Refugees are modern Scheherazades. They trade their story for another chance at life. The sultan is an indifferent asylum officer behind her desk, a well-meaning charity worker or a hostile native citizen. But so much truth goes untold.
The exhausting expectations of gratitude, the long wait that douses your inner fire, the battle for dignity and the big impact of small acts… Iranian American novelist Dina Nayeri lifts the veil in The Ungrateful Refugee, her first memoir, weaving her personal story with reporting in Greek refugee camps.
02:18 Why she made the move from fiction to nonfiction
05:07 How the refugee experience has changed from the 80s
07:30 A culture of disbelief in immigration offices
09:54 When refugees become storytellers to security guards
14:18 How culture changes storytelling
17:21 What you lose when you wait
21:51 How womanhood and refuge interplay
24:19 Why do we make a difference between political refugees and economic migrants?
26:46 Stop asking what refugees can do for us
28:45 Why dignity matters
31:21 What are we entitled to as human beings? Why aren't others?
33:16 Rawls' original position and American exceptionalism
36:54 The US president changed, not the system
38:53 What individuals can do to help
40:19 Gratitude is private
44:09 Political engagement is assimilation
📚 The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri. Canongate, 2020. Find it here.
👀 The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay.’ By Dina Nayeri in The Guardian. 2017.
📸 Anna Leader
Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.
Dina Nayeri: [00:00:00] There's just so much that the displaced don't tell the native-born and it's all around dignity and shame.
[00:00:07] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:07] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol, and this is Borderline.
[00:00:21] This week, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Dina Nayeri. She is a novelist, Iranian American. She arrived from Iran as a child, as a refugee, after her mother converted to Christianity and was proselytizing in the eighties, in Iran, so shortly after the revolution, and that did not go over well. That's the story that she tells in her latest book, The Ungrateful Refugee, What immigrants never tell you.
[00:00:48] This is a book that I want to put in everyone's hands who works in immigration, everyone who decides the fate of immigrants and also every well-meaning native born citizen, as she puts it, the ones to whom, as she writes, there is so much that the displaced don't tell.
[00:01:05] Our conversation was long, over an hour. I cut it down to 45 minutes. It's a bit longer than your average episode, but it was just so, so interesting. And you can savour this one, like fine candy. Take your time, because this is the last episode for now, for the summer, the last episode of this season of Borderline. And I'll tell you a little bit more at the end of the episode about what's coming up.
[00:01:29] I want to salute three new members of Borderline: Anne-Sophie Bolon, Matt Hilton and Lawrence Wood. Thank you so much for your support of this work. I really appreciate it.
[00:01:38] You can join them and all the other members now on our Discord server. So this is a community where Borderline members can chat online and you can talk with me and that's where we have our weekly video call for people who are so inclined. So this is one of the perks of membership, membership which helps me continue to make this work. So you can join borderlinepod.com/ subscribe. That's borderlinepod.com.
[00:02:06] But for now, here's my conversation with Dina Nayeri. And first I asked her why she had decided to make the switch from novels that were very much inspired by her own story, to a memoir where the masks come off.
[00:02:18] Why she made the move from fiction to nonfiction
[00:02:18] Dina Nayeri: [00:02:20] I came to writing first through fiction. I mean, fiction was my first love, just because of all of the freedoms that it gives you and the ability to focus purely on the language and the art and a kind of greater truth than I suppose the facts allow because you get to create the story, according to the thing that you want to show to the world. And you get to hide a little bit behind the veil of fiction. You know, you get to be kind of the artist, the creator, you don't have to be the subject which is a really difficult thing to open up yourself to. And there are rules of fiction in terms of how people read it: people who are in not just the world of publishing, but you know, good readers, they understand they're not reading you but that every writer's work is informed by their life.
[00:03:03] So I think I felt like there was these two parallel, comfortable spaces that I was living in as a fiction writer, but also as someone who'd become largely Americanized and all of my refugee and immigrant struggles had been put in the past, and I had shoved them in the past and did not want to look at them again.
[00:03:21] And then in 2015, a couple of things happened simultaneously. First I became a mother for the first time near the end of 2015 and then right around then, in the first year of my my child's life, we moved to the UK from the US, and then there was the Brexit vote, and there was the Trump election.
[00:03:40] And suddenly I just felt a little bit thrown out of the world. You know, I, I felt this acceptance that I had so taken for granted draining away. And especially looking at my daughter, who gosh from the first day she looks so Iranian, like this girl is so, um... You know, in this tiny little French village we live in now, we're actually already dealing with issues around her race and color that other children haven't seen.
[00:04:08] Anyway, so I knew that this would be something that would be a part of our lives, just the way it had been a part of my childhood, the issue of acceptance of the native-born, of white, native born. How would my child get along? Would she experience some of the same abuses and cruelties that I had experienced? And, and, and I guess what would the conversation of the world look like? All of this started to feel really important and really urgent and not so kind of shoved in the back of my mind as it had been.
[00:04:39] So I decided that it was time to step out from behind the veil of fiction and really write as me, write my experiences, own up to them, but also to say something in essayistic form, some reflection on what I've learned between then and now because I had a particular refugee experience, but what I was seeing in the camps now, it was very, very different. It had its similarities, but it was so much more intense.
[00:05:02] And, and I wanted to talk about that, about how it's changed to be a refugee in the West now.
[00:05:07] How the refugee experience has changed from the 80s
Isabelle Roughol: [00:05:07] And that's something that struck me reading it is that, as tough as your experience in the eighties sounded, it was almost quaint in a way and, and somewhat straightforward long, but somewhat straightforward compared to some of the more recent refugee stories that I've heard doing interviews on this podcast, for instance.
[00:05:28] Dina Nayeri: [00:05:28] Yeah, well, no, absolutely, it was. I think part of it has to do with memory. It happened to me when I was a child. Between 8 and 10, and so my mother's, the things that she went through during that time, the agony of waiting, the uncertainty of being accepted, the question of will I be sent back to die? I think that was just as real considering the fact that that waiting time is really the most psychologically draining time for all refugees.
[00:05:52] The actual bureaucracy was much simpler. And I think part of it had to do with the fact that Iran wasn't producing so many refugees with our particular story. We were Christian converts and I think that the story, I suppose, people converting to Christianity and proselytizing after the revolution, was relatively new. Remember the revolution happened in 1979 and my story happened in the eighties, right? So it's not as if the West had received decades and decades of Christian refugees, Ba'hai refugees religiously persecuted people coming out of Iran.
[00:06:26] And the immigration offices kind of work this way: these exhausted people who keep hearing the same story, and then they start to doubt, or they start hearing a different story, and then they doubt that. And you've heard all of that. But in a world with a new Islamic Republic abuses broadcast around the world, and also some of the first, I guess, Christian refugees to come out and converts with such a provable story, it wasn't bureaucratically that difficult to prove.
[00:06:55] So it took us in total, I think, when we arrived in Dubai at first having escaped, we were undocumented immigrants and we stayed in Dubai for about, I think 10 months, and then after that in Rome, as refugees in a camp for about six or seven months. And so in total, just about 16 to 18 months, that was the time. That was our waiting time. And I think many immigrants now, many refugees now, it takes years. Absolutely just years. Some of them have been waiting 10, 11 years, losing an entire era of their life.
[00:07:30] A culture of disbelief in immigration offices
[00:07:30] Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:30] And it seemed like also a switch from a default of accepting to a default of doubting and finding ways to, to reject and refuse people.
[00:07:43] Dina Nayeri: [00:07:43] Oh, gosh, absolutely. You know, this culture of disbelief that has permeated the asylum offices of Europe, of the US, I mean, it's so much more severe than it was.
[00:07:54] Memory alters things. So I can't be entirely sure or of like the hostility or non hostility of the person that we were talking to. But I did have an impression, as a child, of asylum officers as these agents of the Geneva convention, these rescuers, people who understood their duty to the displaced and the endangered of the world. And, and that is who they are. That is their job. They're the gatekeepers. And, and, and, and the Western countries are bound together by the Geneva convention's agreements that we want to take these people who are in danger. And so these are the people who will let them in.
[00:08:30] Somehow, the mandate has kind of turned upside down. And now they see themselves as gatekeepers who keep people out. Now, instead of listening to stories to understand how people were put in danger and how they might fear for their life, they listen only for inconsistencies. They listen for these like tiny little silly things, the kind of inconsistencies that we all have in our life and in our storytelling. And they use those as a basis to deny your credibility, to deny your claim, to send you back into danger.
[00:09:00] They haven't sat and reflected on what the language of the Geneva convention means, what the promise is, what its history is, how it came about. Instead, they kind of go with the incentives of the moment, which the asylum offices happily provide, which is your incentive to reject and to have, as you know, as high rejection numbers and low acceptance rate as you can. So that culture has absolutely transformed the gatekeepers.
[00:09:26] I mean, in the US a couple of years ago, during the Trump administration, even the profile of the asylum officers was changing. You know, Trump was putting border control guards in charge of doing the credible fear interviews, which is absurd. These are people whose job it is literally to guard and not to think. And they were the ones doing credible fear interviews. Their believing or not believing would send people back into these nightmare situations.
When refugees become storytellers to security guards
[00:09:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:09:54] Hmm. That's, that's interesting. I did an interview a couple of weeks ago with Daniel Trilling, who wrote a long investigation into the culture of the Home Office here in the UK. And he pointed out something that was interesting in his work, which is why we decided that immigration decisions belonged to a ministry in charge of security, as opposed to a ministry in charge of social work, or if economic opportunity, of... like, why we have that security angle to immigration.
[00:10:24] Dina Nayeri: [00:10:24] It makes no sense. And in practice it becomes so nightmarish and absurd for people because a lot of the refugees that arrive they're survivors of trauma, of torture. I mean, I spoke to doctors at Freedom From Torture in London, this wonderful charity that give services to torture survivors and refugees. And they talked about how very unequipped the asylum officers were, as opposed to say social workers would be, to judge the truth of the stories and to see the trauma.
[00:10:53] One of the doctors told me that when you know, we create a memory out of trauma, we create it so differently than we would ordinary memories. There's at least two parts of the brain that retain a memory. One part is responsible for contextual information and another part for sensory information. And when we're experiencing a trauma, the sensory part of the brain goes into it's very active. It's very sharp. That's why people who are survivors and they're thinking back to what happened to them, they remember the smells, they remember the taste in their mouth. They remember the feel of the weapons, the color of the car. But the part that records the contextual information, it goes into kind of a sharp black and white contrast mode. It doesn't record every detail. It just, I mean, it knows roughly that it's February, but it forgets the day of the week and forgets the street, how many hours it was, all that context is lost, right? But these, these gatekeepers are not trained in that. They don't understand how trauma memories are formed. They look only for this contextual information. And as soon as this trauma survivor fails to provide it because of the way their memory is stored, they call them a liar. At the same time when there's too much sensory information, which is also completely natural, they say, "oh, well, that's, how do you remember the color of the car? And you don't remember the day of the week, you know?"
[00:12:11] And there is no level of this kind of training. And lawyers and doctors from places like Freedom from Torture, and I think the Helen Bamber Foundation, they're trying to get the Home Office to accept that sort of training and to understand how storytelling works, how trauma storytelling works. But there's a lot of pushback. They don't want to accept it. They are security minded people. And so they ask these series of like rapid fire questions that are contextual and meant to trap you in inconsistency and very kind of legal.
[00:12:42] So someone is sitting there and they're telling the story of being raped by five people, right? And there is no human response. There's no understanding of how that, that memory might have formed. They keep repeating: "so you were raped by four people? Last time you said you were raped by three people." And they keep repeating that word and that person is traumatized over and over again.
[00:13:03] Um, once I heard a story from a doctor who told me about a case wherein a 50 year old woman was told that she was too old to be raped. They said that they didn't believe her on that basis. Um, another was rejected because they said that they didn't believe that there were four men in the room and only three raped her. That, that part of the story didn't make any sense. Um, so you see it. This is, can you imagine someone trained in storytelling or in social work or in any kind of human or humanitarian work to conduct the interview this way? Or to try to, or to think of this as a way of actually reaching for the truth?
[00:13:51] Sometimes I think, I mean, social workers, that would be wonderful, but even writers would be better at this than security people, because at least we know how to listen to stories and feel the truth in them, not because of the silly little details that often don't coincide in real life. But because of the actual lived experience behind the story, which is, which is if you're actually open to hearing something, I think communicates itself quite easily.
How culture changes storytelling
[00:14:18] Isabelle Roughol: [00:14:18] But then it's fascinating because we're asking refugees to be storytellers, of their own lives. But at the same time, if you're too good a storyteller, that's suspicious. And then there's the cultural which, which you get into really well in the book, there's the cultural layer as well of you, as an Iranian, as an Afghan, as a Congolese might not be telling the story in a way that a Western listener might expect a story to be told.
[00:14:47] Dina Nayeri: [00:14:47] Exactly. So there's that question of like too good a storyteller or not? I mean, what does that mean? From whose perspective? Because often people are... we are all trained from childhood in the storytelling culture of our country, of our people. I tell a story in this book about how in Amsterdam I met an asylum lawyer who said that the Iranians were really very difficult to train in Dutch style storytelling because the Dutch are very straightforward and to the point. And he said the trouble is when I ask Iranians to tell me their asylum story, they don't start at the beginning of the story. They don't even start at the beginning of their lives. They start at the beginning of the universe, .at the start of the universe.
[00:15:28] You know, when he told me that, I was reminded of how, when we were children, we were, we start every single story with a little rhyme in Iran. And the rhyme is the beginning of the universe rhyme. And that affects how Iranian stories are told. You know, Iranian storytelling zooms out. It has a lot more perspective. It's your story in the context of the world, in the context of other people. Whereas American storytelling, let's say, it's about cutting to the chase getting right to the, zooming right in, to that moment of tension for that particular person: what are the stakes there versus what are the stakes for a society or a people?
[00:16:03] And it's a difference in culture and values, et cetera. It's come from thousands of years of different sorts of storytelling, that is created over so many generations. And it's really difficult to ask someone to just, right at the moment of displacement, at the moment of greatest trauma, to relearn all that and tell their story in a way that feels completely unnatural to them.
[00:16:22] And at the same time the person listening is only using the rules of their own culture. And so immediately this asylum lawyer told me when Iranians come in and they start so far back, immediately the Dutch are suspicious. You know, they think, "oh, this person is lying. Why doesn't he just get to the point?" But to get to the point, it seems obscene almost to an Iranian storyteller, or to start right there in the middle of your own trials, just complaining. You're trying to tell a story with context, you know?
[00:16:55] Isabelle Roughol: [00:16:55] Okay. Uhum. That sounds very familiar. I think if you asked a French person, they would give you at least three paragraphs to start on the big philosophical concepts behind the story, before they get into the details. Um, yeah, that sounds, that sounds very familiar. And an American listener will always say cut to the chase when speaking to a French person.
[00:17:16] Dina Nayeri: [00:17:16] It's such a cliché, "cut to the chase," but it is how we tell stories.
What you lose when you wait
[00:17:21] Isabelle Roughol: [00:17:21] Mm Hmm.
[00:17:23] One thing that you mentioned that I wanted to get to, in the book, is the way that we treat refugees. Kind of the worst torture in a way that you go through as a refugee is the wait. You never know when that visa is going to come through, what country you're going to lend in. And you don't get to work or to study. So you're just sitting there waiting, which is something that I think a lot more people have experienced in the past year.
[00:17:52] Dina Nayeri: [00:17:52] Yeah. I was thinking a lot about how the world now understands. I mean, the ordinary people of this generation, of our generation and the ones just younger that are just coming of age, will now understand what it's like to be a refugee, to be told by some greater power that you just, there's no end in sight. We're not going to promise you a date. You are just going to wait until it happens. And we will tell you when life can resume. I especially hear the same sort of frustration from people who are starting college this last year this was the year they would get to start their life. They would get the launch into the world and they didn't get that. And they felt so hard done by, you know.
[00:18:29] And then you think of these refugees who, I mean, in a day, sometimes in a week they have to run from their home, leaving everything behind. I mean, these things happen so suddenly. And then they're made to wait for months, then years, not ever knowing. Once there was a refugee who told me, prison is actually better than waiting in a camp or detention because in prison, you count your days down, you have a sentence, and in a refugee camp, you count your days up because there is no, they have not told you when it will be over.
[00:19:04] Every time I talk to refugees, they tell me that this is the biggest psychological burden because you just have no power to do anything. You're not allowed to work. You're not allowed to go to school. If it was two or three months, your children would probably be bored for a while and survive it. But let's say two years of idleness, of no school or purpose, it can take away all of your skills. It can erode every good thing that you have. It completely obliterates your professional arc, I guess, everything you've done. And for your children, it can kill their fire. You know, it can take them from being studious and happy and active children to idle, nervous, anxious children. And this happens a lot. It's, it's a nightmare.
[00:19:45] In a way, this is one of the greatest powers that one person or group can exert on another, isn't it, to force them to wait. When we have power over someone else, let's say if someone is coming to us for help or for a job, or even if in personal relationships, the way we exert our power over them is to make them wait. And this is exactly what happens to the displaced people as a whole. The rest of us, the native born, exert power in this way by making them wait.
[00:20:14] Isabelle Roughol: [00:20:14] Um. And it's often quite young people who are this and so there sense of a potential that's unfulfilled, of an absence of opportunity and of purpose, as you mentioned, that is absolutely torturous.
[00:20:33] Dina Nayeri: [00:20:33] Yeah. I mean, it drains away because the thing is that it's such a short window when you think about it, those formative years of children, where they become people who are engaged in the world and curious, and have a particular kind of hunger a particular kind of useful hunger, right? Those years when you realize, oh, you have talents and you have abilities and you have people around you who want to help you, and you can do things and that this world is exciting, you know? Uh, and it presents all kinds of challenges to you, but you're not afraid, you know?
[00:21:08] And I think that if you spend those years in a refugee camp or being told that you're a second class citizen, even if you're in your final city that you're arriving to that hunger becomes something else, it becomes dangerous. It becomes, your curiosity morphs into fear of the rest of the world. All of your potential leaks away and, and you don't pick up all of the the excitement, the skills, the brazenness that you would pick up otherwise. And, and that's, that's transformative. That's, that's lifelong.
[00:21:43] I think the best image is that it just kills your fire the, the waiting.
[00:21:48] Isabelle Roughol: [00:21:48] Yeah.
[00:21:51] How womanhood and refuge interplay
[00:21:51] It's not necessarily explicit, but a really interesting thread throughout the book is that it's a story of women. Um, there's you, there's your mother, there's your grandmother there's your daughter, so that's four generations for whom refuge kinda means different things. Um, how do you, how do you think about that intersection of womanhood and, and migration and refugee?
[00:22:16] Dina Nayeri: [00:22:16] Well, I mean, I think, um... there's so many aspects of that. First of all, because often it is the mothers who drag their children to safety in all kinds of contexts and in all kinds of situations. And in my family that has happened again and again, the story is defined by the choices of the mothers. Like my mother, my grandmother, I mean, every... my mother's entire personality I think is driven by the choices of her mother who was very, very young when she was forced into a marriage and was forced to have children and then ran away from Iran, leaving my mother behind. So, that has shaped who she is. And then my mother's choice, my mother becoming a Christian, becoming a refugee, that has completely changed who I am.
[00:22:57] Um, and, and when I was in the camps, it was, it was very much the same. And I think it was very different to be a man and a woman as a refugee because I didn't ever see women alone in the refugee camps. Even today, you see women as part of families, as wives, as mothers, or young women who were there with their families. But you know, there are just these huge groups of single men running alone and, and they're escaping the same horrible things. And they're often in fact discriminated against so much worse because it's the young single men who are called opportunists and economic migrants, et cetera.
[00:23:36] But still, it makes me think about how much more difficult it is to get away from a bad situation as a woman and how the only thing that spurred these people to run was just this intense love for their children. So how many women are still stuck there who would have wished to go just like all of the young men did and who couldn't because they were in these oppressive countries?
[00:24:00] So I think, I think that motherhood, wifehood, all of that stuff just affects so much this narrative, this story of displacement and being a refugee, just because of the demographics of it, because of who makes up the migrating population.
Why do we make a difference between political refugees and economic migrants?
[00:24:19] Isabelle Roughol: [00:24:19] And speaking of these young men, I mean, you, you make a great point as well on why we insist on making a difference between refugees, political refugees and economic migrants. Um, can you talk about that a little bit and, and that differentiation that we make?
[00:24:32] Dina Nayeri: [00:24:32] Well, absolutely. I mean, I, I think like for me, one of the most shocking things was how casually this differentiation is made, as if these are not lives of people and their ability to survive in both cases. I mean, we say, okay, well there's real refugees. And then there's economic migrants. And then we just dismiss one group as if you know the story isn't just as harrowing.
[00:24:54] And the refugees, the definition of a refugee is something so very, very specific. It's people who have credible fear of returning to their country for fear of persecution or violence or something based on five, just five reasons: race, nationality, political opinion religion and membership in a social group, right? So if it's something outside of those five reasons, you don't even qualify to be a refugee under the Geneva Convention. So for example, if you take the central American cases of gang violence and extortion for money and all of that stuff, if a person comes and says, I was approached by a gang and they said they would kill me unless I pay a certain amount of money. The asylum officers will say that they don't qualify as a refugee because that's a money problem. You know, it has nothing to do with race, religion, political opinion, et cetera, right? Um, so there's this whole category of people who count as economic migrants, who actually are very much in danger. They very much fit the spirit of the Geneva convention. If they go back, they will die. And it happens again and again, people are sent back and then they're found dead, you know?
[00:26:01] And then you come a little bit further down the spectrum, and then there's the people who actually do run for economic reasons. But those economic reasons are dire. I mean, there is more than one way to be in danger of death. I mean, if you can't make money for yourself or your family, if you can't feed your children, isn't that also a way of having your life in danger?
[00:26:21] Um, and then you go a little further, let's say you can feed your children. But there's just no opportunity whatsoever. You will stagnate. Your children will stagnate. You will live a bleak life. Then I ask people, would you accept that? Or would you not try to move? So how is it that we judge people who try to get something a little bit better for their children when we ourselves would do exactly the same thing? Is it that we believe we deserve more?
Stop asking what refugees can do for us
[00:26:46] You know, I was talking to a journalist who kind of very casually asked me to make a case for the economic benefit that refugees give to a host country. And I was thinking about how this is actually an argument we often make. Um, and those of us who want to help those of us who are on the side of refugees, we often make economic arguments for them, right? But then this made me think about how like little understanding there is of the humanitarian duty, right?
[00:27:21] If you draw kind of a spectrum of, people and the reasons that they escape and on one end of the spectrum is the refugees who really fit the Geneva convention definition, and on the other end of the spectrum are the expats let's say, and every in between you kind of have these gradations of need, so you go from the refugees whose lives are in danger for all the right reasons, to the refugees whose lives are in danger, but they can't prove it, to the refugees whose lives are in danger for the wrong reasons, but still very much in danger and immediate danger, for example gangs, to the people who are escaping some kind of maybe climate change, maybe socioeconomic need, something like that, and so on, right? The line that we draw, where we switch from an economic argument to humanitarian argument seems to be so far on one side. I feel as though the line should be drawn elsewhere, we should be talking about a humanitarian response to these people for a lot longer before we switched to "what do they give to us?"
[00:28:23] It seems obscene to talk about how refugees contribute to our economy. We've made promises under the Geneva convention. These are people who, whose lives are in danger. Why are we asking them to show resumes or to tell us what they can do for us? I mean, when you really think about it, it's, it's quite obscene.
[00:28:45] Why dignity matters
[00:28:45] Isabelle Roughol: [00:28:45] What do you think should change fundamentally about the way that we treat refugees and migrants?
[00:28:53] Dina Nayeri: [00:28:53] Well, I think one of the biggest things that I talk about in the book and every time I, I talk to somebody like you, is that I bring the attention back to this notion of dignity and how we've completely ignored it. All we see is their need. We don't see that before, they weren't born refugees. Some of them were, but you know, for the most part, they had lives of their own. They had dreams of their own. They had rich histories exactly like ours. And now they're in this moment of desperate dire need and they are not defined by that moment.
[00:29:24] And to be defined by that moment, robs them of all dignity, all sense of self and all sense of identity. And, and, and even when we try to help, we often add to that shame. Um part of it has to do with the way we give charity. For example, when you dump loads of dented cans into the parking lot of a refugee camp, that's robbing those people of their dignity. When you throw jackets from the back of a truck and shout at people because they took two, that is robbing people of their dignity.
[00:29:55] But I think on kind of more of a policy level, I think there's some really huge problems with the way we treat refugees. I think first of all, the fact that they can't work while they wait and that wait just stretches on and on and on. The fact that their children are often left without school. These things, they contribute to the final outcome of their lives. These things change the story for them. And again, they rob them of their sense of purpose and dignity.
[00:30:22] And then also just on a much, much more macro level, the way we look at gatekeeping, like we spoke about before. Who is listening to these stories? Who decides, and how do they decide who to keep out and who to keep in? This is something that I think needs to be reevaluated. I think we need to listen to people's stories differently.
[00:30:40] And then we need to even have bigger, broader conversations just now thinking on a generational level in terms of what our borders and what are we entitled to? Are we entitled to more because of an accident of birth? You know what do we owe to our fellow man? I think we should be talking about these things with our children. So I guess now we're getting into the very, very macro, but I think it's important from a young age to really think about that, to think because I was born in the UK or in America or somewhere safe, does that mean that I deserve that safety or that I earned it any more than the person who was born in Syria?
What are we entitled to as human beings? Why aren't others?
[00:31:21] Isabelle Roughol: [00:31:21] And that that's what actually you made me think about when you were talking earlier about sort of how that, that gradation that we established, that hierarchy we established between the worthy and the less worthy of migration, which is if you push that logic to its, to its logical conclusion there is no reason why you should you know, stop people going wherever they want to be going. And then that's I think the, the end of the reasoning, which scares so many people is that you can no longer maintain that fiction.
[00:31:55] Dina Nayeri: [00:31:55] Yeah. Well, I think it's because as humans, as individual humans, our drive is to just protect the entitlements of our children, to give everything we have our children and more, you know? And we don't want to admit that other people are often a threat to that. And if we can draw a small circle around ourselves and our safest friends and family, maybe that's a small gated community maybe that's a border, you know? And we say, well, these are the people who are equally, or more safe than me. And so being around them will keep my children protected, and I want to draw a line and keep everyone else out.
[00:32:31] Well, you stop thinking about why you're arguing for that. You think, well, that's the natural order of things. Well, what about, you know what about the Americans who will lose a little bit if some foreign people come into this community? You know, you make these loud arguments without really taking it to the conclusion of wait, why does that matter? Oh yeah. Cause I'm trying to protect my entitlements that I actually was given. I was given by my parents and they were given by their parents and at some point was taken from somebody. There's no real deep thought about, okay, well, what am I actually entitled to as a human being when I'm born and are the people who are born into suffering do they deserve that?
Rawls' original position and American exceptionalism
[00:33:16] It reminds me of, have you ever heard of the Rawlsian original position?
[00:33:22] John Rawls is this American philosopher who talked about this intellectual exercise, where you imagine yourself in the original position, which is, if you didn't know what body you would be born into, right, what kind of a society would you create before you were assigned a body? Right?
[00:33:44] So you're in an original position. You're behind a veil of ignorance, I guess. So you would look and you would say, okay, well, wow, most of the world is working class. Most of the world lives in China and India and Russia. Most of the world are poor working women or mothers. It's very, very likely that I'm going to end up in one of these bodies. So I'm going to make it the least bad that it can be for them. I'm not going to create a society that protects billionaires because it's very unlikely I will be one. So that's how you would do it.
[00:34:16] So we should try to create a society that matches that as closely as possible. We should try to create rules that we would create if we were in the original position. Because otherwise we're just allowing the most powerful people to create rules that protect them, after they know they're the most powerful people. And that's exactly the society we have, right? It's people who are trying to protect their entitlements and all the things that they were given and born with at the expense of everyone else. And then they call it fairness because they're not willing to kind of zoom out far enough to see this for what it really is.
[00:34:50] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:50] Hmm. That's interesting coming from an American, which you are, or you are too because there is the kind of massive myth that is the core of American... Uh, origin story, really, which is that even the poorest people believe in a society that protects the billionaire because there's that tiny, tiny chance, which is really actually less than winning the lottery, that they can bring themselves there through their hard work. Um,
[00:35:20] Dina Nayeri: [00:35:20] That's the trap, right? They are told that story to protect the rich, because the fact is that even the poorest people, they have no chance of becoming a billionaire when they don't have the connection of that billionaire son. Like, look at Trump's children. I mean, have you not seen more obvious mediocrity? How have they gotten all of the positions and resources that they have gotten? It's not because they earned it. They're not vice presidents or presidents or whatever of massive corporations, because they earned that position. We don't live in a meritocracy in America.
[00:35:57] We live in a society that favors the children of the privileged, that gives all of the resources and all of the access and the coded language to the children of the privileged. And it helps them take the place of their parents. And yes, there are a few exceptional people who break through and then they make huge fuss over those stories because it reinforces the narrative that we can do anything in America, that it's all completely a meritocracy.
[00:36:22] But the fact is if you're a person of color born into extreme poverty, without access to the best education, without access to the right language, without access to particular signals of talent, et cetera, you can be as talented as you want, the chances that you'll really make it are astonishingly low. And yes, some do, and yes we're trying to correct all of that. There's great humanitarian and social efforts to try to correct that, but, but it's not corrected.
The US president changed, not the system
[00:36:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:36:54] You started out writing this book, as you mentioned at the start of our conversation, kind of spurred on by the Brexit vote and the Trump administration, as well as the birth of your daughter, five years on we have a new administration in the US. How are you feeling about the general direction and the treatment of migrants and refugees in the US now?
[00:37:17] Dina Nayeri: [00:37:17] Well, I mean, my sense of immediate alarm is a little bit assuaged by the fact that Trump isn't in power. Um, but but it doesn't really change much because the system is still there. The system still protects not just the native-born, but even their tiniest comforts, and weighs that heavily against the lives of refugees. The system is still intended to keep people out. The gatekeepers still aren't listening for the real stories. They're still listening for inconsistencies. And the judges that are in place, the immigration judges are still there and applying the same absurd standards. And the citizens, ordinary citizens, are still afraid. You know, they see refugees using kind of the metaphors that they've been fed: the throngs, the flood of refugees, the masses, I guess... these kinds of scary words that are attached to these people with individual faces and lives and stories. They still see them that way as an incoming hoard.
[00:38:20] And so as a result, they're scared and they want to protect themselves. And so even if they might not say it, they still behave and vote and do activism in a way that protects themselves. I think that's really the trouble. I think the way we greet refugees and the way we see displaced people is not about one person in power. It's the way we've been brought up and our incentives and what we feel is valuable.
What individuals can do to help
[00:38:53] I guess what I would add is that one of the most surprising and interesting things that I saw as I was researching the book and writing it, and one of the most hopeful things was just how much good individual people can do just through individual acts of welcoming curiosity. Some of the best moments, just the most rejuvenating moments for refugees are always when the native-born kind of came to them with love and welcome and real curiosity and understanding of all of these things, all of these difficulties and burdens that I've just talked about.
[00:39:26] It was shocking to me how quick it was, this human connection that is always seeking out other people. It's seeking out love and friendship and shared stories. How quickly that just kind of happens on its own. It activates between people.
[00:39:43] Often people who want to help are intimidated. They don't know what to do. It's such a big problem, but it just reminded me of how much can be done individually. If a displaced family comes into your neighborhood or comes into your city, how wonderful it is to have someone go and offer welcome, to offer friendship, to offer a couple of hours of conversation, some guidance around the city. Um, and so I guess I want to leave by urging people to look for opportunities to do that kind of thing.
[00:40:11] Isabelle Roughol: [00:40:11] Yeah.
[00:40:12] Dina Nayeri: [00:40:12] Curiosity and welcome. That's really just the answer on a micro level, on a macro level, on every level.
Gratitude is private
[00:40:19] Isabelle Roughol: [00:40:19] Wonderful. You know, there's something we didn't get into at all, which must be actually the question that you get all the time, which is the title of the book, The Ungrateful Refugee, and this whole idea of gratitude. I'm just realizing we didn't, we didn't approach at all.
[00:40:35] Dina Nayeri: [00:40:35] Oh, sure, we can talk about it. You know, I have to say first there's a history, I guess, of the book itself and the title. And then what I mean by it.
[00:40:41] The book came out of a viral essay that I wrote called The Ungrateful Refugee in 2017. It was a Guardian long read. I was talking about how, when I was kid and when we first arrived, there was a sense immediately that we should not just be grateful for being in the US, but that we should posture our gratitude for the sake of the native-born. And in doing that, we should put aside all of our wonderful stories of Iran, our nostalgia for Iran, our sadness, and just be this kind of theatrically, happy people, because we were saved and to offer up our story in this again kind of caricature sort of way to the native-born as the price of our acceptance.
[00:41:18] And I guess what I wanted to reject was the idea that we owe our gratitude just as people, not just the displaced, to each other. Gratitude is something personal. It's something private. It's not something that can be channeled or directed or postured toward other people. It's between you and a higher power, between you and the universe, God, a community even a country. I think you can very much be grateful to country. But I think once other people who had nothing to do with the thing you're grateful for, kind of come in and try to like put themselves in the way of your gratitude and ask for it, it becomes something grotesque. And it's something that I reject.
[00:41:54] I think, the term ungrateful refugee of course was not invented by me. It's something that gets thrown around a lot bythe far right and just right-wing people. And I think when they say that phrase, when they tell someone you're an ungrateful refugee, what they're saying is you're not posturing your gratitude enough to me. And the way you would posture it is by being meeker, by forgetting your past, by not participating in the political system, not seeing yourself as a second class citizen, so that you kind of just step back and say, "well, I'm going to let the native-born decide these things. I'm just so grateful to be here. I'm not going to be a full citizen here."
[00:42:33] And I think that's harmful and I reject it completely. You know, I am an American and I will participate in the way every other American does. And I do have gratitude just as every single refugee and displaced person who has made it to a safer place as gratitude. But that gratitude is private. It's for the sake of your own mental and emotional health. It's something you share with your family. And it colors everything. But I, for one, refuse to posture it for someone who was born lucky, who should be more grateful. They had eight more years of the happy life that I, actually 10 more years of the happy life, than I did. And why should my gratitude be any more explicit than theirs? I guess that's the, that's the question that I'm asking.
[00:43:16] The essay was about gratitude. And so the book is named after it. But the book kind of goes a little bit further because after I wrote that essay, I got so many responses from people, about how "this was something that I never had the courage to tell my native born neighbors, because they've been so nice, but it's something I felt. It always kind of really stuck in my heart. It was like, it just a stone in my heart. And I wanted to tell people and I never did."
[00:43:41] And I realized there's just so much else that the displaced don't tell the native-born and it's all around dignity and shame. It all kind of circles, the issue of shame. That's why we don't tell people things, even though we want to.
[00:43:55] So the book is a lot of other things too that the displaced don't say even after they've long been settled and happy. So gratitude is just one of them or I should say theatrical gratitude is just one of them.
Political engagement is assimilation
[00:44:09] Isabelle Roughol: [00:44:09] Yes it is, there is a lot more to the book. You just reminded me actually, in my life, when I've kind of faced that wall of "how dare you, you're only an immigrant," um, it was always around political engagement. Um, and I understand that because, you know I've had that reaction as a French person when someone starts criticizing France, particularly if they haven't lived there or not having lived there very long, thzy don't really understand. But for me, recently my dad pointed out that I had gotten very critical of the UK, and particularly the Home Office and all of that, which I've covered a lot in this podcast.
[00:44:46] I thought to myself, well, how wonderful, it must mean that this is starting to become home
[00:44:50] Dina Nayeri: [00:44:50] Yes.
[00:44:50] Isabelle Roughol: [00:44:50] Because you don't care about the political system of a country that you're just kind of passing through. It takes, it takes so much investment to understand a system that's completely alien to you to understand the issues and then to start being vocal about it. And so, and that's the assimilation people want. And so if I get angry, I'm doing exactly what you want me to do, which is get assimilated.
[00:45:12] Dina Nayeri: [00:45:12] Well, exactly. I mean, what is like, what is more valuable to you than the thing that you fight to change or to fight to preserve or to fight for in any way at all, right? That's exactly what happens when the displaced or migrants are most grateful is that they get involved and they try to shape the country.
[00:45:31] And I think that to see it that way is to really understand the progress. Because at first, when people arrive, they're just confused. They kind of look around, they shrink into themselves. Maybe they're inside communities of people from their own country. But only once they become truly British or American, do they say, you know what, I, I need to change this. I need to do something about this. And I think that's love. That's how love works. You know, it's not just this constant bowing, is it? It's just putting your hand in and being involved in the work of creating a society and a community.
[00:46:07] Isabelle Roughol: [00:46:07] Amen to that. Well, thank you so much again. Um, this was just such an interesting conversation. I can't wait for people to, to hear it.
[00:46:15] Dina Nayeri: [00:46:15] Thank you for having me. It was fun talking to you.
[00:46:17] Isabelle Roughol: [00:46:19] That was Dina Nayeri. Her book, The Ungrateful Refugee, what immigrants never tell you, is published by Canongate in the UK and Catapult in the U S. It's also published in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. If you would like to read it in your own language.
[00:46:36] So, as I mentioned, this is the last episode of this season of Borderline, the last one for the summer, but we are very much going to be coming back. So what am I up to? Well, first I'm going home, taking advantage of the borders being semi open to go and see my family in France while I can. So I'll be signing off, taking Twitter off the phone and giving my brain the silence that I think it needs every once in a while to continue to do good creative work. I highly recommended it.
[00:47:04] And then in August, when I return to my desk in London, I will be building the infrastructure for the future of Borderline. This is not going anywhere, but up and to the right. I'm really excited to keep continuing this work, but that means setting a few workflows in place, building more tech and all of the behind the scenes work as well as planning and producing the next season so I'm not always running after the clock.
[00:47:29] So that's what's coming up. The newsletter is still going to be coming out so make sure to sign up at borderlinepod.com. Get the newsletter, follow on Twitter, on LinkedIn, all the socials. Consider a membership: the Discord server is gonna be going on all summer. So if you miss hearing my voice, it's going to be there. And listen to the archives, there's more than 35 episodes of Borderline waiting for you. I'm sure you haven't heard them all. Or check a lot of articles as well at borderlinepod.com.
[00:48:00] Thank you so much if you're still here. Thank you for listening. Thank you for your support. Thank you for most importantly spreading the word around you. I hope you have a happy and safe summer. I hope you're able to travel, to see your family wherever they are, and that we all come out of this really, really hard time stronger and more together than ever. Take care.
Get more from Borderline
Never miss new articles, essays and podcast episodes. Sign up for the free newsletter. Opt for a paid subscription to unlock comments, get the podcast early and support independent journalism.