The phrase “refugee crisis” evokes a standard set of images. Water-logged dinghies. Flimsy life-jackets. Queues of desperate people squinting in the Mediterranean sun. A three-year-old boy, face down on the beach. An Englishman in pinstripes unveiling a poster: “BREAKING POINT”.
Depending on your values, or which newspapers you read, refugees are all helpless victims or unwelcome hordes. And the tendency to speak in statistics is a failing of even the most sympathetic Europeans.
That’s where Dina Nayeri comes in. Her book, The Ungrateful Refugee, is a memoir-cum-dispatch from the front lines of displacement. She works hard to put names, faces, quirks and favourite recipes to the anonymous numbers we read about – or switch off from.
Nayeri was born in Iran in 1979, the year of the revolution, and at eight years old she fled the new regime with her mother and brother. The former, then a doctor, was a Christian convert in an underground church in Iran. She was repeatedly interrogated, dragged to jail (her husband paid for her release) and threatened with execution by the moral police unless she exposed fellow worshippers.
The family managed to escape by the skin of their teeth – an appropriate phrase, as Nayeri’s father was a dentist and one of his patients worked at the passport office. At the last minute, passports and exit visas were exchanged for free root canal treatment.
After living as refugees in Dubai and Italy, the family was granted asylum in the US in 1989. They arrived in Oklahoma on 4 July, and felt the people waving flags for Independence Day were celebrating their arrival.
Nayeri weaves her own story in with those of refugees in countries and camps along the well-trodden, grim route of modern migration. It is a skill she learned at nine, when living in hotel Barba, an abandoned Italian hotel converted into a refugee camp. “I craved everyone’s stories,” she writes. “I was becoming some later version of myself.”
There was the Afghan grandmother who hid bricks from a nearby construction site under her chador to slowly build herself a secret shower seat; tea with Russian Christians (fellow tea-drinking people); a guitar-strumming Romanian student who would climb up to his married lover’s room – welcome gossip to break up long days of waiting.
Nayeri, who now lives in London and volunteers with refugees, is preoccupied with the “gratitude” escapees are expected to show their new home countries. It’s an instinct she first noticed in her grandmother, who settled in England and has nothing to do with Iranian newcomers (she’s so English she even once politely replied to a phishing scam email: “Dear Microsoft, thank you for your kind letter…”).
Having felt the pressure in the US to shed her Iranian roots, the teenage Nayeri asked “a surgeon to cut me a European nose…dyed my hair chestnut in the bathtub”, and obsessively practised taekwondo as a bid for Harvard (she’d read that excelling in an unusual sport can boost your chances). Princeton accepted her, perpetuating her identity crisis.
Nayeri captures the eponymous “ungrateful refugee” best when she deals in detail. Her horror at discovering sit-down Western toilets, and disappointment at the taste of blue slushies, for example, is vivid, as if straight from the curious mind of an uprooted child. Her yearning for the sour cherries her father would produce from his pocket back in Iran feels the same.
She collects similar gems from others. A couple of Iranian refugees criticised the quality of onions and rice at a camp she visited, much to her delight. One asylum seeker, who arrived in the UK with no change of clothes, repeatedly refused to describe the first cheap shoes he bought himself, from Peacocks, so repulsed was he by their ugliness. She also notes the bizarre plethora of teddy bears pinned up throughout one family’s refugee shelter – they didn’t know what to do with the Western toys so often given by well-meaning donors.
Frustratingly, the narrative built by these “orphan details”, as she describes them, is interrupted by lengthy, repetitive passages on what makes one’s story authentic. These reflect the perfectionism and self-loathing that has coloured her immigrant experience. But while she navigates the dilemma of returning to her past through the current limbo of others, this hand-wringing simply made me impatient for the next story.
For all her uncertainty, Nayeri has found her place. In the lives and living quarters of refugees, using their “orphan details” to humanise a crisis so often portrayed as a footnote in geopolitical upheaval. She should write more of these stories and worry less about the telling.
The Ungrateful Refugee
Canongate, 384pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 10 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in