The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri

Trigger warnings for discussion of rape and suicide.

When she was eight years old, Dina Nayeri’s mother began to be harassed by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and morality police. It wasn’t long before thing got so bad that she packed up her two children and fled Isfahan. The Ungrateful Refugee is a blend of memoir and nonfiction that recounts Nayeri’s experiences as a young refugee, with additional narratives from other refugees from Iran who looked to Europe and the United States as safe havens only to go through years of brutal hardship and callous bureaucracy. It should come as no surprise that this book is full of righteous anger at the way refugees are treated by the Western world. This is absolutely a book for our times.

As Nayeri relates her experiences as a refugee and, later, naturalized American citizen, she frequently returns to the same ideas. First, there is the fear of being displaced and the shame of having to beg for food, shelter, and safety. Nayeri shows us how humiliating and confusing it is to be a refugee. Many refugees have to navigate not only different languages they may not know well, but also completely different ways of looking at the world. Which leads to the second themes: fundamental misunderstandings and casual cruelty by the bureaucrats who handle requests for asylum. Lastly, Nayeri calls out Western nations who compound the misery of refugees by making things as difficult as possible in a time of growing global instability and rising nationalism.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the plight of refugees will be familiar with the stories told by refugees seeking asylum. They are fleeing not just police harassment, like Nayeri’s mother, but also torture, rape, and death threats. I would have thought that anyone with a heart would immediately open the gates for people who cannot “go back.” Nayeri, however, raises a point that had never occurred to me. One of her contacts, an asylum “fixer” in Amsterdam, talks to Nayeri about how refugees (especially Iranian and Middle Eastern refugees) communicate in very different ways from the Dutch, the British, and the Americans. Where the Westerners want facts, dates, and documents, refugees are often unable to provide these for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are because of trauma. There is ample research on how trauma can affect memory that apparently has not reached the bureaucrats in the asylum offices. Some of these reasons are cultural. Nayeri notes that Iranian culture and language are high-context cultures (though she doesn’t use this terminology). In high-context cultures, there is a lot more subtext, layers of meaning, an indirect communication. Western cultures tend to be the opposite; everything has to be said to be understood. The fixer spends most of his days coaching Iranians in how to talk to Westerners in order to be understood and win their asylum cases. It was heartbreaking and fascinating all at the same time.

Nayeri closes The Ungrateful Refugee with something of a resolution to her own identity struggles. Most of her life, Nayeri had to repeatedly transform herself in order to get along in the vastly different environments in which she found herself. She tried to be a dutiful daughter in Iran. In America, she worked desperately hard to get into an Ivy League college and get the hell out of Oklahoma. As an adult, she sought a way to reconcile all of her selves. At last, in the last chapters, she talks about how she has reclaimed her Iranian heritage…but also became a powerful (and published) voice for refugees.

I hope that many readers pick up and share The Ungrateful Refugee, especially in the United States. We have, as Nayeri and others mention, a society that has “gotten ours” and feels a need to close the metaphorical gates behind ourselves. I agree with Nayeri that we should open the borders. I agree with Achebe, whose essay collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child is quoted by Nayeri: “I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety.” And, above all, I hope that the millions of people who are currently seeking refuge can find a safe place to call home at last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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