The Ungrateful Refugee is an earthquake ready to happen, an urgent mirror upheld, an act of remarkable empathy. It is an energetic call to reflect and reexamine. It is a provocative exploration of refugee life, informed by Nayeri's own experience and including the stories of many others. It's also a reframing of the world’s deteriorating attitude toward refugees in the thirty years since she herself fled Iran.
To call this book "timely" is to undermine it with cliche; Nayeri takes her reader into the lives of many different refugees. But as she notes, “I’m interested in . . . the feared 'swarms.'" She opts not for the most sensational refugees' stories, but the most normal, the most typical, to call attention to the way Western governments rank and privilege dangers and reasons to flee. Nayeri interrogates, by way of refugees' minibiographies, the prejudices, biases, and xenophobia wrought upon them by their asylum countries.
But The Ungrateful Refugee is not dry polemic. Nayeri is a beautiful writer. She has whole paragraphs of sentences like sharp arrows; her attention to detail is that of a decorated fiction writer. She's brilliant and searing and unflinching and generous and intimate in equal measure.
This book does not allow one to imagine refugees as a single type, an anonymous group; instead, Nayeri presents their wide and varied lives and motivations, as well as how rigged the system is against the unavoidable diversity of stories among refugees.
The author when asked why she wrote The Ungrateful Refugee: "The state of the world. I became a mother and was angry and heartbroken at the way the American response to refugees had changed since I arrived as a child. But I didn’t want to write a simple memoir. I had something more to say. I wanted to use all the rhetorical, persuasive, and narrative tools at my disposal, [as well as] other stories from today’s refugees, to say something new about the refugee crisis. I wanted to share my story and to say something that’s long gone unsaid about displacement and home."
The Ungrateful Refugee is also a book about reading, and the ways in which books have the power to change our lives.
Nayeri was a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick for A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, has had her novels translated into fourteen languages, won the 2018 Paul Engle Prize (most recently awarded to Roxane Gay and Alexander Chee), was a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, and is the only person ever to receive both an MBA from Harvard and an MFA from Iowa.
Bookseller praise for The Ungrateful Refugee
"How do you write about a book that leaves such a deep imprint in your heart? Dina Nayeri writes with such conviction that you get swept within the story, easily losing track of time and place as you journey with her in the search for an answer. I have read few books that so deeply impacted how I think about a crucial and defining issue in our culture, but if I had to place it in a category, I would put it with the sharp tenacity and unflinching nature of Kiese Laymon in Heavy, the unparalleled compassion and forbearing of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, with the research prowess of Beth Macy's Dopesick. Not an easy read but one that deeply challenges and changes you, and isn't that what enduring works are meant to do?" —Megan, Flyleaf Books (Chapel Hill, NC)
"Those of us living in the country of our birth cannot possibly imagine how it feels to be an immigrant, let alone a refugee. But we are informed in this revealing narrative that there are over 25 million refugees in the world. One of them is the author, whose family fled Iran when she was only eight years old, and who immigrated to the United States two years later. Going on to live a life that included Princeton University, she tells us the story of a number of other immigrants who’ve lived the horror of war, refugee camps, and the hope of a new life in an adopted country. These are real stories, told with understanding and thoughtfulness. Anyone interested in what it is like to live in a 'strange land' should delve into Nayeri’s book. You’ll find much to be discussed in book groups, too." —Linda Bond, Auntie's Bookstore (Spokane, WA)
"Now more than ever, perhaps, we need voices like those of Dina Nayeri. Combining moving memoir and clear-eyed reporting, Nayeri's The Ungrateful Refugee is a beautiful and stark reminder of the complexity and humanity of the immigrant experience. It is urgent and important that we hear the stories of 'others' that often reveal even more about ourselves." —Susan Hans OConnor, Penguin Bookshop (Sewickley, PA)
"A gorgeous piece of writing, part memoir of the author's childhood as a refugee and part compassionate journalism about the current refugee crisis. Nayeri shows the unique emotional trauma of being a refugee—the waiting, the uncertainty, the displacement, the culture shock. And she leads us to question the things Western nations demand from refugees in exchange for asylum—a convincing story of danger narrowly escaped, boundless gratitude, and total assimilation. This book asks: What do we owe to refugees? And isn't it more than what we're offering now?" —Lily Tschudi-Campbell, Red Balloon Bookshop (Saint Paul, MN)
"This is an extremely important work for our times, as too many of us have no direct connection to the immigrants in our family histories, and their stories that have been forgotten. The author is a refugee from Iran. She escaped to Europe, and then to the United States where she completed her education. After decades of assimilation, she's told the story of her life, and the stories of current refugees seeking asylum. We discover what it's like to be detained and questioned repeatedly until the immigration official can identify an inconsistency and reject asylum. Of leaving a traumatized individual in limbo—unable to work to contribute to their new society, let alone for their own mental health. Of having to frame a story to match the culture of a country that doesn't understand their culture and vice versa. The sexual abuse of women working in food, house cleaning, and childcare who need to speak better English to obtain better jobs, but meanwhile are terrified to identify their abusers. The list goes on, but what's so valuable is to have a deeper understanding of why treating asylum seekers and immigrants with little or no dignity, and packaging them all as a horde of criminals, is not only out of line with the facts, but must not be tolerated in the circumstances we now find our planet in. If you found yourself in a new country with a different language and culture, is this how you would want to be treated? Consider the loss of your current circumstances, and at the mercy of others. Shame on us." —Todd Miller, Arcadia Books (Spring Green, WI)
"Dina Nayeri's memoir, The Ungrateful Refugee, is a heart-wrenching story of a young girl and her family's struggle to escape Iran and establish themselves somewhere in the world. The book reads like a thriller and coming-of-age story at the same time. Nayeri and her mother and brother travel with uncertainty from Iran to Italy to the United States never feeling as if they belong. Her mother, a Christian fleeing persecution, tries to normalize their life regardless of where they are. The struggle continues as they 'settle' in the United States, though settled is not what they feel. Throughout the book she struggles with remaining herself and the pressure to assimilate. 'To assimilate is to please other people's senses. It is submission, but also a powerful act of love, unity and brotherhood. It is complicated.'" —Doloris Vest, Book No Further (Roanoke, VA)
"There are not that many books that make me revisit things I've said and questions the way I look at an issue. This is one. Nayeri's layered look at the her life and those of the people she visited and interviewed around the world is moving, but even more important, the book should bring greater nuance to the consideration of what immigration means globally. Fingers crossed it changes minds and changes policy." —Anmiryam Budner, Main Point Books (Wayne, PA)
"Laying bare the realities of being an immigrant, Dina Nayeri doesn’t hold back in the heartbreaking, brutal reality of what it really means to be a refugee. This book will haunt you, but will enlighten you to the fact that the issues we are facing today have been going on for decades. I will be recommending this to everyone." —Julie Slavinsky, Warwick's (La Jolla, CA)
"The Ungrateful Refugee is a clarion call for human dignity, especially for those who have been forced from their home countries. Nayeri details her experience fleeing Iran as a child and ties it to several other refugees' stories—people who fled persecution and certain death to give themselves and their families a better life. She tears the flimsy distinction between 'economic migrant' and 'refugee' to shreds as she argues for a common humanity no matter the circumstances and reveals callous and inhumane Western attitudes and policies toward immigrants. This is a book that should be read by everyone, especially those who are white and American- or European-born—it acknowledges that nuance is the rule, not the exception, especially when telling a story filled with pain, loss, and indignity. Above all, Nayeri urges us all to go beyond shallow political maneuvering to see the real, human stories hidden within the people we meet." —Hannah DeCamp, Avid Bookshop (Athens, GA)