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Dina Nayeri on the Campbell Conversations

Dina Nayeri
Dina Nayeri

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher:  Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. Refugees and their resettlement have been prominent and challenging issues in the United States and throughout the world in recent years. My guest today is both a refugee and a writer on the topic. Dina Nayeri is originally from Iran, who was granted asylum to the United States when she was ten years old. She's the author of, “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You”, and more recently, “Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn't Enough”. Her writing has garnered many awards and accolades. Professor Nayeri is also on the faculty of St. Andrews University in Scotland. Professor Nayeri, welcome to the program.

DN: Well, thank you for having me.

GR: It's great to have you. So, let me start with your first book, “The Ungrateful Refugee…”, and the title of that book, I think contains a deliberately provocative word, which is, “ungrateful”. So could you unpack the meaning of that word for the issues that you're dealing with in that book?

DN: Sure. I think in many ways this was a taking back of a phrase you hear a lot. And I think from the very beginning, you know, when I was a kid arriving in Oklahoma in the U.S. and in the 90’s, you know, you did hear people put those two words together, ungrateful refugee, which implies that you should not only be grateful, but you should be performing your gratitude for the benefit of the people already there, which, of course, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It also didn't make a lot of sense to me because refugees are naturally, like the instinct is absolute gratitude to God and the government who's accepted you. I mean, your life has just been saved. So once you arrive, all you want to do is be useful. All you want to do is like, you know, pray and be with your community and say thanks, you know? What you don't want, though, is people who are born way luckier telling you to perform that gratitude. That irks, that feels awful. And I think there's a lot of people who do feel compelled to do that sort of like, gratitude theater and performance. So for me, it was you know, I wanted to take back that phrase. I wanted to kind of make people ask why. You know, we say ungrateful refugee, but we don't say, oh, she's an ungrateful physicist (laughter). You know, like there's this assumption that this is something that has to be a part of their lives now, an experience. And I want to challenge that, I think gratitude is private, and I think it's something that it's between us and our communities and our people that we love and our deities.

GR: So what are the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees that the people living in the host countries least understand? Is that what you just set forward there, or is there something else that people just don't get about refugees usually?

DN: I think there's a lot that people don't understand, and I think that's why I divided the first book into five parts. You know, it has kind of the entire arc of the refugee experience, and the five parts were, you know, escape and waiting and camps and things. There was asylum and asylum storytelling. There was assimilation, and then there was cultural repatriation. And the reason I divided it into those five parts is because there are things in each of those parts that you know, the native born don't really understand. And I think it'd be helpful they would want to understand because a lot of them want to do well, want to be kind, want to, you know, kind of help people adjust to a new life. But they make mistakes inadvertently. And I think one thing that I did with the book that I wanted to help kind of bridge that gap, is to kind of compare each of these moments with something that's very universal. We all experience, for example, the camp portion. It's about waiting and we've all been faced with waiting. We've all been forced to wait by someone with authority and it's infuriating. You know, it's the worst place to be. And I think to understand how the biggest burden of a refugee camp is not those tangible needs, it's the waiting, it's the not knowing, you know? Or, for example, asylum storytelling. We've all told stories and situations where we really need the other person to believe us, you know, and just how incredible actually it makes us when we need that person to believe us, it makes us worse. It makes us perform the story worse, you know? And I think that that's something else that's worth understanding. But I think what over arches all of this that I think I would communicate to people, is to be aware of the fact that once you've lost everything and arrive in a new country, more than first order needs, you are consumed by your loss of identity and your shame. You know, there is so much. And I think there's a lot people do that they could do differently that can help, you know, refugees overcome that shame quicker. You know, like, don't give charity from like the perch of the helper, don't put yourself above that, there's so much. I think it's all about like, approaching these newcomers with the same curiosity and welcome that you would anybody else, you know, that comes to your community.

GR: You know, I think finding that theme of finding the universality of it was very effective. So, you also blend in memoir along with the broader reflections and the analysis as you have in the book. So could you just briefly tell us your own story as a refugee?

DN: Sure. I mean, I was born in Iran in 1979, which is right around, well, right when the revolution happened. So before that in the Iran of my parents, this was a secular Iran under the, you know, kind of a monarchy which had its own problems. But you know, it was an Iran that was kind of becoming more modern and progressive. There were the arts and literature and modern people, it was very, it was an interesting place. But then the Islamic Republic came in and changed all that, put the women under the veil, took away so many of their rights, started persecuting religious minorities and then the war happened too with Iraq. So my story is that my mother was a Christian convert, she converted to Christianity when I was six. And she was part of an underground church and deeply involved with all that. And she was also a doctor, so she treated a lot of vulnerable women. And so she started kind of talking about, Christianity was like her feminism, you know? And so as she got into trouble and she got put in jail and we had to escape because her life was in danger. So we escaped the country when I was eight years old and we were two years displaced, part of that time just undocumented in Dubai and then part of that time in Italy in a refugee camp before we were given asylum in the U.S.

GR: Wow. So I have to ask this question, and I hope you won't resent it, but do you ever desire to return to Iran?

DN: Oh, no, why would I resent that question? I do, I do want to. I mean, I imagine myself being able to go back there, you know, and I think one thing we all dream about, you know, the diaspora, the Iranian diaspora, is to kind of step foot in the Caspian Sea again, you know, to go into the mountains and the little villages. I mean, one of the wonderful things about Iran, I think an experience Americans won’t have had is that it's a country where the cities can be very modern. Everyone's like got their phones and, you know, wi-fi and they understand American culture. And, you know, you have people who know music and literature and all that stuff. And then like half an hour away, you could be in a village that hasn't changed in 200 years. And like with a grandmother who hasn't changed in all that time and, you know, really get the experience so just being immersed in a truly natural, bucolic, beautiful place that is untouched, I guess, by time. And that's what I miss. I want to go and like grill fish on the Caspian with some grandmothers.

GR: That sounds wonderful. Now, some people might say some of the same things about Scotland that you just said about villages that haven't changed in 200 years.

DN: This is one of the reasons I love it. I mean, I can go half an hour this way and start hiking in the Highlands and like run into people who are just like, wonderful in that way.

GR: You're listening to the casual conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Dina Nayeri. She's the author of, “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You”, and “Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn't Enough”. So, a broader question now. Are there are there significant trends in the prevalence of movements of refugees that you've been aware of in recent years that we should know about?

DN: Well, I mean, we know the big ones. And I should say that I'm not like a geopolitical analyst of any kind. But, you know, I write about people's individual stories. But, you know, you've seen what's going on in the world. You've got, you know, people from Ukraine and Palestine and other places. But I think the kind of trends I'm interested in is people's attitudes toward those refugees, you know, not necessarily what happens, but what happens among, you know, the native born as they receive these people. And what I've seen in the U.K. is kind of a disturbing difference between how they treat the white refugees you know, like Ukraine versus, say, the refugees from the Middle East and Africa. It's a different attitude, it's a different level of empathy and that makes me sad, you know, because, of course, they all come from places of like ruin and ravage and war and all wish for the same kind of opportunity to rebuild.

GR: I noticed that when I was in England as well for several summers in terms of the attitudes toward immigrants. The Polish immigrants, for example, were pretty warmly received, but not so much some of the ones that you're talking about. There is one thing that I personally was surprised to learn, and I just wanted to put it out there and see if you had thoughts about it. But I was surprised recently to learn that the majority of refugees in the world, they resettle in the Southern Hemisphere. And I think there's a stereotype in the United States that this is a phenomenon that largely takes place in the industrialized West, that's where all the refugees are going. But they're fleeing and going to neighboring countries that are in that area.

DN: Yeah, most of them, I don't know the exact numbers right now, but that's absolutely right. Most displaced people actually either get displaced with in their own country, just something happens that they move or in a neighboring country, and, you know, they stay, they settle and that’s it. Iran has a lot of refugees from Afghanistan, for example, who settle and become Iranian. I think it's very easy for us to just look at things from the point of view of the West, like, oh, look at all these people coming. I mean, they're a tiny fraction of all of the people who have had to move. You know, there isn't this idea that, oh, we want to come and like en masse settle in the West. I think they just want to get to safety. Sometimes safety means coming to the West. For example, people like my family, if you are, you know, an outspoken Christian in a Muslim country, it doesn't help you to settle in a neighboring country, you know, what I mean? Like, they're all Muslim countries, you have to just get out of that region and try to find your way to a country that has religious freedom, you know? So, for example, in the book there's a story of how we were in Dubai for ten months and then my mother got in trouble with Dubai. Because they found out and they were going to deport her back and so the UNHCR had to kind of step in and say, these are refugees and we'll take them. And then they took us to Italy, which was a safe country for Christians, while they sorted out where we belong.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Dina Nayeri. She's a professor at St Andrews University in Scotland and the author of, “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You”, and more recently, “Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn't Enough”. And we've been discussing the issues that she raises in those two books. So you'll probably be interested to hear this, Dina, but Syracuse is a federally designated refugee resettlement area, along with cities like Utica and Rochester. So this whole area up here in Central New York. And it's my impression, I think it's widely shared that these waves of refugee populations that have come in have really helped to revitalize these cities, in particular Utica. But you also see it in Syracuse, both economically and certainly culturally. And I think it's to the point now where it's part of Syracuse's identity as a city, that this is this is who we are. So I'm just wondering, is that your sense of the general impact of having refugees come to any particular area that you get that dynamic?

DN: It is. I think, first of all, that's wonderful to hear and I can't wait to be there and see for myself. It's very exciting. I always love to hear about communities that welcome refugees and that are changed by them because I think one thing that I want to make sure people understand is that this is only good for everyone, it's only like, wonderful. Refugees for the most part, you know, what they want to do is come and immediately get back on their feet, be useful, help put their skills to good use and to like, you know, show, I mean, it's such a shared compulsion that they want to show the native born that they were worth it, you know, that they will add something to that community. And often they do because, you know, refugees come from all walks of life and they have all kinds of skills and professions and talents and they put them to use there. But another thing is I think, you know, in the U.K. and parts of the U.K. and the U.S., I've also heard these fears about, oh, will they change our culture? Will they change, you know, the feeling of our cities? And like for me, you have to take such a long term view because when I was growing up in Oklahoma, for example, nobody from the Middle East to come into my community and changing the culture was essentially us, you know, adding our foods to the mix in the church and like bringing our music and our songs and things like that. And all those things were actually joyful to receive for our community. But nowadays, like 20 years has passed and like, say, for example, nobody would bat an eye at somebody bringing hummus to a church. You know, like people, like your regular everyday American is like feeding the foods that we brought 20 years ago, you know, to their children and it doesn't make them less American. It doesn't take away from their family culture because that's how change works. Like time works that way, no matter how much you try to keep people out, the fact is that the world is going to change your children and make them different from you, you know? And so all of these influences that you're so afraid of actually are going to just enrich, you know, who your children are in a different way. You're not going to miss that the, you know, who they would have been had they had maybe a little bit less of this influence and a little more of this. You can't control that stuff, you know? So I think it's a much happier existence for a community to embrace everything everyone has to bring and to like just create like a much richer tapestry, you know? And I think those are the communities that thrive and they do so for a reason.

GR: So let's shift to your more recent book, “Who Gets Believed?...” What are the main issues that you're wrestling with there in that book?

DN: Well, the book came out of, you know, the last one and that, you know, as I said, I was doing this the different stages of the refugee life. And I was doing a lot of research. I put in stories from current refugees and people who had just received asylum or were on their way. And I had woven together my own story with theirs throughout this book. But after I finished it, I found myself just constantly returning to one of the sections, which was storytelling. You know, how asylum seekers and refugees are forced to tell their story in asylum interviews, but also in other contexts, too, and how those stories are received. And I had all of these extra other stories that I hadn't yet put in the book, but there was one in particular I was absolutely obsessed with that I couldn't put in the first book because the Supreme Court case was still ongoing and I hadn't yet met him and his lawyer, and it was such a big story and it hadn't quite come together. And that was the story of KV. And KV was a refugee who came from Sri Lanka, and he came in 2011 at a time where Sri Lanka was actually putting out a lot of refugees, and a lot of them came in with these very characteristics, torture scars on their backs, you know, and their arms. Because the Sri Lankan detention camps, the Sri Lankan authorities, were torturing people with hot soldering irons, you know, in the same way over and over and over again, if they suspected that they had helped the Tamil Tigers in any way or resistance groups, you know? So he came in, KV came in to the U.K. with these exact same scars and somewhere along the line I guess, the asylum officer who heard his story had been desensitized to this story, these pictures. She or he had seen one too many, you know, and rejected his case for a completely made up reason that had been recently made up precisely because too many people were coming in with these same scars, which is that they called itself infliction by proxy. Like he put the scars on his own back they said in order to get asylum. Like, forget the fact that all of the humanitarian organizations are saying this is characteristic of Sri Lanka at the time and that all the doctors were saying nobody would do this to themselves. Still, they rejected him and it took years of going through the system before the Supreme Court said this is absurd, you cannot create an entirely made up category and like attach such a burden of proof to the other categories that you kind of dump everyone into this one, which has no burden of proof, you know? So that story had me so enthralled that I had to you know, include it. But it also made me want to expand out from refugees to other vulnerable people who are not believed for one reason or another. You know, we have the wrongfully convicted, we have people trying to get particular types of medicine or medical attention. You know, a lot of times vulnerable people, the poor people of color, you know, being disbelieved by, you know, the people who are meant to help them. So I started gathering stories for those. And of course, again, I wove a memoir because I had a childhood obsession with how to be believed. And not only that, but I had been a refugee and I had also been someone who, like, came up through places like McKinsey and Harvard Business School and these places of, like, you know, kind of elite education where they taught you how to be believed. And as a former refugee, I was just appalled all the time by some of the things and some of the tools that were handed to the privileged, I guess, that I was now, you know, one of. So I felt that this was a topic that was rooted in my obsessions and also, you know, important because I had all these stories.

GR: Well, this next question is related to this in a way, but gets at it somewhat differently and that is, it seems to me you mentioned, you know, putting everybody in one category rather than seeing the differences that are there and it's related to that. It seems to me that the distinctions between refugees and more traditionally considered immigrants are becoming blurred, at least in the United States, the way they get talked about. And I just wondered if, A, is that impression correct and if it is correct, what do you think it reflects?

DN: Well, I mean, it depends on who you're talking to, because the thing is that the distinction is blurry. You know, it is blurry because the world is changing. There's all kinds of reasons people get displaced, all different types of circumstances. And it's really hard to interpret something like the refugee convention. So just for our listeners who don't know the exact definition of a refugee, you know, after World War Two, you know, the nations, Europe and America, they got together and they signed the Refugee Convention, which is an agreement that they would take in people who have been displaced and in danger and who can't go back to their countries based on five characteristics. So that the danger has to be because of your race, religion, national identity, political opinion or membership in a social group. So if you are in one of these five categories and you've been persecuted and you're in danger, then you are owed I guess, asylum, right? The trouble is, so the people who originally drafted this, they created that fifth category, membership in a social group, to be kind of a giant, et cetera. What they didn't want is for something like the Holocaust to happen again to a group that they didn't anticipate, right? So they were like, you don't know who the next persecuted group will be and why, so what we're going to say is something along the lines of, for any reason, you're in danger, right? But now, like countries are, you know, like people who want to narrow that definition and to close the doors are basically just essentially narrowing the definition, saying things like, well, women are not a social group, battered women are not a social group. You know, like if you're been involved with, if a gang has threatened you, you know, and you're in danger, that's not one of these categories or a social group. But the fact is, there's lots of different reasons people need to get away, you know? In Central America, you do have gang violence and threats, you have climate change, you have like people who have to run because they're the place are living isn't sustainable. And then you've got people that we call migrants, economic migrants who you know, have to get away because they are dying, you know, because they can't get food or work or whatever in the place that they live. For some reason, we separate them out and say they are not real refugees. Well, I think those lines should blur because the fact is that those people are in just as much danger. You know, at the end of the day, that's not a life any of us would accept either, you know? And so it is complex. It is hard to know where on that spectrum to draw the line. My personal, you know, ideals and beliefs say you draw them in a place that is generous, you know, a place where, like, if it was anything on this side of the line, you wouldn't be willing to live there because why should the accident of birth decide that, you know, you get to live happier than this other person?

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is the writer Dina Nayeri. We've got about 4 minutes left or so, but I want to try to squeeze in two more questions if I can. And you already anticipated the first one, you mentioned this at the very beginning of our conversation. You were saying that, you know, the current situation, there are going to be a lot of Palestinian refugees. And I did want to ask you, what do you anticipate happening regarding refugees and their resettlement as a result of the Israel-Hamas war? What would you think is going to be the place where they go and how is it going to work?

DN: I don't know. I'm not an expert in that region. I mean, I'm just kind of watching with horror like everyone else. You know, obviously, it's sad because this is not a group of people that a lot of the neighboring countries want, you know, like the doors seem to be closed from every direction. And also, you know, people don't want to leave. They don't want to leave their homes, so I think there's a lot of complicated issues there. I don't know, I have not like, I can't anticipate it. But I think as with every refugee crisis like this, you know, people in luckier countries should be ready to receive them, you know, we should kind of be a little bit better at thinking, what would we want if we were in that situation?

GR: And this last question is, I wanted to give you some time for it, because you mentioned also at the beginning suggestions about how the host people living in the host countries should be relating with the refugees and the things that they could do differently. And I did want to ask you, what do you think are the most important and doable changes in the refugee and asylum seeking process in the West? You know, particularly in the United States that you'd recommend.

DN: Yeah. I mean, I think there's lots of things that could be different short term and long term and within communities and also with the systems, you know, so just very quickly, within communities I think it's really important to, you know, tend to those first order needs, but also come, kind of to greet these people from a place of curiosity, the kind of curiosity you would have for someone new to your community that is kind of rooted in wanting to be their friend and friendship and welcome and all of that. From a, in terms of systems and asylum systems, et cetera, one of the biggest problems that I heard about from asylum lawyers is that not everyone gets equal representation. And some of the reasons that people get rejected and sent back into danger is because they come in and they're kind of forced to speak to an asylum officer before talking to any kind of legal representation. They say the wrong thing and immediately have themselves put in the wrong category. For example, if they come in and say something like, yes, well, you know, I was Christian minority in Iran and persecuted but also, you know, we had some money trouble, like, well there you go, they'll immediately put you in the economic migrant category because you said the wrong thing. One of the lawyers that I talked to said the number one predictor of whether or not someone will get asylum is nothing in their background but whether or not they have a lawyer. And that is not fair because then the rich will always do better. You know, people who have means and money and education will always do better, people who are closer to a Western culture always do better. Second thing is, I think there needs to be better training of asylum officers, you know, in cultural storytelling, the way that people tend to be, tend to tell their story in different cultures so that it doesn't, they don't think immediately that someone is acting suspiciously when they're really just telling their story according to their own cultural rules. But all that stuff is just, it's complicated and hard to implement and a little bit kind of longer term. But I think, yeah, there's a lot we can do.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Dina Nayeri. And again, her two books are, “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You”, and “Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn't Enough”. Also on Friday, November 10th, she'll be giving a talk at Syracuse University titled Reconsidering Refugees and Immigration. That's at 4 p.m. in the Maxwell Hall Auditorium. And for more information on that free event which is open to the public, please visit the website of the Maxwell School's Campbell Public Affairs Institute. But for now, we'll leave our conversation there. Dina, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. This is very interesting and insightful.

DN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations and the public interest.


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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.