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The gratitude politics around refugees

by | Apr 18, 2017 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

One of the students, Iona Walker, sent this article, ‘The ungrateful refugee’ by Dina Nayeri, as food for thought. Thinking about gratitude (and related issues like gifts and reciprocity, indebtedness)–or more precisely, how we might inadvertently demand certain groups of people to be grateful–is an interesting and important dynamic to consider. Do all acts of ‘doing good’ demand a grateful response in one way or another? Could a humanitarian act be sustained without a grateful recipient? In what other ways do humanitarian acts discipline recipients?

Here’s an excerpt from the article:


With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, I’ve seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: “Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.

But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?