THE UNGRATEFUL REFUGEE IS Dina Nayeri’s personal refugee story. She fled Iran with her mother and brother and lived in the crumbling shell of an Italian hotel-turned-refugee camp when she was eight years old. Eventually she was granted asylum in the United States. She settled in Oklahoma, then made her way to Princeton University. In The Ungrateful Refugee, Nayeri weaves together her own vivid story with the stories of other refugees and asylum seekers in recent years, bringing the reader inside their daily lives and through the different stages of the journey, from escape to asylum to resettlement.
SCOTT BURTON: Dina, you seem to have used writing The Ungrateful Refugee as a vehicle to better understand yourself. Is that fair to say?
DINA NAYERI: It’s one of the outcomes. And it’s the reason I went searching — why I returned to refugee camps, and kept digging into particular themes, the agony of waiting, the violence of self-transformation. These were the ways I felt damaged throughout my life and wanted, finally, to be able to articulate all that. But you don’t have to write a book each time you go on a personal search. I wrote The Ungrateful Refugee because I had something vital to say to native-born people in America and Europe — to the good-hearted people who want to help but don’t understand very specific wounds and particular needs of refugees. That said, even after I began writing I continued to build on my understanding of myself. Because writing has always helped me do that, and an emotionally and intellectually difficult piece of work like this one pushes you to the brink of yourself. I love that.
What did you learn?
About myself? That I’m a damn mess inside. And that I’ve bottled up things that the world needs right now, and that I owe my talents to this particular fight. What I learned about refugees and hosts and people? That people crave more than anything to love. Everybody who approaches you with a hostile question, they’re searching for a reason to keep loving, hoping. Maybe they don’t realize that, but I believe it. Before I started this book, I said, “I’m going to write something that’s difficult to read, that hurts to read. It has to hurt. I’m going to crack through their ribcage and right into their hearts.”
Your book reads as an indictment of the refugee systems in the United States and Europe. How broken are they?
Badly broken. People have stopped talking about the accident of birth, human duty, or the unfairness of how the world’s resources have been distributed. But even if you’re going to forget all that, at least create border criteria that are fair, unbiased, and consistently enforced. Asylum officers aren’t professionals at anything. They believe themselves to be experts at rooting out lies. They’re not. They routinely ignore the advice of medical and legal professionals, replacing their own biased judgment. They’re incentivized not to save lives but to dig for inconsistencies, some of which are everyday human error, and to reject. The culture inside the US and UK asylum offices encourages caseworkers to turn people away — the officers brag about it to each other. I have seen official asylum reports on which the officer’s annotations include things like, “Loser!” These are not unbiased gatekeepers. I’m writing a piece now about how torture survivors are routinely disbelieved, though their bodies bear horrific scars. The UK home office has made up an absurd catch-all excuse called Self-Inflicted Torture by Proxy, which was recently rejected in their supreme court. Refugees escape the hellish conditions of their own countries thinking that in Europe they will find human rights, compassion, and professionals at the gates who are curious, eager to save lives, armed with a reverence for the Geneva Convention and expertise in law, medicine, and global events. This is what we all wish was happening. But it’s not. The people guarding the gates have the equivalent of two-year degrees, they are tired, overworked, mediocre in their powers of logic, badly trained, and unwilling to learn. What makes them more dangerous: they think highly of their own judgment and they enjoy the little power they’ve been given.
What are the biggest misconceptions the West has of refugees?
That they are not “flooding” or “swarming” into our countries. It’s a lie to use that language. Seventy million people are forcibly displaced in the world. Of those, 41 million are internally displaced. Around 26 million are refugees and 3.5 million are asylum seekers. Most of those settle in neighboring countries. I believe there are about half a million first-time asylum cases each year in the entire EU, and last year only about 20,000 people were granted asylum in the United Kingdom, which has a population of 66 million people. This is not a deluge.
Also, why are we so afraid of these newcomers? They are families, hardworking, strong, talented, and loving. They want to be our friends, our neighbors. They will only make us better. I promise this. Not that it should matter to those with a soul and a conscience. Would you ask a child how much money is in her pocket before you pull her away from a cliff-edge?
How can minds be changed about refugees when many of the assumptions people in the West make are so deeply rooted in colonialism and racism?
You have to go straight to their hearts, one story at a time. That’s why the storytellers are so vital to this fight. New refugees can’t tell their own stories the American or the English way, and I’m not talking about language here, I’m talking about storytelling culture. That’s why being a refugee helps me do this better, because I can fill my stories with strange, unforgettable details, but I’m American now. My heart wants stories in the American way. I know how to translate. Again, I don’t mean language.
Shame and humiliation are themes that recur in the book. You describe being obsessed with humiliation. What does humiliation mean to you?
I am humiliated daily. Because I have absurd standards for myself. That’s what happens when, as a child, you see that you can become an entirely different person through sheer will. If you’ve ever had to transform for other people, you become a chameleon. Humiliation is like an auto-immune disorder. The body turns against itself. You want to rip out a part of yourself and toss it away, but you can only do that with time, and until you manage to change some part of yourself, all you can do is imitate, like a chameleon.
You seemed to have moved around for most of your life. You describe yourself as having “exile sickness.” How do you account for this compulsion?
I just got used to it. I moved so much that I don’t know how to stay in one place anymore. I’m answering this now surrounded by boxes. I’m moving again.
You say that “we [the West] ask the desperate [refugees] to strip off their dignity as the price of help.” Why is this so?
Why do the native-born require this? Because they want to feel important. Because they want to feel that their place is earned and not an accident of birth. Because of the myth of meritocracy. Because they want to protect their children from global competition. If they can’t keep others out, they can at least push them down.
Waiting is another motif that arises throughout the book — the punitive nature of making someone wait and the power that comes with it. What is so uniquely cruel about making someone wait?
Barthes wrote: “To make someone wait: the constant prerogative of all power, age-old pastime of humanity.” There’s a short segment in A Lover’s Discourse about a lover who is made to wait, and the power we exert each time we make someone wait. What adds to the cruelty of this form of power play is that it takes nothing from the person causing it. And yet it costs the other person everything. It’s also revealing. At the end of Barthes’s segment on waiting, a suitor who has been waiting for 99 days outside a potential lover’s window gets up and walks away. The person who waits is one with need. And after a long, long time, the only people who keep waiting are the ones who can suffer the abjection because they have no choice. Waiting separates the barely desperate from the absolutely broken.
Undoubtedly this is one of the hardest moments in contemporary history for refugees. It looks bleak. What hopes do you have for a more humane Western refugee policy in the coming years?
In the United Kingdom, some asylum officers are actually taking classes in how trauma victims learn stories. I’ve seen asylum officers who go back and recheck a case, racked by guilt. I’ve seen former officers reach out to refugees they knew. I’ve seen asylum officers cry. There is hope because human hearts are involved here. There is hope because the age of corrupt, heartless, self-motivated tycoons will give way to a generation of politicians more concerned with having a humanitarian legacy. That’s the most hopeful thing about Trump’s presidency: future politicians will see what it’s like to be a villain in history. They won’t want that. I hope.
The Ungrateful Refugee is laced with literary references. You yourself are a novelist. How can fiction be an effective tool in telling the refugee story?
It’s possible to lie with facts and to tell the truth with fiction. In fact, truth is the main concern of literary fiction. Good fiction is about choosing details that are so strange and rooted in a singular place and time that the memory clings to them. It’s also about finding quiet moments that, though they may go unseen or unmentioned, permanently alter a life. Charles Baxter calls these moments “undoings.” Fiction opens up the imagination and makes readers empathetic, and beautiful language makes people curious. It keeps them from tiring of the story. So, yes, fiction as a craft is an immensely powerful tool for telling true stories.