The Burden of Gratitude: ‘The Ungrateful Refugee’ by Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee (Canongate, 2018)

By Lynnda Wardle

Living in a crumbling Italian hotel-turned-refugee camp, the 8-year old Dina Nayeri witnesses a story as old as time itself. While everyone waits for something to happen – to get their papers, to move on – a love affair begins between a young Romanian student and a married woman. The affair captures the attention of all the residents. It is shocking, risky and sad. When the wife and her lover finally run away together, the husband is left behind – his pride and dignity stolen by their act: “The primary sin of the Romanians was their ingratitude, their inability to sit still and revel in their physical safety.”

Ungrateful Refugee coverNayeri reflects on how the incident unconsciously threads itself through many of her stories and later novels, these characters appearing unexpectedly where the awful limbo of waiting sparks potential for illicit desire and tragedy. Hotel Barba and the people in it become the young writer’s training ground: “I watched people and began to learn their stories: All love ends. Without a country, a fire is quenched, another flares. Limbo is temptation itself – the itch to make life happen.” In the intense love affair that blooms under the watchful eyes of the other refugee residents, she understands something about the nature of escape and the expectations it creates. You are expected to be grateful, to be patient and to ultimately be a good citizen.

Dina and her mother and brother are granted asylum in America in the early 1990s after fleeing the increasingly dangerous situation in Iran, while her father remains behind. This is her first non-fiction work, part memoir and part reportage in which she examines what it means to be a refugee in today’s hostile political environment. At the heart of the book is Nayeri’s concern (as a writer and refugee) with the idea of ‘story’. Who tells the refugee’s story? How do these stories reflect our identities? Whose story is believed? The last question is the most crucial for those traversing the asylum system – how a story is told to the authorities is an act of life or death. How to craft this most important of all stories into its most believable shape? What memories will have the ring of truth (even if they are all true)? It is not the truth of the memory, but whether it is perceived to be true by the asylum official, that brings a positive decision. Iranians like metaphor and symbol but, as she points out, refugees “need to tell that story the English way, or Dutch or American way. Americans enjoy drama; they want to be moved. The Dutch want facts. The English have precedents, stories from each country deemed true that year, that month.” In every story told, authorities look for fault lines, the smallest lapse of memory or discrepancy of detail that can be used to refuse access to safety and a new life.

The book is divided into five sections: escape, camp, asylum, assimilation and cultural repatriation, to reflect waypoints on the refugee journey. In each, she weaves her own personal story with the stories of others she meets along the way: Kambiz, a young Iranian man accused of adultery for befriending a married woman, who kills himself while awaiting deportation; Majid and Farzaneh, who left Iran for Europe with their daughters and crossed the Aegean Sea by boat; Valid and Taraa, who survived threats from the Taliban and were granted asylum in Greece after 15 years on the waiting list.

Then, in 2016, Nayeri undertakes a return journey of her own to the places that had been part of her history as a young refugee – including the crumbling Hotel Barba. She interviews her own family and visits refugee camps in Greece where she speaks to many seeking asylum, immigration lawyers and agency workers. The book becomes a gallery of powerful portraits of the experiences of those fleeing persecution and war, and those who help and support them.

This is not comfortable reading, but it is compelling. In moving,  poetic prose Nayeri unravels this difficult subject, never dodging troubling questions. The ungrateful refugee of the title is an angry jibe at the way in which we ‘welcome’ refugees, particularly in the West. We want them to be grateful, to thank us for sanctuary (which should of course be their human right) and we expect them to continue to be grateful long after they have settled and started their new lives. When do people stop being refugees and become ordinary citizens? And what they are expected to be grateful for (poverty, poor housing, inability to earn a living until they are granted status, etc.) is dreary, discriminatory and dehumanising. She challenges the colonialist narrative that “open doors will benefit the host nation. The time for this outdated colonialist argument has run out: migrants don’t derive their value from their benefit to the Western-born and civilised people don’t ask for résumés from the edge of the grave.”

As Scotland engages with the idea of ‘integration’ and all that this term might mean for ‘New Scots’[1] and the communities that receive them, Nayeri’s book offers an important perspective. We must challenge the expectation of gratitude and ask ourselves: what does ‘welcome from day one’[2] feel and look like for an asylum seeker? Serco’s (the asylum housing provider in Glasgow) recent decision to change the locks on the homes of 300 asylum seekers in Glasgow, potentially making them street homeless, is an act of open hostility – how must this feel to someone who has fled persecution and is seeking to make a new life here? The ability to earn a living and have the dignity of employment needs to be part of the welcome we offer.

As Dina explained[3]: “I’m writing The Ungrateful Refugee because the world is regressing: as I watch the news, I think of how necessary it is to show refugees as they are, the full arc of their story, in ways that they’ve hidden from the native-born out of a misplaced sense of gratitude. I don’t want to show how refugees contribute to their host countries; I want to show instead how they become enmeshed in a community, how they live, what they suffer, how they love and are loved by the native-born. I want to show how a single moment of displacement can shape everything that comes after, and how, in the West, the label ‘refugee’ can become a permanent siphon of identity and power. Most of all, I want to give the world a new, complete narrative of resettlement that doesn’t assume (despite brushes with joy and community) that the story ends happily the moment asylum is won.”

Challenging our own ‘feel-good’ interventions when meeting people from refugee backgrounds is difficult but necessary. Do these actions truly benefit the person we are helping? The myth of ‘Scottish exceptionalism’ – that Scotland is somehow more welcoming and less prejudiced than the English, recently highlighted in No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland,[4] should also be examined from the perspective of those seeking asylum. The danger of this myth is that we welcome refugees because they are ‘good for us’, and perpetuate the idea that immigration is positive because of the economic benefit it brings the host community. Nayeri’s book urges a more humanitarian response – we should welcome people because it is the humane thing to do without any expectation of gratitude.

Dina Nayeri is appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Nick Thorpe, ‘Seeking Justice and a Home’
Thu 22 Aug 12:15 – 13:15, Spark Theatre on George Street

[1] Scottish Government. New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018 -2011. Scottish Government, 2018

[2]We believe that refugees and asylum seekers should be welcomed, supported and integrated into our communities from day one. The New Scots refugee integration strategy 2018-2022 sets out a vision for a welcoming Scotland where refugees and asylum seekers are able to rebuild their lives from the day they arrive.” From New Scots; refugee integration strategy 2018-2022, p.11


[4] Davidson, N (eds) et al. No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland. Edinburgh, Luath Press, 2018


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