In April 2017, I read The Guardian long-read article “The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay’”. A sepia photograph in profile filled up the screen as I clicked on the link. It was the photograph of a young woman – beautiful, confident, a hint of a smile on her lips. The essay expressed, in eloquent prose, the vulnerabilities behind that confidence. It is one of the most powerful essays I have ever read. And long after I had read it, shared it on Facebook and in class with my students, I remembered it.
Some images from it still remain in my mind: a door being jammed on the little finger of a six-year-old immigrant by cruel schoolboys in London, with the girl being rushed to hospital with the dislodged part of the finger wrapped in a tissue paper. An 80-year-old Indian man pumping his fist in the air with joy in Oklahoma at having finally attained American citizenship. An Iranian asylum seeker in Amsterdam immolating himself in the city’s main square to prove a point.
But above all, I remember this sentence: “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks”. In saying it, the author was not just claiming the right of refugees, but, more importantly, stressing the duty of the host. Here was an unapologetic reminder of one of the fundamental duties of being a human being.
Following that article, in the wake of the publication of its author Dina Nayeri’s second novel, Refuge, I read most of her pieces that were online in the next two years, in the The New Yorker, on Granta, and recently again in The Guardian and Granta – about her childhood in Isfahan, her doctor parents, her mother’s conversion to Christianity and the risk that entailed for the family, their escape from Iran, brief stay in Dubai, then in a refugee hostel in a dilapidated hotel near Rome, their eventual asylum and citizenship in America, her hatching a plan as a teenager to get into Harvard through excelling in sports (she had landed in Princeton instead, but went to Harvard later), her marriage to – and divorce from – a French citizen in Europe, her return to America to study at Iowa. All written with admirable candour and in lucid prose.
That whole trajectory is gathered in the book, The Ungrateful Refugee. It is divided into five segments – “Escape”, “Camp”, “Asylum”, “Assimilation”, and “Cultural Repatriation” – covering the entire arc of the refugee experience. It combines Nayeri’s own life story with other refugee experiences which she came to know through her involvement, after her relocation to London, with organisations like Refugee Support Europe, among others.
Dignity and shame
Central to the book are the notions of dignity and shame. How refugees are hounded by a sense of shame that is inflicted upon them by states, organisations and other people; and how enormously difficult it is to salvage one’s dignity in the face of that onslaught – for months, years, at times decades.
Nayeri’s mother epitomises that struggle right from the beginning. At Hotel Barba, we are told, the refugees scrambled for donated clothing and were given coupons which could be redeemed for snacks. “Maman never bothered with either offering,” Nayeri writes, “not because we didn’t need these things, but because you can only accept so much charity before you lose sight of who you once were”.
She never lost sight of who she was – a qualified doctor who wanted to give her children an education, no matter what the circumstances: Hence, she would spend entire afternoons rubbing out used exercise books so that the children could write on them, and make them attend an English homeschool a hour away by bus, devising an elaborate plan to ensure that they didn’t miss their free lunch because of this.
Lunches at camp would be wrapped for dinner and fresh dinners saved for next day’s lunches. “No matter what was served for dinner” she tells us, “Maman would put it inside a sandwich... and hang the sandwiches in plastic bags over the balcony where they might cool and survive the morning bus ride to Rome.”
One never forgets things like that. Even years after Nayeri had earned her dignity, vestiges remained:
“There have been days, months, when I’ve eaten meals provided by charities, governments, good people. In total, these days have made up a sliver of my life and yet, after decades of eating well and returning favours, I struggle to accept a cup of coffee. At such times, my behaviour is correct (I mean Western) and I accept, but a fingertip to my neck would give me away. There are private things only the pulse can verify: love, pain, illness.”
Kindness and justice warriors
In the course of her activist work with refugee support organisations, Nayeri meets several generous souls who are devoted to helping refugees or taking up cudgels on their behalf. Some of them stand out in the book: Paul Hutchings, Frank van Haren, Ahmed Pouri.
The aspect of logistics in a refugee’s life in a camp – the actual day-to-day living – is brought home to us when Nayeri visits one such in Greece, in the company of Paul Hutchings (co-founder of Refugee Support Europe, based in London), who devises ever more innovative ways of dispensing kindness; while we are enlightened on some of the thorny procedural aspects to do with the refugee’s legal identity – the intimidating interviews with immigration officers forever on the lookout for a lie, the difficulty of being able to say a “convincing” story, the long arm of international law that never works in favour of the dispossessed – in Nayeri’s interactions, in Amsterdam, with asylum lawyer Frank van Haren, and Ahmed Pouri, a “passionate advocate for the displaced”.
In Nayeri’s narrative of some of those interactions, we get new insights into the life of the man whom I remember from her 2017 Guardian article – the one who immolated himself in Dam Square in 2011. She ends that narrative thus:
“Kambiz Roustayi died at thirty-six, having wasted twelve of his strongest, hungriest years, the years when people crave to build and to give of themselves to each other, to their communities – years for work and family. Why did he choose to die this way? Maybe he wanted to remain in the country’s psyche, to be a part of their news, to appear in art installations and writings, to be remembered each April for a time. He had been so forgotten. In his darkest nights, Kambiz had grappled with those who had cast him off. Is it so hard to imagine that he wanted to burn his image into their memories?”
It is quite likely that, like Kambiz, this book will leave a mark on the reader’s memory.
Excerpted with permission from The Ungrateful Refugee, Dina Nayeri, Canongate.