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The Ungrateful Refugee: Overcrowded boats, stormy seas, tented camps

Book review: Dina Nayeri’s book is an excellent addition to the literature of human rights

The Ungrateful Refugee
The Ungrateful Refugee
Author: Dina Nayeri
ISBN-13: 978-1786893451
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £16.99

Dina Nayeri’s book is one of those that must be read by all who care about the survival of human solidarity. In the US, the president viciously attacks four young congresswomen of colour in explicitly racist terms. Then, at a rally, Trump singles out Ilhan Omar who came to the US as a child refugee from war in Somalia, and incites his credulous followers to such a pitch that they chant “Send her back!” The Republican Party does not rebuke him.

In Italy, another young woman, German ship’s captain, Carola Rackete, faces imprisonment for rescuing 40 African migrants in the Mediterranean, and breaking through a naval blockade to land them on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The interior minister, Matteo Salvini, calls her an outlaw and her boat a pirate ship.

Nayeri’s wonderfully illuminating book is prefaced by several quotes including one from Geert Wilders, the Dutch chairman of the Freedom Party. His message to refugees in 2015 was, “No Way. You will not make the Netherlands home.”

There are more than 25 million refugees in the world. Nayeri, born in 1979, the year of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, had to flee along with her mother and brother as a schoolgirl after her mother was threatened with execution by the morality police.


A doctor, she had become a Christian, attending an underground church but with a crucifix swinging in her car. Leaving behind Nayeri’s father, the family made a complicated series of journeys that brought them first to Dubai, then to Italy, then the US. Her mother worked in factories and was accused of leaving Iran for a better life.

Becoming a mother to a dark little girl with a mischievous smile in the age of Brexit and Trump terrifies me

Nayeri now lives in London, where she is married and has a child. “Becoming a mother to a dark little girl with a mischievous smile in the age of Brexit and Trump terrifies me,” she admits. “Whatever her gifts, she’s going to get herself into trouble in this hateful world slowly coalescing around us.”

Indeed the experience of making a home around her daughter is what inspired her to write this book: “It’s time I made sense of my own story and identity so that she can be certain of hers,” she says.

The Ungrateful Refugee explores what it means to be forced to flee from home and out into a world that may be very far from welcoming.

“A tortured mind, a terror of a wasted future, is what enables you to abandon home, it’s a prerequisite for stepping into a dinghy, for braving militarised mountains,” she writes.

Many die in the attempt, drowned when traffickers abandon them in overcrowded boats on stormy seas, frozen or suffocated in shipping containers or in the holds of planes. Some who are captured on borders are sent back to death or imprisonment. Those who get through often enter a limbo in which they are tortured by endless waiting, endless interrogations, grinding poverty.

Refugees live in vast tented camps, in shacks, tents, metal boxes, abandoned institutions from other eras hastily re-opened. They risk becoming “people so displaced they can’t even imagine the landscape of their future”. This waiting is not incidental. It is a test, an abuse.

Nayeri quotes Roland Barthes: “To make someone wait: the constant prerogative of all power.” Like all forms of torture, it distorts the ability to discern any sense of normality. “You become dramatic. You mean to scold, you shout. You mean to tap, you punch. Waiting amplifies your responses.” A year of waiting can age a person by a decade.

It is a life of constant stress. Nayeri paraphrases an Iranian refugee she calls Kambiz, stranded in Holland, awaiting the decisions of others. “The future brings anxiety because you don’t belong and can’t move forward. The past brings depression, because you can’t go home, your memories fade and everything you know is gone. ‘I’m standing on a thin border between past and future, waiting for madness to come.’”

Nayeri has already written two novels and is a gifted weaver of stories. The Ungrateful Refugee tells the author’s own story along with those of others she has met on her journeys, or of those she met when she set out to research what happens to people in the countries in which they seek refuge.

Sometimes in life, impossible things happen and they are nonetheless true

She does not just change names and identifying details – these are not people who can presume they are safe – she also dramatises stories, researching the facts and contexts, then bringing them to life “using sensory details I found and imagined”. It works brilliantly and there is never any doubt as to the authenticity of the narrative.

“What is a true refugee?” she asks. She knows from her own life that the reasons for flight can be complex and muddy, and that some of the decisions taken along the way may be irrational or contradictory, events random and hard to believe: “Sometimes in life, impossible things happen and they are nonetheless true,” she notes.

However, immigration officials are trained to spot inconsistencies and to find in them reasons to refuse asylum. “We assign our least talented, most cynical bureaucrats to be the arbiters of complicated truth, not instructing them to save lives, or to search out the weary and the hopeless, but to root out lies, to protect our fat entitlements, our space, at any moral cost,” she writes. “It is a failure of duty.”

When she meets Hamid, who self-harms, she wants to shake him and tell him to keep himself undamaged: “The Americans and the English, they like triumphant stories . . . they want to find excellent people, luminaries, pluck them out of hell, knead them flawless . . . they want to congratulate themselves for something remarkable.”

In the Netherlands she meets Ahmed Pouri, known as a refugee whisperer because he helps those seeking refuge “to present themselves the European way”. Refugees, Naderi finds, spend their lives battling to be believed.

“For centuries, the civilised world has respected ‘the right of asylum’,” she writes. “It is an ancient juridical concept recognising the right of the imperilled to sanctuary. Historically . . . every western government has respected and understood this principle – until now.”

She finds it heartbreaking that innocent people flee in terror from their beloved homes, comforting themselves that “the civilised world is kind”. This book is an excellent addition to the contemporary literature of human rights.

Susan McKay

Susan McKay, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author. Her books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground