The most important aspect of this book, as I see it right now, is that Nayeri herself was a refugee. She and her family (her mother and brother) fled Iran when she was eight. They traveled to Saudi Arabia and eventually to Italy where they stayed in a refugee “hostel” until they were granted asylum in America. Nayeri brings a true, resonant voice and emotion of a refugee to stories told to her by other asylum-seekers from Egypt, Afghanistan, and other critical countries.

What I know about refugees is little enough, only from news reports and congress people yelling back and forth about the “worth” of bringing people into the country and granting refugees asylum. What I know about the processes involved in seeking asylum and escaping crisis is even less. Nayeri intends to shed light on refugees and the lives that they live, before and after their escape.

She shares harrowing journeys across oceans and in lorries, she details the different situations (political, social, and economic) that drove people out of their home countries, and she shows that refugees are people too. As obvious as it may seem, there are instances in the current political climate that might illustrate otherwise. From Donal Trump’s assertion that immigrants are largely comprised of killers and thieves, to the GOPs assertion that refugees aren’t in any actual danger and won’t contribute to the domestic economy, it is absolutely necessary to remember that a refugee is a person and deserves the same dignity as any native-born individual.

image of dina nayeri's book "the ungrateful refugee"

This book constantly breaks my heart. Page after page of racist abuse and political turmoil, of native-born hatred towards migrants and refugees, to the basic necessities that are suspended in camps and hostels. It makes me angry and confused that we’ve abandoned people who so desperately need help and that even when we think we’ve been helping that we haven’t. She writes of the donations that refugees receive, and how walls of refugee hostels are covered with teddy bears because donors send copious amounts of bears, even though they’re not needed. “Why aren’t the bear donors told to send calculators or tablets or English workbooks, dictionaries and boxed sets of [books]?” she asks. 

And I stare at the page, realizing that she’s right. Why hadn’t I ever thought about whether or not the donations were useful? Why wasn’t there ever a conversation about the types of donations refugees actually need? Extra-large t-shirts and faded Levi’s jeans are worthless next to personal hygiene items, pencils and workbooks, and tools. Why hasn’t anyone asked the refugees what they want? Why do we all assume that we know what’s best for them?

Nayeri’s purpose is to highlight the kinds of refugees and the places that they come from. She highlights the differences between refugees’ values and their believability and points towards a system that places some situations as more desperate than others, even when both options are terrible. She underscores the value of dignity for a refugee and the determination to show that nothing has changed. 

“The complicated thing is that dignity changes as different needs are met,” Nayeri quotes Paul Hutchings, a humanitarian aid worker. Hutchings established a clothing store and grocery in a refugee camp to give the refugees a sense of “normalcy” and most importantly, choice. “When you arrive from Lesbos, dirty, tired, starving, dignity is that pre-packed package of shampoo, deodorant, eggs, coffee, bread,” Hutchings explains. “…Then, when you’ve showered and slept and cleaned up, that package becomes humiliating. You want your tea, not coffee. You remember you hate eggs. That’s when you want choice.”

You realize, as you read Nayeri’s recounting of her own refugee story and the stories of others, that you really don’t know anything about what it means to be a refugee. You don’t know what they want when they come to a camp, you don’t even know where refugee camps are. You never knew that waiting for asylum can take months and involves long interview processes miles away from where you’re staying at the refugee camp.

The Ungrateful Refugee is a book of realizations and heartbreak, and I intend to finish it and then tell everyone that I know to read it. I will recommend it to my right-wing grandfather who believes that immigrants should only be admitted to the U.S. on the basis of “merit,” and to my friend who believes that refugees should stay in their home country to receive aid there instead of taking advantage of another country’s resources. Because ultimately, their beliefs come down to not understanding and not knowing. They don’t know about the family that spent all of their savings to ride in a lorry for five days, not knowing if they’ll make it to England or be arrested before they’ve crossed the channel. They don’t know about the state of the camps and the lack of viable resources that refugees receive. They don’t know, and Nayeri intends to change that.

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