Book Review: The Ungrateful Refugee

Reviewed by Andriata Chironda

The Ungrateful Refugee is an exile narrative that includes personal reflection and accounts of others’ stories of flight. Dina Nayeri’s own story tells of how, together with her mother and brother, she fled Iran in the late 1980s. Her family was eventually resettled in the United States. This was after the family faced persistent persecution for apostasy after her mother converted from Islam to Christianity.

The book shows how storytelling is key to formal recognition as a refugee and an important step to social inclusion and acceptance in the receiving country. Refugees must tell compelling stories and supplicate before state, refugee protection officers, and humanitarian organizations.

Nayeri’s account and stories destabilize and critique assumptions and dichotomies that subsist in mainstream discourse about refugees. One assumption is that “unlike economic migrants, refugees have no agency,” that they “can be pitied,” and that they are “rescued cargo” who must continue to “prove, repay, transform.” On the flip side, “if you dare to make a move before you are shattered,” Nayeri writes, “your dreams are suspicious [and]… you are reaching above your station.”

In this dichotomous frame, refugees are compelled to contain their hopes and dreams and perform a particular role: the grateful refugee. They “can’t acknowledge a shred of joy left behind or they risk becoming migrants again.”

However, an “ungrateful refugee” recognizes and escapes this false dichotomy, in life and discourse. Storytelling offers a space for self-determination—to define one’s humanity beyond the confines and limits of categories and saviour tropes—and a means to participate in the new society as equals seeking “friendship, not salvation.”

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You

By Dina Nayeri
Catapult, 2019

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