When is a refugee a “real” refugee? Firstly, the story of the escape should be tragic, the refugee should have, if possible, escaped from hell. To avoid being sent back again, the suffering should then be transformed into a convincing story. Most importantly: Those who have fled should be grateful.
They should be thankful for being allowed to stay in a camp, to sleep on the dirt and to queue for three hours to get something to eat from those generous volunteers. “What is hell enough for the West to feel responsible?” asks Dina Nayeri in her book “The Ungrateful Refugee”. She tells of her personal experience of the expectations weighing on refugees, the feeling of being uprooted and the process of adapting to a foreign culture. She tells her own story of fleeing from from Iran and the stories of others she has encountered.
As the daughter of two doctors, Nayeri grew up in post-revolutionary Isfahan, a place split between Islam and Christianity, which her mother converted to on a trip to London. In the Islamic Republic the whole family was permanently under threat. Her mother decided to leave Iran, taking Dina and her younger brother with her. They traveled as tourists, first staying with friends in Dubai, and then moving to Italy where they waited for asylum. They were among the lucky ones and made it to the USA, where Nayeri later attended elite universities. By 2017 she lived in London and traveled with the organisation Refugee Support to the migrant camp Katsikas in Greece. Some of the people she met there are described in this book.
This is a book where the locations are constantly shifting and it’s easy to lose track. Nayeri tells stories of fleeing from Iran and Afghanistan to Moria, to Katsikas, to Amsterdam and London, stories that span successful integration and rejected asylum applications. The reader gets a sense of the feeling of restlessness that has followed Nayeri ever since her escape. As a human being who never had to run from their home, can you ever really understand this book in its full depth? It is a privilege never to be pushed from your home, never to have the sense of being unwelcome in your long dreamt of place of exile. We will never be defined by the stigma of being a refugee. Quite rightly, Nayeri demands our humility. She describes frequently feeling “sick with shame for my adopted countries, my neighbours, safe in their homes, born in prosperous countries, crying out for walls”.
It is a privilege never to be pushed from your home, never to have the sense of being unwelcome in your long dreamt of place of exile
Nayeri writes about the eternal quest for recognition, describing a feeling of inferiority and widespread racism and prejudice. School children teased her about where she came from, talking about eating cats and how there were no showers in Iran. Meanwhile, her mother faced discrimination and was not allowed to work as a doctor in Oklahoma; her brother was excluded because of his darker skin colour. Nayeri vividly describes the ridicule and alienation, a reality which spurred her on to make a go of it. After all, what does she have to lose? Her unbridled ambition steered Nayeri to Princeton and Harvard. She adapted herself to the standards of the western world.
“If the rational mind is a clean road, ours had potholes, pockets of paranoia and fear”
“Escape creates a chameleon”, she writes, “an alert creature, always in disguise”. Her sense of euphoria and gratitude made her want to become an American success story. But in retrospect, Nayeri questions this strategy of complete assimilation. She writes that changing identity “is a wallowing, self-loathing business”. She remembers her brother Khosrou's grief when their mother gave him the western name Daniel. Adjustments have to be made from both sides, Nayeri argues, from new arrivals and locals alike.
She explains the deep trauma caused by a refugee’s journey. “If the rational mind is a clean road, ours had potholes, pockets of paranoia and fear,” writes Nayeri. She herself has suffered from OCD ever since she witnessed the First Gulf War. Her head constantly itches and she finds herself counting her T-shirts and checking the doors are locked. Farzaneh’s young daughter, who fled Iran with her family, hardly spoke a word for months, after being separated from the mother on a boat. And Kambiz, a young Iranian, kills himself after years of waiting for asylum in the Netherlands. Waiting is a recurrent motif in Nayeri's book. “It is the ultimate indignity, to be made to wait,” she writes, accusing the western world of turning their backs on refugees.
In the midst of a range of individual stories, Nayeri sketches out a story of emancipation. She describes her mother's strength and fearlessness: a prisoner of the Islamic Republic and a violent marriage, a woman who longed for rebellion and freedom. She emigrated alone with her children, while her husband stayed behind and married another woman. Although their escape would have been more difficult without his help - in particular his money and his contacts - it is essentially a story of a woman breaking free from her chains and offering her daughter a free future.
“They need friendship, not salvation. They need the dignity of becoming an essential part of a society”
The author succeeds in creating a multifaceted synthesis of escape stories. It tells of Moria, the “hell of Lesbos”, which is comparable with a prison, and the refugee home Barba in Italy, a dreary, inhuman place of waiting but also a place of exchange and intercultural and religious understanding. Nayeri does not solely focus on the stress and downsides, but also on the potential of migration.
Her narrative builds a bridge between two worlds and outlines what we all need do: be curious, be patient with each other and offer refugees more than one chance. “They need friendship, not salvation. They need the dignity of becoming an essential part of a society.” In the end, it's us non-refugees who can learn from this book -- realising we need to be more grateful.
The Ungrateful Refugee. By Dina Nayeri. Catapult, 2020.