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Refugee Voices

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

One of MISTY’s areas of inquiry is how people living in cities accommodate to emerging transformations, including those shaped by the movement of refugees. Current interest in refugee participation in documenting and describing change is high, and many projects on placemaking now include “refugee voices.” But which stories about refugees grab our attention, and why? A recent Q&A session with celebrated author Dina Nayeri raised my awareness of some common assumptions around movers.

Nayeri’s book The Ungrateful Refugee: What immigrants never tell you (Primrose Press) tells of her own experience leaving Iran with her mother under great duress, moving through several places and lengthy periods of time before arriving in the United States. Nayeri alerts us to the crushing expectations placed on movers to “posture gratefulness” as a means of making their presence somehow acceptable to those already there.

What’s behind our expectation that refugees and other migrants should be grateful for joining a community? Some of this has to do with our naturalized assumption that people in our communities are—or should be—members of the same nation. Our current system of national belonging is built upon a broad difference in rights and resources between those deemed to be ‘local’ and those who are seen as ‘newcomers’. Despite the outrage expressed at the US president’s recent tweets which racially marked a subset of Americans as outsiders, this dynamic is perpetuated in myriad ways in local—and global—discussions of refugee integration.

Much refugee and immigrant integration thinking casts receiving communities as relatively static, and newcomers as obliged to adapt. Our policies and practices measure levels of adaptation of immigrant and refugee movers to community expectations, like language learning levels, or encourage inclusion and diversity in our workplaces, public services, and elsewhere. As Nayeri notes, we expect gratefulness to accompany newcomer efforts to adapt and be included.

But communities are not static, and border-crossers are not the only mobile newcomers. Most communities include members who have shifted residence—people may move house locally, but additionally may send their children away to boarding schools, or attend university far from their families, or relocate to other places for work. Newcomers to communities thus take many forms—but crossing a border seems to make the biggest difference to the form of welcome granted.

Perhaps the stories well tell ourselves about refugees as “out of place” underlie the

assumptions around mobile newcomer and stable society. Many common refugee narratives unwittingly follow an arc from national exclusion and expulsion, through flight and exile, and waiting for a chance to “make home” in a new country. Indeed, this trajectory is common, and Nayeri talks about how she and her family members felt “crushed by the waiting.” But it was “the look that well-meaning people gave them seeking acknowledgement” for the welcome that helped her understand the neverending expectation of gratefulness for being allowed into the national space.

While mobility for some people is easier than ever, moving to safety for people threatened by political upheaval has resulted in longer and longer periods of waiting at borders. This humanitarian story relies on the meaning we attribute to borders and territories, and our requirement of “gratefulness” on its political implementation.

This article was written by Anita Fabos, Clark University.

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