The ungrateful refugee

In this excerpt from her award-winning memoir, author Dina Nayeri recounts her own journey from Iran to the US, and calls for a reframing of the way we speak to – and about – the displaced.

In a refugee camp, stories are everything. Everyone has one, having just slipped out from the grip of a nightmare. Everyone is idle, without permission to work or run away, reckoning now with a new place in the world. Everyone is a stranger, in need of introduction. And tea is cheap. What better conditions than these to brew a pot, sit on pillows around a low table, and talk?

For two decades, our escape defined me. It dominated my personality and compelled my every decision. By college, half my life had led up to our escape and the other half was spent reliving it, in churches and retreats where my mother made it a hagiographic journey, on college applications where it was a plea, at sleepovers where it was entertainment, and in discussion groups.

Our story was a sacred thread woven into my identity. Sometimes people asked, But don’t a lot of Christians live there? or Couldn’t your mother just say she was Muslim?

It would take me a long time to get over those kinds of questions. They felt like a bad grade, like a criticism of my face and body, an unraveling of that sacred thread: I am rescued cargo; therefore, I am enchanted. I have purpose. With every good work, I repay the universe. If I didn’t have that, then I would be faceless, an ordinary person toiling for what? Soulless middle-class trifles?

I thought of how my first retelling was in an asylum office in Italy: how merciless that with the sweat and dust of escape still on our brows, we had to turn our ordeal into a good, persuasive story or risk being sent back. Then, after asylum was secured, we had to relive that story again and again, to earn our place, to calm casual skeptics. Every day of her new life, the refugee is asked to differentiate herself from the opportunist, the economic migrant.

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This six-day-old baby was rescued as her family tried to cross the Mediterranean. Photo: Hannah Wallace Bowman/MSF.

Like most refugees, after a life-threatening escape, my family and I were compliant, ecstatic, grateful. But we had sustained damage. If the rational mind is a clean road, ours had potholes, pockets of paranoia and fear. Yes, I could summon joy and logic and change. But a single triggering word could trip me up for a day, a week, make me doubt my worth, my new place in this world. Am I a real refugee? The implication burned.

Why do the native-born perpetuate this distinction? Why harm the vulnerable with the threat of this stigma? It took me decades to know: the instinct to protect against competition from a talented horde. To draw a line around a birthright, a privilege.

Unlike economic migrants, refugees have no agency; they are no threat. Often, they are so broken, they beg to be remade into the image of the native. As recipients of magnanimity, they can be pitied. I was a palatable immigrant because I programmed myself with chants: I am rescued cargo. I will prove, repay, transform.

But if you are born in the Third World, and you dare to make a move before you are shattered, your dreams are suspicious. You are a carpetbagger, an opportunist, a thief. You are reaching above your station.

What is escape in such circumstances, and what is just opportunistic migration? Who is a true refugee? It makes me chuckle, this notion that “refugee” is a sacred category, a people hallowed by evading hell. Thus, they can’t acknowledge a shred of joy left behind or they risk becoming migrants again.

"Every day of her new life, the refugee is asked to differentiate herself from the opportunist, the economic migrant."

Modern Iran is a country of refugees making do with small joys, exiled from the pre-revolutionary paradise we knew. With the Iraq war over, their plight is often considered insufficient. Syria is hell. Afghanistan, South Sudan, Eritrea are hell. Iraq is . . . a bit less so? And Iran? What is hell enough for the West to feel responsible, not just as perpetrators of much of the madness, but as primary beneficiaries of the planet’s bounty, who sit behind screens watching, suspicious and limp-fisted, as strangers suffer?

Meanwhile, we assign our least talented, most cynical bureaucrats to be the arbiters of complicated truth, not instructing them to save lives, or search out the weary and the hopeless, but to root out lies, to protect our fat entitlements, our space, at any moral cost—it is a failure of duty.

More infuriating is the word “opportunism,” a lie created by the privileged to shame suffering strangers who crave a small taste of a decent life. The same hopes in their own children would be labeled “motivation” and “drive.”

And while we grumble over what we are owed and how much we get to keep, the displaced wait at the door. They are painters and surgeons and craftsmen and students. Children. Mothers. The neighbor who made the good sauce. The funny girl from science class. The boy who can really dance. The great-uncle who always turns down the wrong street. They endure painful transformation, rising from death, discarding their faces and bodies, their identities, without guarantee of new ones.

Now, thirty years have passed; I have so much to say. The world no longer speaks of refugees as it did in my time. The talk has grown hostile, even unhinged, and I have a hard time spotting, amid the angry hordes, the kind souls we knew, the Americans and the English and the Italians who helped us, who held our hands. I know they’re still out there.

What has changed in three decades? A reframing is in order. I want to make sense of the world’s reaction to us, of a political and historical crisis that our misfortunes have caused. I feel a duty: I’ve lived as an American for years, read Western books. I’ve been both Muslim and Christian.

There are secrets I can show the native-born that new arrivals don’t dare reveal. I’ve wished to say them for thirty years and found it terrifying till now. - PA