The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay’

This story is sure to change the way you look at refugees. Dina Nayeri was just a child when she fled the country of Iran as an asylum seeker. But as she settled into her new life in the United States and Europe, she became overly suspicious of the idea that refugees should shed their old identities and forever be thankful for their new lives. A few weeks ago Nayeri dusted off her expired Iranian passport photo, of an unhappy eight-year-old version of herself, to find a stunned, angry, girl staring far beyond the camera. It’s not the face of a child who was on the verge of rescue. And while she would soon escape Iran after that photo was taken, she has kept that old photo hidden since the day she threw away her last headscarf. When she looks at that photo now its the bewildered face and the parted lips, not the headscarf, that capture her interest. Because no matter how hard Neyari tries, she cannot reconcile the child with the frazzled American writer in her recent pictures.

In 1985, when Nayeri was six years old, her family left their home in Isfahan for several months to live in London, England. The move was only temporary, a try at emigration, where she was enrolled in school. In Iran, she had only attended nursery school, never the school, and there she only spoke Farsi. At first, the children at the new school were welcoming, teaching her English words by using pictures and toys, but within days the atmosphere around Neyari would change. Years later, she thought that that must have been how long it took them to tell their parents about the Iranian kid at school. After that initial period, a group of boys met her in the yard each morning and, pretending to play, pummelled her in the stomach. They followed her in the playground and shouted gibberish, laughing at her dumbfounded look. A few weeks after that, two older boys from the school pushed her hand into a doorjamb and slammed it tightly shut on her little finger, severing it at the first segment. She was rushed to the hospital, carrying a piece of her finger in a paper napkin. The finger was successfully reattached.

She never went back to that new school, but later on, when she would hear talk amongst the grownups from her grandmother’s church and even in her parents’ whispers, she heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected her, and so she shouldn’t look at the event in a negative light. And besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys at the new school. Maybe they were just playing, trying to include her even though she didn’t speak a word of their language. Eventually, she would return to Iran with her family. She put back her headscarf and was sent to an Islamic girls’ school. Three years later, Nayeri, her mother, and brother left Iran after her mother had been dragged to jail for converting to Christianity after the police had interrogated her three times and then threatened her with execution. It was then that they became asylum seekers, spending two years in refugee hostels in the cities of Dubai and Rome. When she was 10, the family was accepted by the United States and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first Gulf war had begun. You will want to read the full story on the Guardian site.

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