Meditations on “The Ungrateful Refugee”

15 January, 2022
The Kha­ju Bridge in beau­ti­ful Isfa­han, Iran, home to writer Dina Nay­eri until she was near­ly nine years old.


The Ungrate­ful Refugee: What Immi­grants Nev­er Tell You by Dina Nayeri
Cat­a­pult Pub­lish­ing (2019)
ISBN 1948226421

Rana Asfour

The Ungrate­ful Refugee is avail­able from Cat­a­pult.

Thir­ty years after Amer­i­can Iran­ian author Dina Nayeri’s cir­cuitous escape to refuge, from Iran to the Unit­ed States, and dis­tressed at the increas­ing­ly “hos­tile” and “unhinged” dis­course on refugees in 2016, she final­ly decid­ed to tell her own sto­ry as a for­mer refugee in a bid to make sense of the world she’d deliv­ered her daugh­ter into. Her sto­ry is one that has, by her own admis­sion, dom­i­nat­ed her per­son­al­i­ty and com­pelled her every deci­sion for over two decades, find­ing a way into her two nov­els, A Tea­spoon of Earth and Salt (2013) and Refuge (2017). Her lat­est, The Ungrate­ful Refugee, her first for­ay into non-fic­tion, was a final­ist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize in Non­fic­tion and win­ner of the 2020 Clara John­son Award for Women’s Literature.

In 1985, when Dina was only six years old, her moth­er, a well-known physi­cian in Isfa­han, con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty in Eng­land while on a vis­it to Dina’s mater­nal grand­moth­er. And so Maman Moti had left Iran before the rev­o­lu­tion, become a Chris­t­ian and resolved to turn her back on the coun­try and its peo­ple. “We had hoped for asy­lum in Eng­land,” writes Nay­eri, but, “Maman’s moth­er, had, I was told, refused to spon­sor us … she want­ed noth­ing to do with our post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary troubles.”

With no recourse but to return to Iran and buoyed by her new faith — with a huge cross dan­gling in her wind­shield — Nayeri’s moth­er joined an under­ground church and became heav­i­ly engaged in pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, hand­ing out tracts to her patients — an act pun­ish­able by death in Iran. Despite the par­ents’ well-respect­ed sta­tus in Isfa­han, where they had med­ical offices, friends in high places and degrees from Tehran Uni­ver­si­ty —and although Dina’s Baba remained Mus­lim — it wasn’t enough to pro­tect Maman from arbi­trary arrests or to pre­serve Dina from abuse at school where teach­ers would con­stant­ly pull her aside, “to a bench between the toi­let cave and a night­mar­ish Khome­i­ni mur­al,” to ask her again and again about her reli­gion. When she would inces­sant­ly declare her­self her apos­tate mother’s ally, the abuse wors­ened. “Vil­lainy starts on native soil,” she writes, “where rot­ten peo­ple can safe­ly be rot­ten, where gov­ern­ments exist for their protection…Since our return from Lon­don, we had lost our native rights; we were exiles in our own city, eyes sud­den­ly open to the mag­ic and promise of the West.”

And so, it wasn’t until 1988, after endur­ing the Iran-Iraq war, ran­dom arrests at the hands of the Gashte-Ershad or “Guid­ance Patrol” and ulti­mate­ly a threat­en­ing vis­it from the Sepâh under whose tyran­ny an unprece­dent­ed purge of intel­lec­tu­als, left­ists, and polit­i­cal dis­si­dents dis­ap­peared or were mas­sa­cred, that Dina’s par­ents final­ly decid­ed that the time had come for the fam­i­ly to flee. Despite her father’s deci­sion to remain in Iran, he man­aged, thanks to his influ­en­tial patients, to secure places for his wife and two chil­dren aboard a car­go plane head­ed to the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, a flight that would hence­forth mark the begin­ning of their eigh­teen-month wan­der­ing, first as ille­gal res­i­dents in a cock­roach-infest­ed apart­ment in Dubai, then as asy­lum seek­ers “fight­ing bore­dom” wait­ing for spon­sor­ship let­ters in a refugee camp in Italy, until final­ly head­ing to Okla­homa after being grant­ed entry into the US — the refuge that would allow them to build their life anew.

Once in an Okla­homa church, a woman said, “Well, I sure do get it. You came for a bet­ter life.” I thought I’d pass out—a bet­ter life? In Isfa­han, we had yel­low spray ros­es, a pool. A glass enclo­sure shot up through our liv­ing room, and inside that was a tree. I had a tree inside my house; I had the papery hands of Mor­varid, my friend and nan­ny, a nine­ty-year-old vil­lage woman; I had my grandmother’s fruit leather and Hotel Koorosh schnitzels and sour cher­ries and orchards and a farm—life in Iran was a fairy­tale. In Okla­homa, we lived in an apart­ment com­plex for the des­ti­tute and dis­en­fran­chised. Life was a big gray park­ing lot with cig­a­rette butts bak­ing in oil pud­dles, slick chil­dren idling in the beat­ing sun, teach­ers who couldn’t do math. —Dina Nayeri

Once in Okla­homa, Nay­eri is ten years old. She spends the first two years learn­ing Eng­lish and under­stand­ing the cul­ture. Despite the family’s feel­ing of hope that they had found a new place to call home, Nayeri’s ini­tial expe­ri­ences are bru­tal. Sur­round­ed by peo­ple who know noth­ing about Iran, her moth­er faces “pro­fes­sion­al hos­til­i­ty” as a doc­tor from Iran as well as requests for her to “per­form” her sto­ry in its skele­tal form: the sto­ry of being saved by benev­o­lent Americans.

Dina’s time at school didn’t prove any bet­ter than in Iran when it came to bul­ly­ing, despite spend­ing her teenage years ded­i­cat­ed to dili­gent­ly fit­ting in with her envi­ron­ment, “mur­der­ing” all con­nec­tions that tied her to Iran. In the process she was able to shed her accent and attend Har­vard — she holds a B.A. from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and a Mas­ter of Edu­ca­tion and MBA from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. So des­per­ate was Nay­eri to prove her wor­thi­ness as a “palat­able immi­grant,” that she made no fuss when the kids at school labeled her with vul­gar­i­ties like “cat-eater,” “ter­ror­ist,” and “sand nig­ger.” Describ­ing that time of her life, Nay­eri writes of an “uproot­ing and trans­for­ma­tion with­out guar­an­tees, of remak­ing the face and the body, those first mur­der­ous refugee steps — the anni­hi­la­tion of the self, then an ascent from the grave.”

Dina Nay­eri is the author of two nov­els and The Ungrate­ful Refugee, win­ner of the Geschwis­ter Scholl Preis and final­ist for the Los Ange­les Times Book Prize, the Kirkus Prize, and Elle Grand Prix des Lec­tri­ces, and called by The Guardian “a work of aston­ish­ing, insis­tent impor­tance.” Her essay of the same name was one of The Guardian’s most wide­ly read long reads in 2017, and is taught in schools and anthol­o­gized around the world. Read more about her.

Besides her per­son­al expe­ri­ence, Nay­eri pep­pers her book with case stud­ies of refugees and asy­lum seek­ers in recent years from Iran, Afghanistan, and Syr­ia cur­rent­ly lan­guish­ing in camps in Greece wait­ing inde­ter­mi­nate stretch­es for their asy­lum papers to go through. From inter­views con­duct­ed in 2016, with the help of Paul Hutch­ings, the cofounder of Refugee Sup­port, a char­i­ty that goes from camp to camp erect­ing stores with their own cur­ren­cy to dis­trib­ute donat­ed food and cloth­ing — to give ref­ugees their famil­iar neigh­bor­hood gro­cery, read­ers get a vivid pic­ture of the bit­ter truths and trag­ic cir­cum­stances refugees are up against. Nayeri’s cut throat argu­ments for dis­man­tling the destruc­tive lan­guage of dis­as­ter often used to describe incom­ing refugees — del­uge, flood, swarm, ungrate­ful, oppor­tunists, eco­nom­ic migrants and liars — leave read­ers in no doubt that if any­thing, refugees are under no oblig­a­tion to be grate­ful. Instead, the win­ner of the UNESCO City of Lit­er­a­ture Paul Engle Prize, believes that the “few bro­ken and wretched lives the rich­est nations take in, should do so gra­cious­ly,” that oppor­tunism is a lie cre­at­ed by the priv­i­leged to shame the suf­fer­ing strangers, and that the asy­lum process “like the tax sys­tem and prop­er­ty and every­thing else, is biased against the poor and the une­d­u­cat­ed, the very peo­ple most like­ly to be run­ning out of fear.” She makes the argu­ment that in con­ver­sa­tions about the refugee cri­sis, edu­cat­ed peo­ple con­tin­ue to make the “bar­bar­ic argu­ment” that open doors will ben­e­fit the host nation. The time, she believes, for this out­dat­ed colo­nial­ist argu­ment has run out: “migrants don’t derive their val­ue from their ben­e­fit to the West­ern-born, and civ­i­lized peo­ple don’t ask for résumés from the edge of the grave.”

What Nayeri’s expe­ri­ence and that of the oth­er refugees in her book reveal is that sto­ries and sto­ry­telling have the pow­er to change lives, both lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly. “Every­one has a sto­ry, hav­ing just slipped out from the grip of a night­mare,” writes Nay­eri. How­ev­er, refugees and asy­lum seek­ers are often forced to make their facts fit nar­row con­cep­tions of truth in order to become believ­able and palat­able. Instead of find­ing truth in griev­ing, fear­ful eyes, in shak­ing hands, in the anx­i­ety of chil­dren and sor­row of the elder­ly, the asy­lum offi­cer — who appro­pri­ates the rules of good sto­ry­telling — fails to real­ize when sit­ting across from a peti­tion­ing refugee, that s/he is speak­ing to a char­ac­ter in the sto­ry, and is not the author. Refugees are expect­ed “to tell the sto­ry the Eng­lish way, or the Dutch or Amer­i­can way. Amer­i­cans enjoy dra­ma; they want to be moved. The Dutch want facts, the Eng­lish have prece­dents, sto­ries from each coun­try deemed true that year, that month…Americans like the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a grand suc­cess sto­ry; they adore excep­tion­al­ism and want to make all the great­ness American.”

Nay­eri main­tains that what peo­ple crave in a suc­cess­ful sur­vival sto­ry is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the real­iza­tion of the self or the ful­fill­ment of indi­vid­u­als’ true poten­tial, but a desire for refugees to become them. “To crave transforma­tion from each oth­er — to want oth­ers to change into us — seems a nat­ur­al sur­vival instinct of the ego,” she writes. “But in forc­ing assim­i­la­tion, are we ask­ing for per­for­mance? We want to see that new­com­ers are hap­py, grate­ful, that they’re try­ing. But real grat­i­tude is pri­vate, it can­not be chan­neled and it doesn’t present itself loud­ly, in lofty ges­tures. And learn­ing to pos­ture is a much quick­er pro­cess than trans­form­ing — to quell nativist fears we grill burg­ers and attend church, lis­ten to Cold­play, buy old polo shirts. What if one day, we learn to like those things? Which is a truer moment of change?” she asks. Kind­ness, she believes, is key. The type in which hosts real­ize that the toil­ing, fast-suc­cumb­ing immi­grant is ges­tur­ing peace and grat­i­tude —con­sid­er­ing all it took to get there — and there­fore to relieve them from the oblig­a­tion of posturing.

Dig­ni­ty, not shame, should be the domin­ion of refugees and asy­lum seek­ers, and that is what lies at the heart of this book. “Whether born into safe­ty or dan­ger, some­times peo­ple need to be res­cued … after res­cue, they need bal­ance, work and rest, love, home. They need a chance to fig­ure them­selves out. The painful work of forg­ing a new face must be slow, start­ing with­in.” Refugees, like most out­siders, won’t help them­selves be seen, with an instinct to self-san­i­tize and to hide their moral strug­gles, for the ben­e­fit of the pow­er­ful. This shame, she explains, has con­tributed to a cyn­i­cal, sedat­ed world where­in being a ful­ly real­ized human is the priv­i­lege of whites, Chris­tians, and the native-born. Ensur­ing dig­ni­ty for those in need, advo­cates Nay­eri, means that we all have a duty to step up, as indi­vid­u­als and gov­ern­ments, to work hard­er to wel­come refugees, and to help them thrive if we are to cre­ate mul­ti­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ties that are ready for the future. We owe it to them to ask our­selves painful ques­tions: Why is it, that to some, help must always come with a slap on the wrist? Why do we ask the des­per­ate to strip off their dig­ni­ty as the price of that help? And why is it that if you are born in the Third World, and you dare to make a move before you are shat­tered, then your dreams are deemed sus­pi­cious, “you are a car­pet­bag­ger, an oppor­tunist, a thief and you are reach­ing above your station?”

In the last part of the book Nay­eri returns to her sto­ry and feels that being a for­mer child refugee has turned her into a nomad, a chameleon, a per­son who con­stant­ly craves reset­tle­ment and the urge to start over — since leav­ing Iran, Nay­eri has lived in the US, the UK and France. Inhab­it­ing dif­fer­ent places has giv­en her a clear view in recent years on how people’s atti­tudes and the gov­ern­ments’ sense of duty towards refugees have shift­ed con­sid­er­ably when com­pared with the time her fam­i­ly sought refuge in the West. Today, the acri­mo­nious vit­ri­ol spring­ing from “nativist fury” has grown not only loud­er but become more dan­ger­ous. Waits in camp for asy­lum papers are longer, com­pet­ing dan­ger­ous­ly against finite resources. “What,” she asks, “is hell enough for the West to feel respon­si­ble, not just as per­pe­tra­tors of much of the mad­ness, but as pri­ma­ry ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the planet’s bounty?”



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