Dina Nayeli was just a child when she fled Iran as an asylum seeker. But as she settled into life in the US and then Europe, she became suspicious of the idea that refugees should shed their old identities and be eternally thankful.
A few weeks ago I dusted off my expired Iranian passport photo, an unsmiling eight-year-old version of me – stunned, angry, wearing tight grey hijab and staring far beyond the camera. It’s not the face of a child on the verge of rescue, though I would soon escape Iran. I have kept that old photograph hidden since the day I threw away my last headscarf, and now it’s the bewildered face and parted lips, not the scarf, that capture my interest.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t reconcile this child with the frazzled American writer in my recent pictures.
In 1985, when I was six years old, my family left our home in Isfahan for several months to live in London. The move was temporary, a half-hearted stab at emigration; nonetheless, I was enrolled in school. In Iran I had only attended nursery, never school, and I spoke only Farsi.
At first, the children were welcoming, teaching me English words using toys and pictures, but within days the atmosphere around me had changed. Years later, I figured that this must have been how long it took them to tell their parents about the Iranian kid. After that, a group of boys met me in the yard each morning and, pretending to play, pummelled me in the stomach. They followed me in the playground and shouted gibberish, laughing at my dumbfounded looks.
A few weeks later, two older boys pushed my hand into a doorjamb and slammed it shut on my little finger, severing it at the first segment. I was rushed to the hospital, carrying a piece of my finger in a paper napkin. The segment was successfully reattached.
I never went back to that school, but later, in the chatter of the grownups from my grandmother’s church and even in my parents’ soothing whispers, I heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected me and so I shouldn’t look at the event in a negative light. It was my moment to shine! Besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys? Maybe they were just playing, trying to include me though I didn’t speak a word of their language. Wasn’t that a good thing?
Eventually we returned to Iran. I was put under a headscarf and sent to an Islamic girls’ school.
Three years later, my mother, brother and I left Iran for real, this time after my mother had been dragged to jail for converting to Christianity, after the moral police had interrogated her three times and threatened her with execution.
We became asylum seekers, spending two years in refugee hostels in Dubai and Rome. By that time I had lived my first eight years in the belly of wartime Iran – for most of the 80s, the Iran-Iraq war wrecked our country and trapped us in a state of almost constant fear. I had grown accustomed to the bomb sirens, the panicked dashes down to the basement, the taped-up windows.
So the time that followed, the years in refugee hostels, felt peaceful, a reprieve from all the noise. My mother urged me to thank God in my prayers.
When I was 10, we were accepted by the United States and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first gulf war began. By the time of our arrival in the American south, the nail on my pinkie had grown back, my hair was long, and I was (according to my mother) pretty and funny and smart.
The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange “ching-chongese” intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected – but I wasn’t Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America? If you want to mock me, I wanted to say, dig down to the guttural “kh”s and “gh”s, produce some phlegm, make a camel joke; don’t “ching-chong” at me, you mouth-breather. (See? I had learned their native insults well enough.)
Of course, I didn’t say that. And I didn’t respond when they started in on the cat-eating and the foot-binding. I took these stories home and my mother and I laughed over chickpea cookies and cardamom tea – fragrant foods they might have mocked if only they knew. By then it was clear to me that these kids had met one foreigner before, and that unfortunate person hailed from south-east Asia.
I needn’t have worried, though; the geographically correct jokes were coming. Like the boys in London, these kids soon spoke to their parents, and within weeks, they had their “turban jockeys” and their “camel-fuckers” loaded and ready to go.
Meanwhile, I was battling with my teacher over a papier-mache topographical map of the US, a frustrating task that was strangely central to her concerns about my American assimilation. When I tried to explain to her that only a few months before I had lived with refugees outside Rome, and that most of the social studies work baffled me, she looked at me sleepily and said: “Awww, sweetie, you must be so grateful to be here.”
Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.
The children were merciless in their teasing, and soon I developed a tic in my neck. Other odd behaviours followed. Each time something bad happened, I would repeat a private mantra, the formula I believed was the reason for my luck so far, and my ticket to a second escape – maybe even a life I would actually enjoy. I said it again and again in my head, and sometimes accidentally aloud:
I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I’m the smartest in my class. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I’m the smartest in my class.
That last sentiment (which I did a poor job of hiding) didn’t go over too well. What right did I, a silly Iranian, have to think I was better than anyone?
Still, my mother suffered more. In Iran, she had been a doctor. Now she worked in a pharmaceuticals factory, where her bosses and co-workers daily questioned her intelligence, though they had a quarter of her education. The accent was enough. If she took too long to articulate a thought, they stopped listening and wrote her off as unintelligent. They sped up their speech and, when she asked them to slow down, they sighed and rolled their eyes. If someone messed up a formula, she was the sole target for blame.
The hate did eventually wane; some would say that that’s the natural cycle of things. We assimilated. No longer dark strangers from war-torn lands, at some point we stopped frightening them. We went to work, to school, to church. We grew familiar, safe, no longer the outsiders.
I don’t believe in that explanation. What actually happened was that we learned what they wanted, the hidden switch to make them stop simmering. After all, these Americans had never thought we were terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists or violent criminals. From the start, they knew we were a Christian family that had escaped those very horrors. And they, as a Protestant community, had accepted us, rescued us.
But there were unspoken conditions to our acceptance, and that was the secret we were meant to glean on our own: we had to be grateful. The hate wasn’t about being darker, or from elsewhere. It was about being those things and daring to be unaware of it. As refugees, we owed them our previous identity. We had to lay it at their door like an offering, and gleefully deny it to earn our place in this new country. There would be no straddling. No third culture here.
That was the key to being embraced by the population of our town, a community that openly took credit for the fact that we were still alive, but wanted to know nothing of our past. Month after month, my mother was asked to give her testimony in churches and women’s groups, at schools and even at dinners. I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story.
The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like, what fruits we grew in our yard, what books we read, what music we loved and what it felt like now not to understand any of the songs on the radio. No one asked if we missed our cousins or grandparents or best friends. No one asked what we did in summers or if we had any photos of the Caspian Sea.
“Men treat women horribly there, don’t they?” the women would ask. Somehow it didn’t feel OK to tell them about my funny dad with his pockets full of sour cherries, or my grandpa who removed his false teeth when he told ghost stories.
Such memories, of course, would imply the unthinkable: that Iran was as beautiful, as fun, as energising and romantic, as Oklahoma or Montana or New York.
From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities – every quirk and desire that made us us – and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here.
My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla.
I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.
In 1994, when I was 15, we became American citizens. I was relieved, overjoyed and genuinely grateful. We attended a citizenship ceremony on the football field of a local college campus. It was the Fourth of July and dozens of other new citizens would be sworn in with us.
It was a bittersweet day, the stadium filled with cheering locals, a line of men, women and children winding around and around the field towards a microphone at the end zone, where each of us would be named and sworn in.
I remember staring in wonder at the others in line: I didn’t realise there were this many other brown and yellow people in Oklahoma. Yes, there were a handful of black people, a few Jews here or there. But this many Indians? This many Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Chinese and Bangladeshis and Iranians and Afghans? Where had they been hiding? (Not that I had looked.)
Halfway through the ceremony, an Indian man, around 80 years old, was led to the microphone, where he introduced himself and swore allegiance to the United States. When he was finished, he raised his fists and thrashed the sky. “I AM AMERICAN!” he shouted into the microphone. “FINALLY, I AM AMERICAN!” The crowd erupted, joining his celebration. As he stepped away, he wobbled and collapsed from the effort, but someone caught him. He turned back and smiled to the crowd to show he was OK, that this fit of joy hadn’t killed him, then walked away.
That’s my favourite day as an American, my first one, still unsurpassed. No one was putting on a face that day. No one felt obliged or humbled, imagining their truer home. That old man was heaving with love. The people in the stands were roaring with it.
It’s a complicated memory for me now. I refuse to deny the simple and vast beauty of it, though I know they cheered not the old man himself, but his spasm of gratitude, an avowal of transformation into someone new, into them.
Years passed. I became as American as a girl can be, moved far away, grew into my mind and body and surrounded myself with progressive, educated friends. The bad feelings disappeared. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it. I moved around with ease, safely flashing my American passport, smiling brightly when customs officers squinted at my place of birth. It didn’t matter: I was no longer an asylum seeker. I had long ago been accepted. I had a stellar education.
My confidence showed (and maybe it helped that I had caramel highlights in my hair). Again and again I was welcomed “home” at JFK with a polite nod or a smile.
Other immigrants have written about this moment: the “welcome home” at JFK, its power on the psyche after long flights. For me, as soon as those words leave the officer’s mouth, my confidence is replaced by a gush of gratitude. “Thank you!” I say breathlessly. Thank you for saying it’s my home. Thank you for letting me in again. In that instant before my passport is returned to me, I’m the old man punching the air.
When I was 30, I had another citizenship ceremony. This one wasn’t the sleepless obsession that the American one had been. It was simply that I had married a French citizen, he had applied on my behalf, and, having passed the language and culture tests by a whisker, I became a Frenchwoman of sorts. I travelled a lot in those days and so I decided to have my fingerprints taken (the last step in the paperwork) on a stopover in New York.
The police officer whose job it was to oversee the process asked why a nice girl like me needed fingerprints. I told him, to which he replied: “Couldn’t you find an American man?”
Though I hadn’t given it much thought back then, I said: “American men don’t like me.” He gave me a puzzled look, so I added, “The American men I know never try to impress you … or not me, at least. They think I should feel lucky to have them.”
He gave a weary sigh. “No man likes to work for it.”
“Some men work for it,” I said, trying to sound defiant.
He laughed and bashed my fingers into the ink.
My second citizenship ceremony was held at the French embassy in Amsterdam (my then home) beside families from Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and a number of sub-Saharan countries. The image that stays with me is of families singing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The awe in their faces as they sang that song, every word practised, moved me. Even the small children straightened their shoulders and sang from memory. I had made a stab at memorising the words, but mostly I read off a sheet. I was proud, but they were experiencing something else: a transformation, a rebirth. They were singing their way into a joyous new life. I took a moment to think of that old Indian man from years before, to do an imaginary fist-pump in his honour.
I’ve been moving back and forth between New York and Europe pretty much my entire adult life. When I lived in Amsterdam, even highly educated people openly complained of “too many Moroccans and Turks” in certain neighbourhoods. Geert Wilders, the head of the far-right Party for Freedom, had warned that the country would soon become “Nether-Arabia”.
In Amsterdam, I got to know Iranian refugees who didn’t have my kind of luck with their asylum applications. One man in our community set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011. He had lived in Amsterdam for a decade, following their rules, filling out their papers, learning their culture, his head always down. He did all that was asked of him and, in the end, he was driven to erase his own face, his skin.
Remembering Kambiz Roustayi, a man who only wanted a visa, his family and his own corner of the world, I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind don’t do enough. You don’t know what grateful is, I want to say. You haven’t seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You don’t know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. Sometimes all that’s left of value in an exile’s life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as tribute.
With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, I’ve seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth.
Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: “Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.
But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?
This semester, I’m teaching an American literature course at a private international school in London. My students have come with their families from all over the world and have empathy and insight, but for the most part, they have lived privileged lives.
For the last semester, I’ve forced them to read nothing but “outsider fiction”. Stories by immigrants and people of colour. Stories about poverty. Stories about being made to sit on the periphery.
Most are loving it, but some are frustrated. “I’ve already learned the race stuff,” one said, after our third story with a protagonist of colour. More than one parent advised me that Bharati Mukherjer and James Baldwin are not important when these kids have yet to read “classic writers” such as Harper Lee (because how could they develop their literary taste if they hadn’t first grounded themselves in the point of view of the impossibly saintly white family?).
Even among empathetic, worldly students, I’m finding a grain of this same kind of expectation: the refugee must make good. If, in one of our stories, an immigrant kills himself (Bernard Malamud’s The Refugee), they say that he wasted his opportunity, that another displaced person would have given anything for a shot at America. They’re right about that, but does that mean that Malamud’s refugee isn’t entitled to his private tragedies? Is he not entitled to crave death? Must he first pay off his debt to his hosts and to the universe?
Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilised people don’t ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldn’t matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying “Welcome home”.
But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view.
If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.
In 2015, I moved to England again, a place I no longer associated with the permanently numb tip of my little finger, or the strange half-sensation of typing the letter “a” on a keyboard.
I became a mother in a London hospital. Now I have a little girl who already looks Iranian. The first major event of her life was Brexit. The second was Trump’s election. At 5am on Brexit morning, as I was feeding her, the memory of my pinkie returned. We had just learned of the referendum results. On Facebook, every former immigrant I knew released a collective shudder – all of them recalling their first days in England or America or Holland. They began sharing their stories.
What I remembered was that boy who pushed my finger into the hinge of a door. That other boy who slammed the door shut. They’re adults now. Most likely, they’ve lived lives much like their parents, the ones who taught them to hate me in 1985. Most likely they believe the same things. England doesn’t want us, I thought. It doesn’t want my daughter. It doesn’t want me.
Nowadays, I often look at the white line through my pinkie nail, and I think I finally understand why gratefulness matters so much. The people who clarified it for me were my students, with their fresh eyes and stunning expectations, their harsh, idealistic standards that every person should strive and prove their worth, their eagerness to make sense of the world. They saw right through to the heart of the uneasy native.
During our discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s A Displaced Person, the class began unpacking Mrs Shortley’s hatred of Mr Guizac, the Polish refugee whose obvious talents on the farm would soon lead to her mediocre husband’s dismissal as a farmhand. “She’s seen the images from the Holocaust, the piles of bodies in Europe,” said one student. “So if one of those bodies in the pile can escape death and come to America and upend her life, then how much is she worth?”
I was stunned silent (a rare thing for me). By the time I formulated my next question the conversation had moved on, and so I presented the question to my next class. “Would anything be any different, then, if Mr Guizac had been grateful to Mrs Shortley for making room for him?”
Around the table every head shook. No. Of course not. Nothing would change. “Mrs Shortley wants to be above him, to be benevolent, to have control,” said one insightful student. “Once the guy starts doing better on his own, control goes, no matter how grateful he acts.”
The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way gratitude will be accepted.
Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories?
And that’s precisely it – one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. You’re not enough until you’re too much. You’re lazy until you’re a greedy interloper.
In many of the classes I’ve taught, my quietest kids have been Middle Eastern. I’m always surprised by this, since the literature I choose should resonate most with them, since I’m an Iranian teacher, their ally, since the civilised world yearns for their voices now. Still, they bristle at headlines about the refugee crisis that I flash on the screen, hang their heads, and look relieved when the class is finished.
Their silence makes me angry, but I understand why they don’t want to commit to any point of view. Who knows what their universe looks like outside my classroom, what sentiments they’re expected to display in order to be on the inside.
Still, I want to show those kids whose very limbs apologise for the space they occupy, and my own daughter, who has yet to feel any shame or remorse, that a grateful face isn’t the one they should assume at times like these. Instead they should tune their voices and polish their stories, because the world is duller without them – even more so if they arrived as refugees.
Because a person’s life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now there’s just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.
Dina Nayeri’s new novel, Refuge will be published by Riverhead Books in July