Those of us who have never had to leave our country because of fear of torture or death might assume that that refugees should express gratitude to those who provide them with a place of safety. Is that right? This book by former refugee Dina Nayeri questions this assumption, turns it round even. Not what should our attitude to refugees be, but how should refugees view their new home? There is, she says, no debt to repay. And if we want to build better communities that include refugees, then we should pay attention to those things that help build communities and good relationships.
The Ungrateful Refugee
In her previous books Dina Nayeri drew on her own life to write her fiction: Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea. This book is not fiction. She tells the story of her escape with her mother and her brother from Iran when she was eight years old in 1988. They went first to Abu Dhabi as tourists and, when the visas ran out, to Italy where they were accommodated in a hotel, converted to a refugee camp, near Rome. Finally they were allowed to settle in Oklahoma.
Her mother was a doctor, persecuted in Iran for her Christianity. Her father was a dentist, but arrested more than once for opium abuse. He did not accompany them, although he provided passports, money and contacts that enabled their flight.
The difficulties of fitting into Oklahoma society were huge. Her mother’s medical credentials were never accepted. Her brother gained credibility because he played sports. Dina endured years of being an outsider in school, but became determined, fixated even, on going to Harvard, seeing it as the pathway to acceptance in the US. She has lived in other countries, recently moving from London to Paris. And has spent time in Amsterdam.
Her story is interwoven with more recent ones, often from men who found it harder than her family to escape to safety as more and more barriers are erected to keep refugees out. These men came from Syria or Afghanistan. She writes a great deal about immigration systems that make people wait, that try to catch out asylum seekers in minor inconsistencies. Often these people end up in detention with the threat of deportation unresolved. The effects of these policies, condemning good people to years of uncertainty and living on the margins, cannot be justified. Some do not survive. Others, by luck, manage to thrive.
The story of being saved
People in their new country want to hear refugees’ stories of escape, the stories of their gratitude. They act as if they are owed it. But they never ask about the life the family lived before they left Iran, the food, the family members, the family history and so on. The story is all about coming to the US, or Britain or the Netherlands.
Likewise, the assumption is that certain actions and behaviours by the immigrants will mean that refugees can fit right in. But coming to a new life is a relational thing: it requires a response. Those lucky enough to have been born in this place should shuffle up and welcome those who want to share their bounty; especially where they have been damaged, physically and/or mentally by their home country. Communities, new families, new relationships, social, economic, political connections, these will create a sense of having a place in the new country.
We need each other to make a community – the immigrant can’t transform by sheer will. … A lasting, progressive kind of assimilation requires reciprocation. It is mutual and humble and intertwined with multiculturalism, never at odds with it. It’s about allowing newcomers to affect you on your native soil, to change you. (341-2)
Instead of reciprocity, the onus has all been on the incomer, and made more difficult by an increase in hostility to refugees, in government policies and attitudes among some groups in some countries. I attended a lecture and discussion recently on refugee literature, for which this book was recommended reading. It was suggested that people who are hostile feel they are too close to becoming refugees themselves.
I think that something darker is at work. Refugees are reminders to hostile people of the fragility of their lives; but more significantly refugees remind us of the shame and destruction inflicted by our countries’ foreign policies, that our countries have contributed to situations that the refugees are fleeing. Think of the refugees from Viet Nam, those who went to the US (see for example The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which we also discussed in that session. You can find my reaction to these brilliant short stories here.)
Look at the chaos in those middle eastern countries in which the US and UK have been militarily involved: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq … We can be ashamed too of our lack of generosity towards people in difficulties. And there is a strong thread of racism in all this. For these reasons, shame and racism in particular, the government in the UK perpetuates the hostile environment to keep refugees out. And sections of our society support that.
I was pleased to hear Dina Nayeri say in an interview that in her experience Londoners were responding positively to the changing population in the city, to the presence of refugees in their community. She said that she thought the people of London might be at odds with their government on this. (Interview on Perspectiveon breaking down misconceptions about immigrants, September 2019).
Thanks to Trudi Tate at Literature Cambridge for the on-line session on Refugee Literature.
The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp