The Current

Expecting gratitude from refugees can be toxic, says author

How expecting gratitude can turn thankfulness sour for refugees in a new homeland.
Refugees may be grateful, but we shouldn’t expect them to be, says author Dina Nayeri. (Courtesy of Dina Nayeri )

Gratitude is a word that comes up a lot in stories about refugees. And many refugees are grateful to be in a safe country, a place of new opportunities for themselves and their families.

But novelist Dina Nayeri, who came to the U.S. as an Iranian child refugee, argues gratitude can become harmful when the natives of that country come to require it.

​Nayeri believes it's healthy for refugees to have personal gratitude to the country that has accepted them but suggests, "it's the expectation of gratitude that is toxic."

"My own experience was that gratitude quickly came to be expected," Nayeri tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Related: The ungrateful refugee: 'We have no debt to repay'

"And it came to be expected in individual interactions with people who really had very little to do with accepting us. It started to be the way that immigrants and refugees were expected to interact with natives." 

Nayeri points out that giving refuge should be thought of as an act of compassion rather than a gift to be given by those in safe countries.
Being forced to prove your worth and gratitude to the country that welcomed you in created a burden on refugees, says Dina Nayeri. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

"[Those in the West] are here by an accident of birth," says Nayeri.

"We should all be grateful. We all are now in these safe countries, however, we got here."

Nayeri tells Tremonti that as a refugee settling into a new country, she would have loved to feel that people wanted to know about who she was and the country she left.

"And understand that I am displaced … and frightened and that you know maybe grateful isn't the primary thing I'm feeling — maybe the primary thing I'm feeling is fear and homesickness and a desire to be loved and accepted, and to have friends again."

Carrying the burden of gratitude

Golsa Golestaneh is from Iran and came to Canada in 2014. She says Nayeri's experience echoes her own.

"As long as I talk about how happy I am that I'm in Canada, that I'm saved … [Canadians] are willing to listen," Golestaneh tells Tremonti.
Golsa Golestaneh, a refugee from Iran came to Canada in 2014 from Turkey. (Courtesy of Golsa Golestaneh)

"But the thing is my criticism never reaches anyone's ears."

She explains that there are a lot of stigmas around being a refugee in Canada.

"I experience racism every day. Every time I have difficulties understanding one sentence in English or like I just need it to be repeated, it gets eye rolls," Golestaneh recounts.

"I am on the train and I feel scared because of my skin color - to be attacked, that is not the safety that I claimed for it. That is not why I fled my country."

Golestaneh says she plans on visiting Iran for two months to see if she feels more comfortable there.

Lina Arafeh, a Syrian refugee who came to Canada in 2016, says a lot of her Syrian refugee friends feel a need, like Golestaneh, to go back to their home country.

But as someone with children, she tells Tremonti there's an essence that "we have to do our best" and it's something she takes to heart in her parenting. 
Lina Arafeh and her children - Zara, Jawad, Adham and Mostafa. (Courtesy of Lina Arafeh)

"Every single day I send my kids to school saying you have to prove yourself, you cannot waste the time, you have to show them that you are doing well. You want to contribute something to Canada and the future so that they don't regret it."

Arafeh says she's happy to display her gratitude to Canadians, and makes this comparison: "As a mother, when I put food on the table, I do expect my kids to say thank you, otherwise I wouldn't make an effort."

Gratitude to build the image of Canada

Vinh Nguyen came to Canada as a refugee from Vietnam when he was a child. As an assistant professor of English at the University of Waterloo, he studies refugee stories and argues that countries taking in refugees use their gratitude to build the image of their own nation.

"Gratitude can be co-opted by sort of nationalistic narratives," he tells Tremonti.

Nguyen uses a tweet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in response to U.S. president Donald Trump's Muslim ban, where Trudeau said Canada welcomed those facing persecution, as an example.

"This creates this image of Canada as being this haven of refuge, as having an open door. Stories of refugee gratitude can function in some ways as supporting evidence for this narrative so we can say, 'look Canada is welcoming and tolerant.'"

But Nguyen suggests by pointing to the evidence of success stories, "it obscures the kinds of restrictive policies that are actually in place."

"So in fact, Canada doesn't welcome all and there are policies that are in place that bar a lot of people from claiming refuge."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.