In an Op-Ed for The Guardian, critically acclaimed writer Dina Nayeri, a former child refugee who fled Iran with her family to seek asylum in the U.S., has issued an impassioned response to what she described as “the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America” — and it might not be what you’d expect.
“Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great,” Nayeri wrote. “They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth.”
“Friends often use me as an example,” she added. “But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to Western standards … akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?”
Drawing on her own experience as an Iranian refugee in America, Nayeri said she and her family were put under heavy pressure by their new American neighbors to assimilate and refute their own identity. She also recalled being bullied as a 6-year-old while her family was on a temporary stay in England — a move that came a few years before her mother was threatened with execution in Iran for converting to Christianity, which forced the family to flee the country permanently.
Despite her speaking only Farsi and attending school for the first time, Nayeri wrote that the children were initially welcoming.
“Within days the atmosphere around me had changed,” Nayeri recalled. “Years later, I figured that this must have been how long it took them to tell their parents about the Iranian kid. After that, a group of boys met me in the yard each morning and, pretending to play, pummeled me in the stomach. They followed me in the playground and shouted gibberish, laughing at my dumbfounded looks. A few weeks later, two older boys pushed my hand into a doorjamb and slammed it shut on my little finger, severing it at the first segment. I was rushed to the hospital, carrying a piece of my finger in a paper napkin.”
What followed afterward, she said, were repeated lectures about gratefulness from “the grownups from my family’s church and even in my parents’ soothing whispers.” Years later, after she and her family moved to America, she found that there “were unspoken conditions to our acceptance … we had to be grateful. The hate wasn’t about being darker, or from elsewhere. It was about being those things and daring to be unaware of it.”
Nayeri said that at the time she responded by assimilating into American culture as much as she possibly could. But looking back, she says, she wants “to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that [refugees] don’t do enough.” In the end, she concluded, welcoming refugees “is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories.”
Read the full story at The Guardian.