The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You weaves together a personal memoir of escaping Iran with accounts of other refugees, mostly from Iran, languishing or having languished in various camps, waiting for an acceptance from a host country.
The author’s escape and subsequent resettlement in Oklahoma City, with her Christian-convert mother and her younger brother (her Muslim father stayed in Iran, and eventually remarried) is told eloquently, even if the circumstances are quite different from those of other refugees, especially since her mother was an educated physician with more resources than most. She speaks movingly of the stress of the unknown, of the waiting, of the requirements to adapt to new rules and a new culture.
When it comes to other refugees, it’s more complicated. She makes a great point, similar to what Aayan Hirsi Ali makes, that creating a credible refugee “case” is virtually impossible for people fleeing persecution–and on the other hand the task of those who check the truth of persecution story is arduous. Since opening borders is not politically sustainable, we can’t just admit all who self-declare as refugees, and for that she has no practical suggestions.
Don’t expect great literary style, clever construction, or deep philosophy of like in My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. What you will find is a great story of a Communist country refugee (from the Istrian peninsula of Italy, which was annexed by Yugoslavia after WWII) who found great success in the US as an Italian restaurateur and TV chef. The best parts of the story are when she describes her childhood experience of moving first to a refugee camp and then to New York. An intriguing personal story, especially at a time when refugees are not always welcome.
The author of The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom spent a year in a Denver classroom that is the first stop for teenaged immigrants, in this case mostly refugees, until they can speak enough English to move to a more advanced class, and eventually to the mainstream. She describes the wonderful teacher and his lessons, and meets with some students and their parents outside school to learn more about their background and struggles.
The best parts of the book, you won’t be surprised to hear, are the descriptions of the classroom and the interactions between the students, shy and reticent at first, and then friendly and tightly bound to each other. Unfortunately the author seems to desperately want to inject her own beliefs and judgment into the mix, which makes for grating commentary (for instance on why one sister wears the hijab and the other does not) and sometimes outright embarrassing behavior (when she travels to a refugee camp in Africa and shows pictures of one students to his cousin, who is understandably miffed at the luck that did not visit him). So awkward, but interesting.
I am a fan of Mohsin Amid but Exit West left me cold. It starts intriguingly, in a war-torn city that feels like Damascus, with a not-quite-matched couple of lovers who soon determine to leave. And leave they do, entering a half-fantasy world that feels all wrong: didactic, preachy, and (to me) boring. Too bad, the beginning was promising with its fearless heroine and her conservative boyfriend.
I did not particular want to read Little Bee, with its battered paperback cover and its gruesome cover blurb — but as I mentioned before summer pickings can be slim at the library, so I took it home, and I was very impressed. The Little Bee of the title is a teenage Nigerian girl who finds herself as an illegal immigrant to Britain and reconnects with a British couple she met, by chance, back in Nigeria, with disastrous results. The story is told in alternating chapters in Little Bee’s and the British woman’s voice and I found the Little Bee chapters just breathtaking.
There’s a lot of violence in the story, which is one of the reasons why I hesitated to read it, but it’s worth it. And you get a great portrait of a four-year old to boot.