creep her out.
Gwen lay on her cot, pretending to sleep. Outside the walls of the trailer she shared with Hailey Barnes, the Hagadera refugee camp was coming to life. Diesel engines rumbled in the distance as the morning’s first supply convoy arrived. Closer, two men shouted to each other in their clicking African language. “Happy Birthday,” Gwen murmured to herself. Her twenty-third. The first she’d spent outside the United States, much less in Africa.
For twelve weeks Gwen had volunteered for WorldCares/ChildrenFirst, an aid agency that offered food and medical care to Somali refugees. The Somalis came to Kenya to escape famine and war. Hundreds of thousands lived in Hagadera and other camps around the town of Dadaab in eastern Kenya. At first the mission had seemed simple to Gwen. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect the innocent. But the longer she stayed, the less she understood this place.
She tried not to think about that, either.
Her alarm beeped. She gave up the charade of sleep, opened her eyes. Seven-thirty a.m. Rise and shine. Across the trailer, Hailey’s cot was empty. Hailey always left before Gwen. She claimed she liked to watch the sun rise. Gwen thought she might have something going with Jasper, the ex-Marine who ran security at their compound, but Hailey denied they were anything but friends. I just like the place when it’s quiet, she said.
Gwen wrapped herself in her thin cotton blanket, reached for her laptop. WorldCares housed its workers in a walled compound at the edge of the Hagadera camp. The compound had its own electricity and water and wireless service, not great but enough to download email.
She found twenty-two new messages on her Gmail account, mainly birthday greetings. Her little sister Catelyn had sent a picture of them by the Golden Gate Bridge, one of Gwen’s favorites, from a trip to California the year before.
Only four more weeks of do-gooding! Can’t wait for you to get home so I can buy you a 3 a.m. Egg McMuffin—hinting at an epic night on that trip. Tell Hailey The Heartbreaker I said hi! Owen and Scott too! Happy 23rd! XOXO C
Next up, from her mom:
Daddy and I will call today but if you’re busy or we don’t get through I want you to know how much we love, love, LOVE you! And we’re so proud of you, what you’re doing over there is so great . . .
So great. If they only knew. Gwen signed off, pulled on sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt for the walk to the bathroom trailer. On her first morning here, she’d made the mistake of stepping out in boyshorts and a thin cotton tee. She hadn’t gotten ten steps before a crusty forty-something woman intercepted her.
“This is a refugee camp, not a gentlemen’s club,” the woman barked in a thick British accent. “We respect local sensitivities. As I don’t doubt you’re aware, you have a very pleasant body”—somehow “pleasant” sounded like an accusation—“but if you want to dress like a Russian whore I suggest Moscow. You’d do well.”
Whore? Moscow? Gwen wanted to argue but instead hustled back to her trailer. She later learned the woman was Moss Laughton, the logistics director for WorldCares. Moss’s moods ranged from bad to worse. Still, Gwen had grown to like her after that initial run-in. Maybe because they couldn’t be more different. The British woman had short spiky hair and was shaped like a potato. She didn’t care how she looked or what people said about her. And she wasn’t afraid to yell. She once described her job to Gwen as trying to keep the stealing to a reasonable level. And failing.
Gwen decided to give herself an extra-long, extra-hot shower this morning. Moss wouldn’t be amused. Moss said any shower more than three minutes long was a waste of time and water. But it wasn’t Moss’s birthday, was it?
The Hagadera camp was one of three giant refugee centers near Dadaab, an overgrown village on the dusty plains of eastern Kenya. The camps opened in 1991, when Somalia’s government first collapsed. For most of their existence they’d held fewer than one hundred thousand refugees. But since 2009, drought and war had caused hundreds of thousands of Somalis to flee their homes. With nowhere else to go, they trekked west across the desert toward Kenya. Along the way, bandits stole from them and raped them. If they were too weak to walk, they got left behind. And not for the Rapture. They died of dehydration or starvation. Hyenas and lions dragged away their corpses. Even when they reached Kenya, they weren’t safe. The Kenyan police demanded bribes and threw the Somalis back over the border if they didn’t pay. But enough refugees got through that half a million now lived in the camps, in endless rows of tents that studded the land like anthills. Some received sturdy white tents that looked like they belonged in an upscale camping expedition. Abercrombie and Kent: Journey to Dadaab. The others built their own shelters out of plastic sheets and scraps of wood. Vast open plains surrounded the camps, but the Kenyan government refused to expand them. So the tents were crammed into ever-smaller plots as new refugees arrived. Each was a miniature city of refugees, with a city’s problems.
Gwen hadn’t known any of this when she’d come to Dadaab three months before, with Hailey and Owen Broder and Scott Thompson. The four of them had just graduated from the University of Montana, in Missoula. Gwen had grown up in western Montana, lived there her whole life. She was ready for a change. An adventure.
Then Scott said he might go to Kenya to work for his uncle James helping refugees. Gwen was surprised. Scott had never struck her as caring. In fact, when it came to women, she knew firsthand he was exactly the opposite. But he told her that James ran a charity called WorldCares. “We can go to Africa for a few months. Beats hanging around here,” he said. “Plus when we’re done, we’ll go on a safari. Watch lions getting it on. You know they have sex for like two days straight.” Scott sounded at least as enthusiastic about the lions as the refugees.
That night she Googled Dadaab. The pictures shocked her. She couldn’t believe people still starved to death. Of course, anorexia, but that was different. Anyway, the point was that the refugees were starving. United Nations says 750,000 Somalis at risk from famine, the headlines said. Worst food shortage since 1991. Babies with bellies swollen from hunger. Women with arms like sticks. Gwen decided right then that she’d go. Do whatever it was that aid workers did.
When she told her family about her plan, she figured her mom—and certainly her dad—would put up a fight. Aside from a few weekends in Canada, she’d only been out of the United States once, on a spring break trip to Cancun. But they didn’t. “It’ll be good for you,” her mom said. “Broaden your horizons.”
Then Hailey decided to come, too. She told Gwen she wanted a better shot at med school. She’d applied her senior year, but her test scores weren’t great and the only place that accepted her was in the Caribbean. “This stuff looks great on your resume,” Hailey said. “In the interviews, too. ‘When I saw little Dikembe come back to life, I knew I wanted to be a healer.’ I don’t have to tell them that the kind of healing I’m talking about is dermatology. Laser skin peels for five hundred dollars a pop.”
“Isn’t that a little cynical?”
“It’s a lot cynical. But doctors make mucho dinero and, unlike you, I can’t afford the luxury of being an idealist.”
“I’m not rich.”
“Gwennie, rich people always say that.”
Finally, Owen joined up. He didn’t have to explain why. Gwen knew. He’d had a terrible crush on her for two years. Though he wasn’t a stalker. More a hopeless romantic. He gave her longing looks when he thought she wouldn’t notice. She wished she found him attractive. But he was curly-haired, soulful. Gwen didn’t go for soulful. Gwen went for jocks. Jerks. Like Scott. Scott was about six-two, two-fifteen, with sandy blond hair and broad shoulders and a ridiculous six-pack. Scott could dunk. Gwen had seen him. When Scott wrapped an arm around her,