انتظار قدردانی از پناهندگان می تواند مسموم باشد، مصاحبه با 4 پناهنده برنامه کارنت /سی بی سی/ آنا ماری ترمونتی
Expecting gratitude from refugees can
be toxic, says author
دینا نیری در کتابش نوشته چرا فکر می کنند یک پناهنده باید همیشه و همواره «قدردان کشور مهاجرپذیر باشد .
گردنش همواره باید کج باشد، بالا و پایین بپرد و هورا بکشد تا نشان بدهد چقدر «ممنون و مدیون» است که شما منت گذاشته اید و مرا راه دادید . می دانید بدتر از همه ان است که میزبانان انتظار دارند که شما زندگی قبلی تان ، هویت و خاطرات و همهی بوها و صداها و لهجهها و فرهنگ قبلی را دور بریزید تا شما ثابت کنید که یکی از ان خارجی ههای خوبی بوده اید که روی شما با پذیرفتنتان در کشور جدی سرمایهگذاری شان به وی 30 سال قبل از ایران به امریکا پناهنده شده بود .هدر نرفته است .
دینا نیری مهمان برنامه کارنت /سی بی سی تورنتو بود به همراه گلسا گلستانه ساکن ونکوور که 19 ساله هست و در سال 2014 به کانادا مهاجرت کرده است می گوید این موضوع در جامعه ایرانی بشدت رواج دارد . من خوشحالم که بالاخره یکی این تابو را شکست .
Expecting gratitude from refugees can
be toxic, says author
The Current Transcript for May 3, 2017
Host: Anna Maria Tremonti
Guests: Dina Nayeri, Golsa Golestaneh, Lina Arafeh
AMT: Hello. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and you’re listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come—
I do agree that we put things on the Internet that should not be there. We did things that we should not do.
AMT: A father learns a hard legal lesson about parenting and pranking on the Internet. But first, great expectations—how expecting gratitude can turn thankfulness sour for refugees in a new homeland.
VOICE 1: The Alboush family busily prepares their supper. Majeed Alboush is grateful to be here with his wife and two young children.
VOICE 2: Thompson is thankful for the opportunity to pay it forward. Her mother was a Jewish refugee who fled Germany in the 1930s.
VOICE 3: We were very lucky and we are very grateful.
VOICE 4: While she’s grateful to be here, she says the settlement agencies tasked with helping government sponsored refugees are overwhelmed, and she says, they feel that they’ve been left pretty much on their own.
VOICE 5: Taking off her glasses to wipe away tears, Asha Ahmed is grateful for the chance to build a new life.
AMT: Gratitude, grateful—words that come up a lot in stories about refugees. Many refugees want to express their gratitude to the country in which they’ve arrived and people in that country are often happy to bask in its glow. But novelist and essayist Dina Nayeri argues that despite the warm feelings, there can be a darker side to gratitude. Dina Nayeri was a refugee from Iran when she arrived in the US nearly three decades ago. She has also since lived in the United Kingdom, in Dubai and Rome. Over the years she has heard the word “gratitude” a lot and she’s written about her reaction to it in The Guardian newspaper. Dina Nayeri’s new novel Refuge will be out in July. She joins us from London, England. Hello.
DINA NAYERI: Hi. Thank you for having me.
AMT: What were you thinking as you heard those news clips talking about gratitude in the context of refugees?
DINA NAYERI: It feels natural to me that those people would feel grateful for their circumstances and to the country that took them in. For me it feels a little bit cloying when it continues to be repeated and then there’s this expectation of it that’s transferred to individual people or people who are natives of that country.
AMT: What is it that bothers you when you hear it put that way, when you hear talk of refugees being grateful?
DINA NAYERI: That’s a really healthy emotion and it’s a very natural one and one that I felt a lot in my first years and even beyond. But I think that in my own experience was that that gratitude quickly came to be expected 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 refugees and immigrants were expected to interact with natives and that felt very problematic for me. So I think it’s hard for me not to hear that in the repetition of the word in relation to these people who’ve been displaced and their lives have been turned upside down. And what they need is so much support and so much help and love and to be welcomed and to be thought of as a neighbour, not as someone who should be grateful.
AMT: When did you first start hearing the word gratitude in your own life in this way?
DINA NAYERI: My family has always been in one way or another religious. When were in Iran, they were Muslim then my mother converted to Christianity and gratitude is a big part of I think a lot of these religions. So when I was a child, I heard that I should be grateful to God. And that is easy to accept I think because it’s a very, very personal thing. But the idea of gratitude to the Western person, the people around us who accepted us, it just started from day one when we arrived in the US We lived in Oklahoma and it was the early nineties and it was a tough time to be from the Middle East.
AMT: So what kinds of things did you hear? Were you hearing it from teachers?
DINA NAYERI: Yes. Well, I think some of it was very innocent and well-meaning. You know the teachers would say innocent little remarks like oh, you must be so grateful. Or when something horrible would happen to me like when my pinky, a big chunk of it was sliced off, the very next day I heard that I should be grateful that I was here, that those kids were playing with me, that I was okay.
DINA NAYERI: It felt like the wrong word.
AMT: Let’s go back to the pinky because that had to do a lot with the fact that you were a little girl from Iran and the kids who you were playing with were bullying you essentially. Were they not?
DINA NAYERI: The thing I remember very vividly is that they didn’t in the first couple of days and that’s a child’s instinct. Those children wanted to be my friend. I think that as soon as they went home and explained to their parents who I was and where I was from, this seed started to be sown that I was someone who maybe wasn’t their friend and very soon a small group of them started to aggressively bully me. And that eventually escalated to that piece of my pinky being chopped off.
AMT: Somebody put your hand in the door and the other one slammed it. It was very deliberate.
DINA NAYERI: Yes. Yeah.
AMT: How do racism and gratitude connect?
DINA NAYERI: Well, wow. I think when you expect a group of people to be grateful to you then there’s this assumption that you’re somehow superior to them. So I found it really interesting to think that maybe this is not really about immigration and displacement as much as it is about race.
AMT: As much as it is about you should be grateful that that means that you are allowed to be here kind of thing, that you are allowed to exist next to the others.
DINA NAYERI: Right. Exactly. That’s the case in America and in Europe when immigrants come in. I think the idea is oh well, you come into our neighborhoods and you don’t necessarily make it better. We accept you out of our generosity and out of our goodwill. And so you should forever be kind of bowing your head a little bit. And I find that really, really awful and quite a burden that a lot of these people have to bear silently. This is the vast majority of the e-mails that I’ve gotten have been about this, like this is such a burden we had to bear silently.
AMT: Well, I think it’s really important that we talk about this because you know in Canada a lot of new Canadians—new Canadians because they do have permanent resident status—already have arrived from Syria. And what you’re suggesting is some of the way that someone who is already here might talk to someone who’s just arrived is offensive. What did you want to hear that you didn’t hear?
DINA NAYERI: The word I would use—although I do find it offensive—but it’s hurtful more than that. You don’t feel welcome and I think what I would have loved to hear is, I would have liked to get the feeling that they wanted to know about me and who I was. I would have liked them to want to know about the country that I left and to understand that I am displaced and homesick and frightened and that 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.
AMT: Because even a country that you flee because you must flee, it’s the politics. It’s not the country. It’s not the people. It’s not the culture.
DINA NAYERI: It’s home. It’s still your home. It still has all the beauties from your childhood and all the places that you grew up in. Even if it is absolutely horrible which some places are, it’s not about how good that place is. It’s about being asked. The native people who are welcoming these refugees and wanting to know about them as individual people, not just their horror stories so that they can feel good that they have saved someone.
AMT: And so all these years later, what conversations about refugees are you hearing that still make you uneasy?
DINA NAYERI: The conversations I’m hearing now are very, very different from the ones I used to hear. One because the world has changed but two because I surround myself with a different kind of people. I mean the people that I’m around now are not Midwestern conservatives. They’re liberals. They’re from New York and London and places that I’ve chosen to live in my adulthood. But even then, there’s a disturbing narrative of look, the immigrants are beneficial to us. Look at all the good that they do in terms of the economies and building great communities and providing diversity, mix of cultures and all of that is great. And it’s true. But that is not the case for accepting refugees into a free country. The case is that they were in danger and that their lives were in danger. And these are people and children that were going to die. It doesn’t matter if they then go on to add nothing to your community.
AMT: Do you think there was a pressure on you to be “successful”?
DINA NAYERI: Oh, are you kidding? Absolutely. I was obsessed with it from the first moment I had the feeling that I was taking up space that didn’t belong to me. In Iran, I had been a little girl that was celebrated for me, just like all the other little girls were. And in Oklahoma, it was that I had kind of squeezed my way in and I didn’t belong there. So immediately I felt the need to prove that I actually am an asset to the society. That I’m smart, I’m academic, I can be the best in school and so that’s what I did. And then in my teenage years, it became such an obsession to succeed in the American way. I mean I did some crazy things. I practiced sports for six or seven hours a day. I started my own little mini non-profit. I did all of these things just so I could get into a fantastic university. I thought that if I didn’t, my life would be over because I would have no value or worth. It took until my mid-twenties to realize actually everything that’s special about me has nothing to do with any of those things.
AMT: And this came from the people around you from your new country.
DINA NAYERI: Not directly. I mean nobody around me was saying well, Dina, it’s time to prove yourself. Absolutely not. I think it was more of the attitude, attitude of indifference. I was just taking up space. I wasn’t special. Nobody asked about my life in Iran. Nobody treated my mother the way they used to treat her with respect and reverence in Iran and the kind of respect that most women get, not anything above that. Just being refugees and not just refugees, but Iranians, we were a tier lower and as a result, I felt the need to prove myself so nobody was asking me to have those accomplishments. It was something that I felt was the answer to it.
AMT: Right. And you make the point that your liberal friends will talk about that today. Sometimes people talk about the contribution that immigrants or refugees make as an argument to those who don’t believe they should be allowed in.
DINA NAYERI: Right. Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
AMT: But you’re saying you shouldn’t have to argue that. You should argue compassion. You should argue humanity.
DINA NAYERI: Absolutely. I mean I think the basic argument should not be that or at least if you’re going to make that secondary argument. you should always begin with “But wait, we need to understand that those lives are just as important as ours and that also we are here by an accident of birth.” People just keep overlooking that because it’s such a simple argument. It’s such a basic thing to say but I feel like people are forgetting it. Why should we have to prove our worth in order to argue that people’s lives should be saved? You know this makes no sense to me. The contribution to society shouldn’t matter when they’re on the verge of death. People in the the western world are where we are by an accident of birth. Well, not me. I’m here because I’m a refugee.
AMT: Now if a refugee is genuinely expressing gratitude for living in a country where there is peace or living in a country where they can start again or raise their children in a way that they could not any longer at home, what is wrong with that?
DINA NAYERI: Oh, absolutely nothing. I think personal gratitude to a country, to you know some higher power, to the universe and to those communities is healthy and necessary to be happy and necessary to get along. I think it’s the expectation of gratitude that is toxic.
AMT: As if they owe a debt of gratitude.
DINA NAYERI: Exactly and especially in just these day to day interactions, people are very, very good at picking up subtle hints. You know it’s not very hard to read someone who actually believes very close to the surface that your being here is an inconvenience to them. Your being here is very, very lucky for you and it raises their taxes and it makes life hard. And so you know they’re going to be nice to you, but you should just remember all that just throughout this entire interaction. That is something that can be communicated in an unspoken way very easily by anyone. So it’s not really very hard to feel that from someone. And that’s the thing that I think is toxic and wrong and we should try to root it out. When I wrote this essay, so many people e-mailed me on the other end of things saying how could you say that people shouldn’t be grateful? Gratefulness is healthy. You are so ungrateful. And that’s not the case. I think that gratefulness, it’s a wonderful sentiment and it’s one that I feel all the time in my life.
AMT: But it shouldn’t have to define why you are somewhere.
DINA NAYERI: It shouldn’t be kind of a basic level expectation as it relates to your interactions with other people. It shouldn’t be the thing that separates you from natives, people who are born there. They should be just as grateful. We should all be grateful. We all are now in these safe countries however we got here.
AMT: It’s important to hear what you have to say. Thank you.
DINA NAYERI: Thank you for having me.
AMT: Dina Nayeri, a novelist and essayist. Her new novel Refuge will be out in July. She joined us from London, England. Well, the news clips you heard earlier were from recent stories about new refugees to Canada and we have two people here to give us their thoughts on how gratitude fits into their stories as refugees. Golsa Golestaneh is originally from Iran and came to Canada with her family through government sponsorship in 2014. She’s an activist for refugee rights and social justice. She’s in Vancouver. Lina Arafeh came to Canada in 2016 and is from Syria. She has worked as an interpreter and translator. She’s in Halifax. Hello to both of you.
BOTH VOICES: Hello.
AMT: Golsa Golestaneh, let’s start with you. What do you think of what Dina Nayeri has been talking about? Does it resonate with you?
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: Oh, absolutely. It was just a lot of things that we as refugees in my community and immigrants in my community talk all the time about. We get really frustrated on these issues and it’s just always with us why are we looked up on like that, that we are a different sort of individual that has to have different feelings about living in a space just because of their background. So I felt like someone finally spoke up. Someone finally put an end to all these introductions saying she is very grateful because like I have been a victim of those introductions myself, whether by the media, by regular people. So I felt really relieved that someone took this heaviness from our backs.
AMT: Give me an example of how you’ve felt that pressure.
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: Ah, there are tons. But the most recent one, it was just the headline of this interview with me and a bunch of other refugees from seven banned countries that are not allowed to go to the US anymore. The headline was just saying “not banned here.” It just had nothing to do with what I had said. My purpose of that interview, I want to spread the word about this rally that is going to happen soon by the border and I am organizing it. I wasn’t intending to advertise for this country and this government.
AMT: So in other words the headline said “we’re better than them” essentially.
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: Yeah. Exactly.
AMT: That was the undercurrent. Okay. Lina Arafeh, what were you thinking with what Dina Nayeri had to say? How do you react to it?
LINA ARAFEH: Well, before I listened to Dina actually, I have always sworn by the word “gratefulness”, “gratitude”. It was always you know a part of my life. I have always been grateful for very little things in my life. But after listening to her, you kind of feel that she has some right, you know. Gratefulness should not be begged from someone or imposed on someone. It’s something you either feel or you don’t feel and if you feel you need to show it. But I’m really grateful for one thing. I’m really grateful for being so lucky that I have only been exposed to some fantastic people in Canada. When my kids went to school, I’m very grateful to the teachers and the students. Everybody has been helping them, showing them the way, suggesting things that they didn’t know, introduce them to events that they have not heard about. All of this makes me grateful. I was really grateful when I woke up one day and the snow had filled my driveway and I found my neighbour shoveling it for me without me asking. He knew somehow that I don’t know how to do it. I was very, very grateful. But if I’m walking in the street just because you know a Canadian happened to be my neighbour for example and they expect me to be very grateful for nothing that they had done, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be upset like I wouldn’t resent that fact. I would say yes, thank you of course. I would say it. But maybe they don’t have that right. The country, Canada as a government, I am very grateful to the country, very, very grateful. The people who have helped me, the teachers, the neighbours. Where I’m working at the moment, my boss is trying to be patient with me and very grateful for that, I’m sure.
AMT: But do you feel you need to show an extra level of gratitude to Canadians, Lina?
LINA ARAFEH: Of course. Absolutely. Yes. I mean 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.
AMT: No, but I mean do you feel that because you have come from Syria that there’s an expectation that you’ll be thanking everybody else in the country a lot?
LINA ARAFEH: Everybody in the country, no. But there are people who have gone the extra mile. There are those who have sponsored families, paid a lot of money for families. They have done all they can do to help. I know for example they are having sessions, welcome ambassador sessions to teach Canadians how to be sensitive to the emotions of refugees. How can I not be thankful and grateful? But to other people who have done nothing, who have lost nothing, who have not suffered anything, I mean I would still say thank you. But I’m not obliged to.
AMT: Golsa, what do you think Canadians are willing to hear from people like you? I mean people like you meaning somebody who is a refugee who wants to talk about this. They’re only willing to hear certain things?
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: From my personal experience, what I can say is that as long as I talk about how miserable I was back home, how miserable I was as a refugee claimant in Turkey, as long as I talk about how happy I am that I am in Canada, that I’m saved finally by the saviour of this, they are always willing to listen. But it was after I started to actually stop talking about my past because I realize nothing is going to change in those countries. It’s only spreading what we call Iranophobia. And that was when they stopped wanting me to talk. In my first year in here I was invited to maybe like four different events to speak as a keynote speaker, an 18 year old. But after a few months that I stopped actually talking about my past and then started talking about my struggles in here, my parents’ struggles in here, that was when I was not invited anymore. I heard even from one of these settlement workers that he said I wanted you to be a speaker in this panel. But they said she’s too loud and I just didn’t understand what that means.
AMT: When you say too loud, so they didn’t want you to criticize.
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: Exactly.
AMT: Do you feel free to criticize Canada? Do you criticize anything in Canada?
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: I criticize a lot of things. I feel free to actually do it. But the thing is my criticism never reaches anyone’s ears. I always say everything whether it is to the media, whatever it is, how I struggle, how it’s important for me to solve those issues. But the only thing that is important is that I came here from Iran, my parents escaping persecution are the only thing that I always read about myself. They stick to what they want to hear.
AMT: What do you want to say about life in Canada as a refugee that people don’t want to hear?
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: There are a lot of stigmas around being a refugee in Canada and it’s really not the heaven that a lot of people think. I experienced racism every day every time I have difficulties understanding one sentence in English or like I just need it to be repeated. I get eye rolls. Whenever I’m on the train and I feel scared because of my skin colour to be attacked, that is not the safety that I claimed for. That is not why I fled my country for. So I’m basically just going back to my country to see if I actually feel safer in there rather than here. I want people to know that I don’t know why everyone attacks me whenever I say I expect that something better than what I’m going through every day.
AMT: Okay. So let me just clarify. You are going to visit Iran to see if you want to live there again?
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: Yeah. I’m going to visit for two months. I think I really need it mentally and emotionally. I left when I was 15. I never experienced Iranian society, Iranian life.
AMT: Let me just ask you a practical question. If your parents were persecuted politically, can you go back to Iran? Are they just going to let you in?
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: It’s kind of 50-50, but most probably yes because from what I’ve seen, a lot of people can.
AMT: Lina, I want your reaction to what Golsa is saying because you’ve come here with your children and the idea that maybe they might want to go back to Syria because she’s expressing it’s not as good here as she would have expected. It’s difficult. What do you take from what she’s saying?
LINA ARAFEH: I have spoken to many of my Syrian refugee friends here and they are saying the same thing. In fact, you know that as soon as Syria recovers, they’re going back. I don’t want to say that this is ungrateful because not all of them speak English. Some of them feel stranded. Some of them were deployed to Canada, others to Germany, others to England. So they don’t go where they wanted to go. So I would understand. I think if you have children, being in Canada is the best thing that you can do for your children. This is one of the reasons why I also believe that some Canadians should also feel grateful to refugees. Because we feel that we are treading on everyone else’s toes, we have to prove our best. This in itself is something. It’s an asset to Canada, I would say. Every single day, I send my kids to school saying, “You have to prove yourself. You cannot waste your time. You have to show them that you are doing well. You want to contribute something to Canada in the future so that they don’t regret it.” I have learned that if you want a certain outcome, the outcome I want is to be happy. There is this event and that is the reaction. The event is for example people asking you to be grateful and the action is you either feel offended or upset or you just smile and say “Of course I am grateful.” So the way you react will affect the outcome. Honestly it’s not that I don’t feel it. I feel it. But if it makes people happier to hear it, then I will make it heard. It’s not enough to feel appreciation and not say it.
AMT: We’re going to have to leave it there, but thank you both for your thoughts today.
LINA ARAFEH: You’re welcome.
GOLSA GOLESTANEH: Bye.
AMT: That is Golsa Golestaneh who came to Canada from Iran in 2014. She joined us from Vancouver. Lina Arafeh came to Canada in 2016 from Syria. She joined us from Halifax. We will continue on this issue in a moment with Vinh Nguyen. He studies refugee stories at the University of Waterloo and he argues that countries taking in refugees use their gratitude to build the image of their own nation and sometimes countries even use it to justify war. So Vinh Nguyen will give us his thoughts on all of this in about 90 seconds. And as well in our next half hour, we’re talking about DaddyOFive, the YouTube family channel and the ethics of making your fame and fortune by using your kids. And in this particular case in using the kids, are they being pranked? Is it just a prank? Is it child abuse? Lots of questions about that now. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
AMT: I’m Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current. We are going to continue our discussion about refugees and gratitude. If you’re just joining us, I spoke in our last half hour with author Dina Nayeri. She arrived in the US as a refugee from Iran as a child. She says from day one, she began hearing comments about how grateful she must be to be in America. And Dina Nayeri argues that while being thankful is a healthy emotion, gratitude can be toxic if it becomes an expectation from those in the country which accepted the refugees. We also heard the perspective of two recent refugees to Canada on the meaning and limits of gratitude. And if you missed those conversations, you can hear them on our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent, or go to the CBC Radio app or download the podcast. Now as we’ve heard, questions of gratitude form a central part of the refugee story and these stories are something our next guest has studied. Vinh Nguyen is an assistant professor of English at the University of Waterloo. He researches refugee culture and literature. He came to Canada as a child as a refugee from Vietnam and he is with me in our Toronto studio. Hello.
VINH NGUYEN: Hi. Thank you for having me.
AMT: Why is gratitude so central to the refugee story?
VINH NGUYEN: Gratitude, it has something to do with the ways in which we conceptualize and conceive a refuge. And so I think we understand refuge not as a moral obligation, as something that on principle we should extend to all human beings. Right. But we understand refuge as a gift, a kind of benefit that is bestowed upon the “lucky ones”. And so in some ways this understanding of political refuge creates this relationship of debt and repayment that then becomes I think both an internal expectation for a lot of refugees but something that the host nation, the receiving nation also comes to impose upon and expect of these people who have been given this gift.
AMT: Right. Okay. So let’s break it apart a little more. What positive elements does gratitude offer to refugees?
VINH NGUYEN: Gratitude is an incredibly healthy emotion, an incredibly healthy feeling and it functions in a variety of different ways. But I think one of the things that it can do for refugees is that it can really provide them with a kind of public platform, in that stories of refugee gratitude and refugee success are incredibly palatable and digestible to the mainstream public. And these stories can really give refugees a voice, a kind of public visibility within the national community.
AMT: But that has downsides built right into it, right, because if it gives them a voice as a refugee, it might give them only the voice of the refugee as opposed to a person living and thriving next to everyone else.
VINH NGUYEN: Right. So the danger is that it becomes a very restricted voice, right, that that voice can only have one kind of expression which is the expression of gratitude. But in my study, what I’ve found as well is that gratitude can also be a way of criticizing the nation. That expression of gratitude, the public visibility that refugees have can be a way of asking the nation to live up to its ideals of compassion and generosity and humanitarianism. So I think it does have a critical edge, that it can have a critical edge.
AMT: Well, that’s interesting. So for example, when the debate over the bringing in of Syrian refugees was under way, a lot of us looked at the 40-year history of Canada bringing in the Vietnamese, the so-called boat people. And that was used almost as a reminder that Canada had stepped up and should step up again.
VINH NGUYEN: Absolutely. It’s a reminder that look, we are capable of compassion, that we are capable of being generous to refugees and we’ve done it before. And what it does is that it kind of puts into sharp relief how we’re not doing it in the present moment. Right. The lack of compassion, the lack of generosity, the kinds of restrictive policies that are actually in place.
AMT: Is there a danger though that countries who take in refugees use gratitude to their own ends?
VINH NGUYEN: Absolutely. That gratitude can be co-opted by sort of nationalistic narratives. So for example just a few months ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, he writes here: “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you” and this was in response to Trump’s Muslim travel ban. So that kind of public display is really useful for the Canadian nation in projects of nation building. 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 and here are the really good successful refugees who are grateful and they are the evidence of that. But what that actually does is it obscures the kinds of restrictive policies that are actually 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.
AMT: How can the gratitude of refugees be used at times to even justify a war?
VINH NGUYEN: A lot of American scholars have talked about how these good, successful, grateful refugees are used by the American media and the American government to turn the war into a successful war. So we know that the US lost the war in Vietnam, but their use of the successful refugees to say that they’ve rescued and liberated these refugees as a way of saying look, we went to war. We intervened militarily. This is why we were there in the first place. And it becomes a way of also justifying further war, right, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
AMT: Used as a propaganda tool almost.
VINH NGUYEN: Yes. Absolutely.
AMT: What was the moment for you personally when you felt this conflict over the meaning of gratitude for refugees?
VINH NGUYEN: I’m a refugee so of course I feel grateful.
AMT: Well, you don’t have to.
VINH NGUYEN: [Laughs] Of course I feel grateful. But I think what’s interesting and I think what Dina’s article has really brought up for us is this idea of how do we find a different way of relating to refugees beyond this relationship of gratitude. How can we be very thankful to the variety of different people and groups that have helped them make this new life? But also point out that this life isn’t perfect, that there are conditions such as racism.
AMT: Then that becomes a question of what do we need to think about if we want to welcome refugees, if we want to speak to people about the past that might have been a struggle to get here but we don’t want to pigeonhole them, how should that conversation go? Give us some ideas.
VINH NGUYEN: I think that conversation needs to number one be based upon this idea that these refugees come from very complex lives. Right. That they’re not sort of one dimensional people who are fearful, who are persecuted, who experience misery. So it’s either that or these are people who are grateful and are successful. One of the things too is that we tend to think of refugees in a way that is very stereotypical as all one sort of group that has these—
AMT: The same experience, yeah. Maybe we should just be asking what they miss about the country they left behind so they can tell us something that isn’t stereotypical.
VINH NGUYEN: Or maybe asking what refugees need is I think probably a better question. What do they need to be comfortable? What do they need to build a new life here? Do they want to go back? Do they want to stay? What are their desires? Frame it in that way perhaps.
AMT: And even the labeling of a refugee. I introduced you as a refugee as a child.
VINH NGUYEN: Right.
AMT: Should I have done that?
VINH NGUYEN: For me, yeah. For me it’s a complex question, right, in that being a refugee and having gone through that experience, that has shaped my professional life. It’s shaped the people that I’m attracted to, the communities that I have built. It has shaped my politics. Even though I’m a Canadian citizen now, but that experience of refugee has stayed with me. There are people though who want to forget and want to leave that history and that past and that experience behind and I think that’s also really important. I’m in a position where I can talk about these things, but other people don’t want to be identified as refugees. And I think that should also be respected.
AMT: Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
VINH NGUYEN: Thank you.
AMT: Vinh Nguyen, assistant professor of English at the University of Waterloo. He studies refugee culture and literature. He joined us in our Toronto studio.