Their Home Is Not Here

By Lindsay Hickman

March 2, 2020

Their Home Is Not Here

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri

This is one of the most insightful and disturbingly brilliant books I have read, mixing equal parts narrative memoir and investigative journalism. Now a U.S. citizen, Dina Nayeri tells her own history as a refugee and weaves it throughout with interviews of refugees in England, aid workers in Italy, survivors in Turkey, and individuals on the run from the law in the Netherlands. The Ungrateful Refugee is a perfect title; readers may feel Nayeri’s inner demons waging a war of gratefulness for the endless opportunities her citizenship in the United States has brought her as well as for the memories, roots, and customs her new status has taken away, particularly a close relationship with her father in Iran.

Nayeri was raised in the lap of reasonable luxury in Iran, a daughter of a dentist and a doctor. When she was eight years old her Christian mother took her and her little brother, Daniel, on an “adventure” of escape from Iran to Dubai, to Italy, and to the United States, finally settling in Oklahoma. In each new home, Nayeri finds something different from the hijabs, education, and sour cherries of her childhood and youth. In Dubai, at Nayeri’s mothers’ instance, she and her brother begin learning English, swimming, and studying. No matter if her mother must pick old school books out of dumpsters, or they need to sleep in a room filled with cockroaches and mice, her children are strongly encouraged to study. The book shows a great respect and appreciation for how libraries, particularly in the United States, aid immigrants.

Nayeri’s mother was determined that her children learn English and be Westernized. It’s a heart-wrenching tale because both children, Dina and Daniel, end up very well off in America, yet Nayeri’s mother, who held a Ph.D. in Iran, must work factory jobs to make ends meet. Her English is poor, and she suffers a good deal of prejudice. Nayeri wrestles with the costs of such assimilation on her family throughout the memoir.

One of her key points is the stagnant “process” of waiting whether in a hostel, a refugee camp, a hotel, or even on a boat. Waiting is torture for the refugee. Yet this torture is well known to most people fleeing their home country. Nayeri’s mother tried her best to fill the waiting time with learning.

Underscoring the stagnation of waiting, we are taken on a trip through the refugee camps in Europe: Greece, France, England, and the Netherlands. Each of these camps possesses a different level of degradation and dehumanization to its detainees. Some try and make the time easier by maintaining bits of their home culture like religious holidays, bartering handmade goods, and playing soccer. But many languish in endless waiting. For those in the world of the in between-citizen, the illegal, the outcast, the apostate, too many live and die in these camps.

Nayeri interviews refugees throughout Europe who have had to physically fight for food and shelter. In one poignant interview, she speaks to a couple who begs her to adopt their daughter, a young girl with medical problems who they know will not survive the camp. The camps, no matter in Turkey, Italy, or Holland, are akin to the Wild West; there is little security from other refugees, violence is a nightly occurrence in Turkish camps, and everywhere parents try and keep their boys from joining gangs. Some refugees who have found citizenship and a home outside of a camp’s walls return because they are stricken with loneliness away from their own culture and community. They come back to connect with others of their culture, so they feel they belong.

While some might think this book is about politics or East-versus-West, it is not. It is about the global refugee crisis. It is about people without a country and without a home, who don’t belong where they came from or where they are going. This book is about the people who try and find a way around the gates, the rules, the barriers of language, culture, dialect, and borders to create a life for themselves and their families.

Nayeri was able to assimilate as a child and learn English before she arrived in the United States. Most refugees, however, are not so lucky. Instead, they walk into a camp not knowing the language, or sometimes even the continent they are on.

One sickening trial Nayeri explains in the book is the “interview” process at various camps in the Netherlands. The interviews, conducted by groups of people, are truly interrogations, not in the refugee’s own language but in the host country’s language. An example is a lesbian woman who explains why she has run away from Ethiopia to escape jail and possibly death. The woman claims that her Dutch interviewers suspected she was lying about her sexual orientation, so they wanted a detailed account of her sexual relations with other women, even details about her partners’ looks, preferences in bed, and more. Another victim from the same camp was “released” into the custody of an interviewer who took her home to be gangraped. While this is not the story of every refugee Nayeri interviewed, it seems that every refugee knows a similar story.

There are heartwarming stories. One is of Kaweh Beheshtizadeh, a British Iranian immigration lawyer who now helps refugees find homes in Great Britain. Beheshtizadeh escaped Iran in 2004, in the back of a truck with six other young men. At twenty-three, he found himself in trouble with the law for being a pro-Kurdish activist. He arrived in England knowing no English and was granted asylum, but he was forbidden to work. Since he had endless free time, Beheshtizadeh spent days at the local Cardiff library, first learning English, then reading and memorizing laws. Once he was granted citizenship, he studied to pass the bar exam and is now one of the most famous immigration lawyers in Great Britain.

Then, there is the description of the nailed teddy bears. Refugees nail teddy bears to the walls of their cramped homes, whether they be shipping containers, cubicles, or tents. Why? Because that’s one of the main donations people send. Thousands of teddy bears are dumped every month at refugee sites: Not food, not blankets, not medicine, not toiletries. Teddy bears. These teddy bears show the disconnect between citizens in much of the West and refugees. Refugees struggle, not only while they are traveling, but also when they reach a new land. They have trouble finding work and saving money. The cruelty and callousness of the immigrant’s plight are detailed throughout Nayeri’s book but, for me, the teddy bears were unforgettable.

Why should refugees be grateful to enter a country that doesn’t want them? Why should refugees be thankful for a country that doesn’t allow them to work, to live, to learn? Why should we read refugees’ stories of trauma and persecution?

Nayeri has an answer: “Like stories, villages and cities are always growing or fading or melding into each other. We are all immigrants from the past, and home lives inside the memory, where we lock it up and pretend it is unchanged.”

Nayeri leaves the reader, I believe, with a key idea: Time marches on for the person with a home and a country but not for the refugee. While people are in camps, they have no way to truly understand how much time has passed. Once refugees become citizens, it is difficult for them to understand how much the world, including their old homeland, has changed.

Nayeri ends by reflecting and imagining how much the refugee camps or “homes” she stayed in have changed. She wants to go back and taste the local foods, smell the unique stenches, feel the warmth of the people and places she called her own. But each camp, each home, each place on the map has changed just as much as Nayeri herself has, having grown from an eight-year-old child into a woman with a daughter and now an author.

When do the exile years finally end? My fear is that they never will; being marooned again is at once a refugee’s nightmare and craving. It’s a strange affliction that we immigrants share. The longing to return begins almost the instant the refugee has settled into their host country. The dream of return fuels the desire to live, and until then, to wander. We settle and take root only in each other, planting ourselves like roses at each other’s houses.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri

Catapult Press
$26.00 | Buy Now


Lindsay Hickman


Lindsay Hickman is completing her Master of Arts In Writing at Coastal Carolina University. Lindsay is the Design Editor for The Waccamaw Literary Journal. When she isn’t writing or reading she loves to take her dog, Jethro, to the beach. 



Keywords: book review
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