I’m glad that I read The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri. before I read Rodaan al Galidi’s Two Blankets, Three Sheets (brilliantly translated by Jonathan Reeder). Al Galidi’s protagonist, Samir, lives through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to become a designated refugee in the Netherlands, after fleeing Iraqi to avoid being drafted into Saddam Hussein’s army. Without the background of Nayeri’s memoir, I would have been a lot angrier than I was as I read about Samir’s misadventures. I was still angry, but I better understood what was happening on both sides of the counter at the refugee center. Everyone in this book desperately needs to learn and experience empathy and kindness.
Samir’s journey takes eleven years. The first three years were spent trying to get out of Asia on stolen or forged passports. After those three years, Samir has the money to get all the way to Europe. He only learns later that he could have picked countries that are more welcoming of refugees than the Netherlands. (Later, he tries to make breaks for Germany and Norway.) The Schengen agreement and other laws make it very hard for refugees to try and get asylum. People have only once chance to be awarded asylum and they have to ask for it in the first Schengen country they land in. If they don’t get asylum, they are immediately deported. It’s no wonder that most of the people Samir meets spend most of their time collecting information and trying to work out strategy for getting asylum.
Samir takes us back and forth through his journeys, with plenty of detours to tell the stories of his fellow detainees. (A lot of these characters and stories are based on the author’s own experiences.) Some are funny. Many, however, are heartbreaking. Being kept in the refugee centers with no idea of when their detentions will end and having no idea how the bureaucrats are making their decisions drive the refugees to unhealthy, dangerous, unsettling behaviors. More than one commit suicide. Others develop obsessive behaviors. Still others discover phobias and paranoia. We readers can only hope that the detainees will finally find a same home.
Seeing things from the refugees’ perspective just reminds me of how bewildering it would be for someone from another culture, who doesn’t speak the local language, to understand what the bureaucrats want. The Dutch Samir encounters are so exasperated by the refugees. Why can’t they just do things the proper way? They never seem to understand that their “charges” don’t know what the proper way is. Even the sympathetic ones get flustered by the desperation of the refugees.
Even though this book is so full of heartbreak, I loved reading Two Blankets, Three Sheets. Samir is a deeply affecting narrator who knows when to leaven things with a funny story when they start to get too heavy. The tone never reaches the picaresque; too much hilarity would steal the seriousness of what Samir is trying to tell us. Samir tells us a story of incomprehensible rules, weariness, anger, sadness, desperation, and struggle. The kicker of it all is that Samir’s story is absolutely true, with only the names changed. This is the kind of book that I hope is widely read, because it has the possibility of leading readers to demand better for refugees seeking asylum in their countries…because the people Samir tells us about absolutely deserve better.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.