The Ungrateful Refugee

I just finished reading Dina Nayeri’s book, The Ungrateful Refugee. It was published around this time last year, and it’s been on my list for even longer than that. The subject matter — refugee resettlement in Europe and North America — is a key area of interest for me. It’s something that I care about intellectually and morally. Furthermore, I’ve read several other works by the author, so I knew that this book would be well-written.

Yet oddly enough, I didn’t pre-order the book. I didn’t even check it out from my local library when I first saw that it was available. Instead of rushing to read what I can now verify to be an excellent book, I dragged my feet.

I think I hesitated because I am personally acquainted with the author. (We were in a writing group together in Amsterdam). And because, I think, I was subconsciously afraid of making an appearance in the book.

A Personal Interlude

Dina and I were friends. We saw each other every Monday evening, at our writer’s group. We hosted each other for dinners with our spouses and other friends from the group. And most personal of all, we critiqued each other’s writing. That notwithstanding, even though I’m not the most intuitive person, I sensed that Dina and I had an uneasy relationship.

For one thing, I was grossly under-qualified to be the facilitator for our writing group. And Dina was perhaps the most qualified — or at least the most ambitious. My minor in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University did not stack up well against her advanced degrees from Princeton and Harvard. But for some reason, we never discussed the possibility of changing roles.

Dina and I also had some interesting conversations about religion during our time together in Amsterdam. She still self-identified as a Christian when we first met, though again even my limited intuition informed me that there was inner conflict about that identity. I remember she admired her brother’s church in New York City. But I also remember a time she alluded to unhealthy pressures about dating and relationships from her faith community in college. And I further remember that Dina didn’t seem particularly interested to engage in spiritual pursuits in Amsterdam, whereas that was my whole reason for being in the city — so I think we just felt a disconnect on that level.

More than anything, though, I felt a subtle sense of vague aggression from Dina from time to time. Some of this was probably just a personality thing. Some of it came from the fact that our first month of interaction happened to fall during a period when our writing group was dealing with a particularly contentious case of plagiarism and sexual harassment involving two other members of the group. And some of the tension — I believe this book confirmed — came from our demographically-assigned roles in the broader narrative of Dina’s life.

Back to Reviewing The Ungrateful Refugee

Nayeri fled Iran with her mother and brother when she was ten years old. She bounced from the United Arab Emirates to Italy to United Kingdom to the United States — finally settling in Oklahoma. And like so many other refugees, her family had to start over in an inhospitable environment. Even though the author’s mother was highly educated in Iran, she had a hard time finding good jobs in the United States. Classmates and teachers made ill-informed assumptions about the family and acted out of those prejudices. The Church in Oklahoma functioned very differently from the (underground) Church in Iran. Social pressures led to psychological pressures, and even though Nayeri would be categorized as a “success story” by most casual observers, it was a very painful and perilous process.

Nayeri used her own story as a springboard to sharing the story of other refugees who are making their way to Europe and North America right now. She interviews refugees and legal experts to provides facts and feelings about the situation. And she contends — rather convincingly — that they’ve got an even more difficult journey than she did. Still, the book is not a broad survey of geopolitics. It’s a quest for identity and inclusion. Consequently, it feels like an important book for our times.

I loved the honesty of this book. By far the most honest writing I’ve ever read from the author. But it wasn’t just blasting out truth-rays to smite all the people of power and privilege. It was sincere self-examination. It was humble. And I think that may be the most powerful kind of writing there is.

In the end, I think that I did make an appearance in the book. Not by name, or even by pseudonym. But the circumstances of refugees depicted throughout the book prompted my own self-examination. The author’s approach to the subject welcomed a similar approach from me, as a reader. It shed a light on my own complicity in the systems of racism, power, privilege, and international insensitivity to the needs of the world. It left me feeling convicted, but also hopeful.

Conclusion

I’m going to reach out to Dina personally, to let her know how much I appreciated the book.

For everyone else, though, I just want to say that I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore issues of racism, power, privilege, and identity. I think I’m going to be reading a lot of these sorts of books to delve into these sorts of themes this summer. And I hope others will, too.

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