THE UNGRATEFUL REFUGEE
What Immigrants Never Tell You
By Dina Nayeri
Dina Nayeri was not yet 6 years old in 1985 when she visited her eccentric maternal grandmother, Maman Moti, in London. Nayeri’s parents were both medical professionals in the city of Isfahan in Iran, where a bloody war with Iraq was raging and Iran’s revolutionary regime was still executing its opponents. In London, Nayeri’s grandmother, a Muslim by birth, had converted to Christianity and found freedom in her new religion. During that visit, in what appeared to be an act of rebellion, Nayeri’s mother also reached out to Jesus, knowing in Iran she would be considered an apostate, punishable by death.
Back in Isfahan, Nayeri became a target at school, where devout religious teachers harassed her. Her mother was arrested three times and her relationship with Nayeri’s father, an opium addict who abused her, deteriorated. Three years after the London trip, Nayeri and her mother and younger brother boarded a cargo plane and began a 16-month journey as asylum seekers in Dubai and Rome, until they settled down permanently in Oklahoma.
“The Ungrateful Refugee” finds Nayeri decades later, after she’s grown up in the United States, moved to Europe and gotten both American and French citizenships. But these pages are filled with flashbacks of the traumas she endured as a refugee, related in a voice that is both injured and at times angry. “For two decades, our escape defined me,” she declares early in the book. “It dominated my personality and compelled my every decision.” Life in Iran had been a fairy tale compared to that in Oklahoma, where she “lived in an apartment complex for the destitute and disenfranchised.”
But Nayeri shed both her accent and her Iranian identity to fit in her new home, where she thought she could grow up believing in herself. Her story is about the transplant’s struggle for acceptance in a society where discrimination is rampant. In Oklahoma, kids called her, among other vulgarities, “cat-eater, terrorist, sand-nigger.” She remained silent and tried to be grateful for her American life.