What Do We Owe to the Refugees of the World?
Dina Nayeri on being an ungrateful refugee and fighting against injustice
To be clear, there is never a good—read, a safe—time to be visibly identified as “foreign.” My family and I built ourselves and our life stories as successes, as hardworking people who made everything from nothing, with help from no one; people who do things “the right way” and so have earned our American dreams. Sheltered under diminishing tropes like “the good immigrant” and “model minority,” we even managed to wear the word “refugee” publicly, and proudly, as a badge that showed the measure of our triumph. That is, until more wars brought more people to our country’s doorstep, and suddenly, distinctions between “refugee” and “asylum seeker” and “economic migrant” became a matter of safety. Then, all those words became one consuming threat, and we were brought back to the beginning to prove our exceptionalism and gratitude and worth. Have we not done enough?
Many of us have resigned ourselves to a lifetime of the sporadic “Go back to your country!” shouted from a passing car, or by an angry stranger itching for confrontation, but when the roaring chorus of “Send her back!” grew unbearably loud, I reached out to one writer whose words had always comforted when my community felt under siege.
I spoke with Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, a week after the attacks on Representative Ilhan Omar by both Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. Our conversation offered me safe haven from the virulence and exhaustive “otherizing”; more than that, it illuminated all the quiet, painful truths that, in their silence, my own family had hoped to erase.
Nayeri’s masterful storytelling in The Ungrateful Refugee cuts into the marrow of a profoundly human experience. She brings readers past the boundary of personal space and safe distance into uncomfortably close proximity. Through personal stories, including her own, Nayeri invites us to sit in the despair, anxiety, restlessness, and—contemptuously enough, the pride—of people whose lives are separated from ours not by worth or merit but simply by circumstance.
Frances Nguyen: The rhetoric we’ve been hearing against refugees lately isn’t anything new. It revolves around the inherent expectations of debt, worthiness, and, as you’ve written, “the steady refrain of gratitude.” How does your book—and the people you’ve interviewed—respond to these expectations?
Dina Nayeri: The book drops the reader in the middle of some really tough stories, and challenges them to understand the private calculations vulnerable people make every day. There are also philosophical challenges: larger social justice questions that we often ignore about our world because we’re so focused on making things better for ourselves. Often, we ask, “What can immigrants do for our economy,” instead of the more important, “What do we owe to the outcasts of the world?” It’s really a question of where you draw your philosophical baselines. The whole point of thinking deeply about ourselves, about our lives and our privileges, is to challenge where the baseline has been drawn, and to make it fairer, more just. We have an obligation to question the way our systems are set up in the first place.
The problem with, “You’re being ungrateful; why did we let you in?” is that there’s no examination of, “How did I end up here? Do I deserve to be here? Did I do anything to earn this?” It doesn’t take much to realize that there is no justifiable reason, no moral reason.
FN: You subvert a lot of unspoken assumptions about what to expect from a “refugee writer.” I assume some people approach your work expecting a salvation story, which you refuse them. You discuss both the imperative nature and expectation of storytelling in your book, but there’s probably a particular story that most people are after. Who gets our salvation story, if anyone?
DN: The story belongs to those who’ve lived it. That in itself is difficult already. For example, my salvation story belongs to me and my mother and my brother, because the three of us went through it together. And already, there is enough turmoil in trying to decide which of our memories and which points of focus are important, without having outsiders coming in to claim the story for themselves (which happened a lot when I was young). I think it was actually almost easier to hand the story over to them at first, to say, “Okay, you can have this is. This is a story of how Jesus saved us for you, the Christian community.” We crafted it in a way that they would love, and then we left it alone. It took a few decades of processing for all three of us to claim different narratives: different incidents we witnessed and kept in our hearts, details we nurtured, realities that took shape—but that’s how memory and memoir work.
Another issue is the notion that, immediately, your salvation becomes your story. One of the first things I wanted to do as a teenager was get myself another story. I immersed myself in taekwondo. I thought if I could win a national championship, I’d get into a terrific university, and I’d no longer be a “refugee girl”; I’d be a taekwondo champion. I’ve always gone searching for the next big identity. It always has to be bigger than the salvation story in order to overpower it. I think many refugees search for that.
FN: I’m from a diasporic community of former Vietnamese refugees who are roughly 40 years removed from the war that made them so, and I see many still struggling to divorce themselves from that singular story. Some are now caught in this narrative conflict of “us” versus “them” and trying to clearly demarcate that line between the refugees “that we were” and refugees today. As far as you’ve experienced, or found from writing this book, when does a refugee stop being a refugee?
DN: I don’t think you ever do. The general arc of it is that, at the very beginning, you’re desperate to be called a “refugee” because that means being believed. Then at some point, you find yourself again, you find your identity [again], and you make a home in a new place. And as you start to understand the significance of this label that has defined, maybe, your childhood or young adulthood—and that it has remade your life—you realize that you will wear that label forever.
I think it is important for people like me, who are 30 years out, to wear that label proudly so that we can show the hostile native-born what we do, but also to show the abject hopeless migrant that there is life on the other side of this; it just takes a really long time. The road is very, very long.
FN: You tackle language and narrative framing in the book. Not only do you confront the weaponization of words like “swarm,” “deluge,” and “flood,” but you also challenge the reductive framing that well-meaning people use, however unintentional, to defend migrants and refugees. I hate to use war terminology here, but it feels like we’re in a battle of narrative and language right now, and we can’t afford to get either of them wrong.
DN: These questions of language, and the language of hostility and aggression, they are not of the responsibility of the newly arrived. Those people are struggling for their lives. They shouldn’t have to defend their existence; that’s our responsibility—you and I, the people who’ve been 30 years out. [And] the way we defend them matters. It’s really important not to repeat the horrible metaphors like “swarm” or “flood”—words that don’t represent the truth. It’s also important to not just say, “Look, they contribute to our economy in this or that way,” because that legitimizes that metric. Contribution to the economy is not the only metric. We need to take people back, again, to the original position: Why do you, as a native-born British or American or French person, get so much of the world’s resources, and the person born in Syria doesn’t even get an education? The world we have built is unfair, and I think it is the responsibility of anyone in a position of comfort and relative privilege, like we all are, to fight against that. We are not going to appease you by telling you how immigrants will benefit your bank account. That’s ugly.
FN: The converse to this storytelling is silence. In the last two years especially, refugees have been called upon to defend themselves, but given that so many stories out there now hardly seem to scratch the surface of indifference to our humanity, I understand opting into that silence. What are your thoughts on that? Is anyone obligated to speak up or out?
DN: For me, this was clarified a bit as I started visiting camps in Greece and interviewing asylum seekers and migrants across Europe. Many people have stopped engaging. And there is a question of “refugee” as a title. At the beginning, claiming you’re a refugee is a matter of being believed. If they don’t call you that, then they don’t believe your story. But then, after you’ve settled, you want to shed that title, you want to shed that label. You just want to go back to who you used to be: a professor, doctor, craftsman, whoever.
Unfortunately, the people we most need to hear from are the ones who are living it now, the ones in camps, the ones on the verge of escape, but they’re enduring a horrible, traumatic experience. It feels like no one cares that they’re left alone in the world. It’s a great burden for them to bear and they need allies.
FN: You’ve written at length about shame before, and I find how you speak about it really heartbreaking because there is something devastatingly familiar about what you share. I’ve seen its pervasiveness with my own parents and my aunts and uncles. How do you confront shame in the book specifically?
DN: One thing that I set up in my own story in the first chapter is just how very proud we were and what a good life we had. Then, suddenly, everything changed because of politics, because of my mother’s religion. When we went into the refugee camp, we knew we had fallen hard in the world. We were in a country where we didn’t speak the language, where my mother’s degrees impressed no one, and we didn’t have the same trappings of our life in Iran. We were poor, and I felt my worth very much diminished.
As I traveled through camps last year listening to stories, I realized that rarely do people say, “I’m ashamed.” It comes out in the way they tell their story. It colors every detail: what they choose to say about home and about the journey away from home; the changes they see in their children. Their descriptions are full of humiliation, full of the realization that their identity is forever lost.
There was one camp I visited that was adjacent to a beautiful tourist area with a boardwalk. I asked, “Why don’t you go walk on the boardwalk? It’s free to do that, and it’s beautiful.” One of the refugees said, “And what do I do when my kid begs for a gelato? I don’t want to go and be constantly reminded of what I don’t have, to have my child be reminded of what I can’t give him.”
Becoming a refugee is years and years of trying to push the blanket down on your feet, and having it come up short. It’s not just the displacement and the loss of identity. Think of the infrastructure of your life: you have your home, your health insurance, your credit card, the place you get your coffee—that infrastructure has taken years to put down. As soon as you have none of that, it’s truly unmooring.
One man pointed out that in the camps, instead of roots, they give you cement shoes. They hold you in place, as roots would, but you can’t grow. You can barely move. Cement shoes are not the same as roots.
FN: Who do you think—and this is an intentionally provocative question—is left to convince, and what is there left to owe?
DN: I just prefer not to keep track of that, because there are so many people we will never convince. And I think it’s better to count the allies and the helpers. This book is full of [the] great feats of the helpers. That’s what surprised me the most. I thought, “Wow, look how many people are on our side. How many good-hearted, wonderful people that embrace your story as it is, take it to heart, and want to help.” That’s the most moving thing about being human, this staggering capacity for kindness.
You asked, “What do we have left to owe?” That implies that there’s an end to the debt at some point. And while the subtitle of my original essay is, “We have no debt to repay,” I meant something very specific. I meant that, just because you were rescued after having been born in an unlucky place, it doesn’t mean that you have to posture your gratitude to the people who were born lucky; you have no debt to those people.
However, there’s another question of our larger debt as humans: what do we have left to owe each other? Well, everything, forever! If you think of it that way, as a never-ending giving of your skills, then so much clicks into place. If you have a talent, you owe it to the world to improve yourself until you give the world the very best version of that talent. It reframes everything, even the way we look at our personal goals, doesn’t it?
FN: Is there anything in this book that you hope to lay to rest for good?
DN: I really just want people to understand how important dignity is, and how important pride is, and how the biggest losses along the displacement route aren’t houses, or people’s sources of income, or food—although those are [all] vital. It’s important not to damage what remains of a person’s dignity when they arrive on your soil. We should try to minimize further damage to immigrants and refugees, for example, like making a distinction between “economic migrants” and “refugees.” The way we make them wait in camps for years; the way we make them reshape their story into Western stories; or how we demand assimilation theater—all of these things are humiliating, and they rob you of your identity. There are things the native-born can do to make it easier, to make it more dignified. That’s what I want them to get from the book.