Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ungrateful refugees

This is an article from a woman who came to the US as a child, a refugee from Iran.  She makes the case that refugees should be no more grateful than anyone else, and that the case for accepting refugees is not because they make your country great (because not all of them will, though I personally would argue that countries with more diverse populations are in fact better off), but because it's simply the right thing to do.  These are similar arguments to ones I've expressed, not in relation to refugees but just in terms of providing a decent, dignified life for everyone in a society, not just the lucky few that our supposed meritocracy deems worthy of respect.

In her own, stronger words, Ms. Nayeri explains why she shouldn't be particularly grateful for having been received as a refugee to the US when she was a kid:
what America did was a basic human obligation. It 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. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.
I would add, from a non-refugee viewpoint, that my reading (or my twisting) of her argument is that it is not a paean to ingratitude, but rather a call that we should all be grateful, all of us who are alive.  If the US is a great place to live, then the native-born should be just as grateful as the refugee to be there.  And ideally committed to making the entire world a decent place to live, for all of its people.

Despite herself, Ms. Nayeri does end on a note that seems to reiterate the benefit to the receiver country, an argument she explicitly rejects earlier in the essay:
the world is duller without [immigrants] – even more so if they arrived as refugees. Because a person’s life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now there’s just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.
The bottom line is that offering sanctuary to those in need is just common decency, and the refugee should only be as grateful to live somewhere as the native-born are to live there.  And in the end, common decency is rewarding to all, because it allows those who are helped to realize their potential in a way they wouldn't have otherwise, which in turn enriches the world for the rest of us..

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