Review: The Ungrateful Refugee

After I finished reading Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, I wept. Truly, there was nothing else to do.

I have been reading about refugee issues near-constantly for over two years. In some ways, as a reader and writer in this area, what is tragic becomes normal due to familiarity.

But this book mercifully, painfully, peeled back the protective layer that over-exposure had created in me, and invited me deeper, into the minds of refugees themselves, to explore the psychology of displacement, of waiting, and of gradual, painful transformation.

Nayeri weaves her own story together with that of many others who she has met over the years. But she resists the urge to play on the pathos of the refugee narrative, which, she contends, is only a small “wedge” of the whole story selected to conform to what a refugee should be in the particular time and place in which they find themselves. 

Instead, Nayeri leverages the entirety of her story and others’ stories–quirks and contradictions and all–to powerfully portray refugees as people who are just like anyone else, which is to say interesting and flawed and talented and petty and wise and…human.

Why do we flatten the narrative of these fully-human individuals? Honestly, flattening is a coping mechanism–employed by refugees themselves, of UNHCR officers, of people looking at the issue from the outside in–to deal with horrific circumstances.

When Nayeri zooms in to a disorienting street-level closeness, it throws us off balance and makes us realize that every single refugee is a person who has an escape story, yes (that’s one small slice of their story, says Nayeri, which has to be selected and flattened and continually hawked by them in order to be listened to), they also have a thousand other stories, the strands of which make up a full-orbed, complicated LIFE.

Recently, I’ve been focusing on remembering in all interactions with people–whether my refugee friends or my next door neighbor or my doctor or the man who asks me for money outside of CVS–that they are created in the image of God and infinitely valuable to him. 

And beyond that, each of them has a complex story full of subplots and contradictions and tragedies and triumphs, that has brought them to this place. And that they are facing a great battle, because that is the human condition. And that pretty much what they desire out of life is to be loved and to belong. And that that desire has likely not been fulfilled in their lives in one way or another.

Intense, much? Well, yes. But this is the reality. To live otherwise is to live numbed.

C.S. Lewis says: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it.”

So, how can we humbly carry the weight of our neighbor’s glory in our daily interactions with friends in refugee situations? Nayeri has some advice: 

In refugee communities, volunteers often ask each other, “What can I do to make it easier for them?’ They offer their homes, run errands, set up language tables, soccer games, meals. Again and again, I’ve met neighbors like these. The question, though, isn’t one of generosity but of shame, dignity, and belonging. Permission for the stranger to show his true face. In every small interaction, one ego shines while the other fades. To the native born who want to open their arms, I would say, “Let yourself fade away, ever-briefly. Don’t shine in your good deeds, because people keep their dignity quite near the core of their identity. Show your humblest face at first.

I am concerned that when speaking this way it may scare some people off. “What if I do it wrong? Best not get involved,” I hear someone saying. Nayeri seems sensitive to this too. She acknowledges: “Plunging a hand into another’s remaking is a serious business,” but she continues:

“You might misstep and cause harm. That is better than drawing a thick line around them. In life, people disappoint each other. Messes are made. The only way to avoid pain is to distance yourself, to look down on them from the rescuer’s perch, but that denies them what they most urgently need: to be useful, to belong to a place. This I believe is the way to help the displaced. It is what we owe each other: to love, to bring in outsiders.”

Nayeri sums up: “What a thing. To be loved by a stranger. To have a stranger bother to meddle in your life.” 

Will you bother to meddle in others’ lives today? It is costly, but worth it. I highly recommend Nayeri’s book to anyone who is involved in helping refugees to thrive. It is a gut-wrenching, perspective-shifting gift from a brilliantly skillful refugee author.

Buy your copy of The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You here!

 

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