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Alum’s new book gives voice to the displaced

Alum Dina Nayeri came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iran at age ten. Her new book “The Ungrateful Refugee” – a finalist for this year’s Kirkus Prize – illuminates the experience of asylum seekers and other immigrants. 
Dina Nayeri
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Dina Nayeri (NYO 01-03) had already made a name for herself as an author and essayist before this year. Her novel “Refuge” was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and another novel, “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” was published in more than 20 countries.

But it was a 2017 article she wrote for The Guardian that launched her into the public eye. “The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay’” was shared more than 100,000 times. It had clearly struck a chord.

That article became the basis for Dina’s nonfiction debut in September. “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You” was critically acclaimed and a nonfiction finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize.

We recently caught up with her to talk about the book, which weaves her personal story with first-hand accounts of others to bring the refugee experience to life.

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What was your motivation behind writing this book?

Becoming a mother in late 2015 and then watching public opinion shift against migrants and refugees was a huge catalyst for me. I became aware of how the attitudes of the world’s most privileged and secure people had changed. They had forgotten their duty to the outcasts, the suffering. It was so different from the American atmosphere in 1989 when my family arrived, to an undeniable sense of American duty and pride in the community. But slowly as the tides changed, there was a cold feeling that my welcome was tainted, and an old familiar fear that I thought I had put away. I began to worry for my daughter. And I decided it was time to speak out about the state of things, and to do so as me, without the veil of fiction.

“The Ungrateful Refugee” is non-fictional, but you’ve addressed this topic in your novels as well. I suppose both involve crafting characters—what are the challenges of bringing people to life on the page, either in fiction or nonfiction?

One of my favorite essays on writing is Philip Roth’s “Writing About Jews,” which he wrote in the early sixties in response to allegations that his flawed Jewish protagonists encouraged anti-Semitism. Roth argued that to prioritize the non-Jewish gaze so much that you take dimension away from Jewish characters is actually playing right into anti-Semitic goals because it robs Jewish people of the opportunity to be fully realized humans.

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Dina with Paul Hutchings, co-founder of Refugee Support Europe, at Katsikas Camp on mainland Greece, where Dina was volunteering and writing her book

Nowadays, even progressive voices don't grant full humanity to migrants because it means accepting that they aren't saintly. The truth is that not all migrants are boons to the economy: some are sick and dying, many are traumatized, almost all need help, at least in the beginning. And that shouldn’t matter. There are higher-order duties at stake when we open our doors–it isn’t about how we luckier-born might benefit. We owe each person the possibility of being a flawed individual–not just in what we offer them, but in how we speak about them in the media. Nowadays, there are moments when I feel uncomfortable writing flawed immigrant characters, ones that aren’t so likable, because I worry I’m adding fuel to the fire. But I remind myself that no other kind of character is worth writing. Good or bad, wooden characters add nothing to our understanding of each other.

What are some of the things that refugees deal with that many of us aren’t aware of?

There’s the agony of waiting in camps, not knowing if you’ll be accepted in a month or three years. There’s also the lifelong struggle of assimilation and the private pain of moving further every day from the home you knew. Some of these struggles have parallels in a settled Western life, and that’s what I hoped to highlight in this book: that it is very possible for the native-born to relate to some of the things that refugees hide from them. They hide these because they’re ashamed and full of gratitude, and because they are in a strange place trying to communicate in a strange language and culture. Often, they’ve fallen far in socioeconomic status. All this has a paralyzing effect on refugees, as it would on anyone. But the native-born are capable of understanding. We’ve all been made to wait by someone more powerful. We’ve all had to change ourselves to fit our communities. And we’ve all been disbelieved now and then. So it’s not so terribly difficult to imagine and empathize.

One of the things you discuss in the book is refugees’ struggle to convey the required information to asylum officers, often with their credibility coming into question. Can you talk about that?

Asylum can take years, and often, it has a lasting, damaging effect on the psyche. The trauma of not being believed is a huge, complicated topic that I cover at length in my book. Storytelling is entirely cultural—as are truth, credibility, and likeability. Refugees have no access to the kind of narrative and persuasive tools it takes to give asylum officers what they need. They are often accused of lying because of human error: they don’t remember a detail, or their memory falters, or they hide things that are shameful, like rape. Most refugees are dealing with trauma and shame from torture, their memories are damaged, and they have many reasons to hold back.

On the other hand, asylum officers are trained to root out lies. They discard expert testimonies. For example, doctors at Freedom from Torture keep sending the UK Home Office reports and memos about how trauma heightens sensory detail in memory but destroys contextual detail—and yet the asylum officers keep basing rejections on tiny contextual inconsistencies; they disregard expert verified torture scars. They operate under the assumption that most people would do anything to get into their country, with the consequence that refugee narratives are often disbelieved, and forced to adhere to a standard of proof far higher than the one legally required.

In your book, you address pejorative concepts such as the “good” immigrant and dehumanizing metaphors such as “the swarm”. How do you challenge these notions?

Writing fiction has taught me that truth and lies aren’t just about facts. The biggest lie of the refugee crisis is the use of words like “flood” or “swarm,” which are the absolute wrong images if you really study the numbers. In George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, he argues that the English language is dying because people are misusing words to distract from their lazy thinking. This habit makes us incapable of original, nuanced, and rigorous thought. Lazy thinking also shuts out the possibility of true empathy, the kind of empathy that weighs each word, knowing that meaning changes with culture, with context, and with each person.

For those seeking refuge in a foreign country, assimilation can be difficult. What are some universal things that transcend borders, languages, or cultures and help to alleviate that divide?

Curiosity. Imagination. Love. Sport. And, of course, there are many more things that are cultural and tied to language and countries, but are so easy to learn and to embrace so that the goal isn’t transcending culture but enlarging the cultural influences that we draw from. Food, humor, community. And, of course, at the intersection of the cultural and the universal sits literature and storytelling: everything that enriches life, whether culturally determined or not, is contained in our collective literature.

What do you want readers to come away with after reading your book?

I would like people to open their eyes to the notion that people of all abilities are born in every country and that if most of the world’s innovations come from the West, it’s because they have access to most of the world’s health and educational resources.

When I was a student at Harvard Business School, I heard Warren Buffett describe the “Original Position”, from the Rawlsian Theory of Justice. To paraphrase, he said, what system would you choose for the world if you had to take a bet on which body you'd be born into? The statistics say you're most likely to be a poor person from China, the United States, or India. So, if you were given the chance to create a system before you knew where you would be born, you would probably want to minimize suffering and inequality. You’d want to eliminate the chance you’d be born into hunger and pain and poverty. That’s what I want people to get out of "The Ungrateful Refugee."

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If you would like to donate to a nonprofit, here are a few that Dina suggests.

The Young Center, which helps young people at the border with crucial legal advice and basic needs

Refugee Support Europe, which helps those in European camps find dignity and purpose

Freedom from Torture, which helps torture survivors support their cases and to heal through art and therapy

Host Nation UK, which helps UK refugees find friends and a community


Dina speaks with Christiane Amanpour: “Refugees need dignity, not shame”

Dina discusses her book on France 24

Dina’s biography

This piece was planned in September 2019 for December publication.