Op-Ed: For a refugee in the U.S., the sharpest sting is the everyday shame of being foreign

An Iranian refugee takes a moment to himself shortly after arriving on a long journey to start a new life in the United States.
(Los Angeles Times)

We had been asylum seekers for 16 months, living in hostels in the United Arab Emirates and Italy, when my family arrived in Oklahoma. In Iran, we had been part of a respected family of doctors and academics. Now, as refugees, the sharpest sting we endured wasn’t from hunger or cold, but from everyday shame: Over what little we now had, our useless Iranian educations, the color of our skin, our pungent food, our foreign habits.

We moved into a ramshackle apartment complex in the “bad” part of town. It was a hopeless place. In a parking lot full of rusted metal, cigarette butts baked in oil puddles. Unwashed children idled long past sundown in a meager ravine. In our new community, we expected to find fellow immigrants, other newcomers itching to study, to work. Instead we were surrounded by poor Americans, which made us suspicious. How did they end up here when they had every advantage — access to American passports, a lifetime of American education.

My mother, brother and I shared two rooms and kept to ourselves. After a few months, my mother married a fellow Iranian named Rahim, and his half-American daughter sometimes stayed with us. I wasn’t accustomed to living so humbly. We hardly had space to breathe.

This is what most people don’t understand about being a refugee: The shame is constant and the Western gaze tempers every footfall.


Yet I loved my stepsister’s visits. She was my only friend, and I could trust her to keep our Iranian secrets from our classmates because she was also tainted by them. And yet she had access to something I did not: American roots, American pride, the ability to just be herself. When I was 11, my long hair was chopped into an atrocious Joan Jett mullet. Then puberty hit and my Iranian nose began to sprout. It seemed now that even my own body was giving up on the endless task of seeming normal, or American.

Our tiny apartment was a refuge. It was a purely Iranian space that could smell like turmeric and onion and be draped in bright fuzzy blankets, and no one would care. It was unbreached by Americans.

In such a small space, the Oklahoma heat made daily cooking a nuisance and so, one August day, we decided to cook for the week. By midmorning, a shirtless Rahim was steaming rice, chopping eggplant, dicing leftover onions. A pot of the best Persian dish, ghormeh sabzi, a fragrant lamb stew, bubbled on the stove, coating every surface with its pungent aroma. The smell would last for days. But who cared? It was just us. My mother had set plates on the living room floor on old bedding made into a sofreh, a floor-cloth for eating.

We had left the front door ajar and soon a timid face peeked in. It belonged to the youth pastor from our new church, a man in his mid-20s who appeared fresh-faced despite the apocalyptic heat. “Hi there! We’re the welcome crew!” he said in the warm, unbothered Oklahoma way I’d soon come to know.

He stepped inside. Behind him four kids from my school lingered, glancing around and whispering to each other. One sniffed the air.

Though 30 years have passed, I have never felt more shame than I did that morning. Like most anyone, I have made a fool of myself in a hundred ways. Once I got carsick and my boss held my hair back as I vomited by a roadside. Once I hit the dance floor with my skirt tucked into my underwear. But I was grown up when those things happened: There was more of me to absorb the blow. The day the youth group visited, I was small enough to be devastated.

And this is what most people don’t understand about being a refugee: The shame is constant and the Western gaze tempers every footfall. The second after I realized these people intended to come in, I saw everything through newfound American eyes — our repurposed old bedding, our thrift-store clothes, the odd smells from our kitchen, our toilet with the wash bucket, our Iranian books and photos of our refugee days.

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Our visitors didn’t stay long. We were so awkward, running around offering tea, gathering up the sofreh. To them it was just a casual stop-by, but it had ruined my weekend. Perhaps today people are more sensitive to dignity and social class, how one relates so cruelly to the other, especially in private spaces.

And yet, for us, it wasn’t just about being poor. It was about a toxic mix of indignities reserved for the displaced — the stigma over our Eastern origins, our poverty, that we had fallen so far and lost so much of ourselves. In Iran, my mother had been a doctor, and that mattered in our private calculation of shame.

All that is long over now. I’ve assimilated and moved on, acquired degrees and reclaimed my ability to travel. What I remember of my childhood displacement is this: Dignity matters. Back in our refugee days, our tangible needs meant little compared with our psychological ones. Hunger may cause the stomach to ache, I quickly learned, but it cripples the pride. And it takes a lifetime of care to mend it back into its original shape.

Dina Nayeri is the author of the forthcoming book “The Ungrateful Refugee.”