Dina Nayeri was invited to speak about her experiences as an Iranian refugee fleeing her home country, as told in her memoir The Ungrateful Refugee, at Boston College on Oct. 20, 2021.
Nayeri began her presentation by reading aloud the first chapter of her book, setting the scene at the moment she left Iran for Italy, where she stayed in Rome at the refugee camp Hotel Barba. Throughout the chapter, she transitioned into how her feelings about being a refugee changed and morphed over her time.
“After asylum was secured, we had to relive that story again and again, to earn our place, to calm casual skeptics. Every day of her new life, the refugee is asked to differentiate herself from the opportunist, the economic migrant,” quoted Nayeri.
Nayeri recounted being faced by an asylum officer while fleeing Iran and having to create a certain Western narrative in order to be granted asylum. There were both conscious and unconscious ways that the officer would be looking for that specific story, and Nayeri recalled the number one deciding factor for being allowed through: having a lawyer.
“If you are not telling that kind of story, just on the face of it, the refugee story that’s correct, if you haven’t studied the law, or if you don’t have a lawyer, then you’re stopped right there. They will actually say, we believe that your life is in danger, just not for the right reasons,” explained Nayeri.
This was the conscious way that officers were processing refugees to determine who should be protected. Nayeri then went on to state the unconscious way, the second predictor of whether or not refugees would be granted asylum: how close their culture was to that of Western countries.
“Whether that’s through geography, education, or social class…there’s a disconnect between what feels truthful to a Western listener, and what feels like the truth of their emotions to an Eastern person,” Nayeri elaborated.
This subconscious divide between Western and Eastern cultures played an enormous part in Nayeri’s and so many other refugees’ journeys to find asylum. Iranians were often taught to tell stories in completely different ways from what was considered relevant and truthful to a Western officer, and even with a lawyer, it could still prove difficult to tell the story the “right way.”
Nayeri also talked about her chameleon-like tendencies throughout her childhood, always changing her appearance and mannerisms to match those of the country she was currently living in. While she had prided herself on this quality in her youth, she now feels that it stripped her of her own national and personal identity, despite this camouflage being necessary.
“It is a murder of the past self because we’re talking about escape, not just leaving for a time. Nobody who leaves really believes they’ll come back. Refugees don’t believe they’ll come back,” stated Nayeri.
There would be nothing to come back to for Nayeri, and her saying goodbye to Iran was comparable to saying goodbye to her national identity. Every ounce of respect refugees once had in their home country was gone, and they had to relearn their whole lives to fit into a new, Western narrative.
However, even in the face of assimilation, Nayeri was still able to maintain dignity and pride in her own culture. She explained how she kept ownership of her identity; in all the ways that she changed, she was still able to keep certain attributes of her old self. For her, this was the difference between changing for herself and changing for other people.
“That more complicated kind of assimilation is the one that preserves dignity because it mirrors how we change every day if we had stayed in our own communities. It mirrors how we change every day as humans,” Nayeri articulated.
Nayeri explained how many hardships she and so many other refugees were forced to endure when undergoing their displacement. Through her writing and her speaking, she was able to share her unique story and provide insight to how she felt as an ungrateful refugee.