Book Review: The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

Quote of the book

“This is the life of a refugee. Madness in increments, by an ever-shifting endpoint.”

5 key points

  • Nayeri emphasises the theme that refugees are always fighting to be believed on all aspects of their journey and especially when they try to gain asylum.
  • There are difficult questions that must be answered, such as which languages or cultures the children of the refugees will align to once they are brought up in their new homes.
  • Nayeri talks about the importance of understanding and dignity for refugees when receiving and being offered help, pointing out how sometimes well-intentioned help can overlook what struggles the refugee has faced.
  • A common theme is cultural change, multiculturalism, and assimilation, particularly once they have arrived in the new home.
  • Nayeri confronts the concept of a “good immigrant” and questions which dangers are prioritised by governments when refugees are seeking safety.


This book is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the refugee plight from a first hand perspective. Nayeri writes in a creative non-fiction style, cleverly blending her experiences of being a refugee with those that she meets along her journey. This literary style makes some stories feel fictional and difficult to connect to, with parts becoming overly descriptive. Therefore, it is important for the reader to remember that these are true stories whilst navigating the emotion and frustration within each powerful story.

The book follows her personal journey and the refugees she meets along the way in different countries. Nayeri shares powerful stories of the daily lives of refugees in detail, from doing the grocery shop in the camp in order to recreate some normalcy, to the turmoil of sharing a story with an official in an attempt to be granted asylum. These stories reflect the daily complexity of refugee life which is often overlooked in the media.

Nayeri fled Iran with her mother and brother when she was eight years old. In Iran, her mother was a doctor and they fled their relatively comfortable livelihoods in order to protect their lives. She spent some time in refugee camps in Italy, where she describes how stories became the backbone of their existence. Nayeri then takes the reader to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which she mentions is an uncommon stop for Iranian refugees. Nayeri shares details of how she and her family tried to adapt themselves: they changed her brother’s name to be more Western and she describes her own battle of language learning. When she was in an environment that required French, which she didn’t know, she understood the difficulties her mother went through when her mother spoke broken English.

Nayeri eventually arrived in the US where she was given asylum and where she attended Princeton and Harvard. There were emotional and challenging sacrifices to try and attend these prestigious institutions. She explains how refugees try to find harmony between their identity and their new lives, in a battle of cultural change and assimilation. She describes some of the unspoken challenges that refugees endure: adjusted names to fit an identity card or deciding which language their children should learn.

The second part of the book is where the reader finds Nayeri’s voice more strongly. It is powerful when she addresses the refugee narrative in Western media and the struggle that refugees go through to be believed. For example, sometimes they are interrogated for the sole purpose of finding an inconsistency within their story. She explains how some stories have to be adjusted to fit the Western concept of what an emotional and believable story is. Then, once they are accepted, they are against a short deadline to clear their documents and find housing. Through this discussion of European immigration policies and processes, Nayeri connects the reality of the reader with the reality of refugees, so it becomes clear why this topic matters to everyone. This makes the book much more relatable to a reader who isn’t from a refugee background.

Nayeri’s voice is emotional in the second half of the book. She questions why refugees should feel the need to justify themselves when fleeing danger and why they should express gratitude after they have fought to be believed by immigration officials. The first part of the book moves slowly, but here the pace picks up and Nayeri’s own frustration is contextualised against everything she has shared about the refugee experience in the first half. In this way, she shares how the reader can play a role in helping refugees too, in a way which would be dignifying and helpful. Overall, it is a timely and important book to help everyone interested in refugee issues to learn more and understand the plight from a first-hand perspective.

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book | Official website | Goodreads

Published by sharemylibrary

Non-fiction book reviews, summaries, and recommendations

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

    1. Thank you so much! I completely agree, it really revealed how much more the voices of refugees need to be listened to.

      Liked by 1 person

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