Refuge: A Memoir. (2017). Dina Nayert, Riverhead Books. 320 pp., $19.99, ISBN: 978-1-59448-705-7.

Kim Wright, Utah Valley University, [email protected]

Refuge is a story about a difficult father/daughter relationship but it is also a story about loss, alienation, and self-discovery. At the age of eight Niloo fled Iran with her mother and brother. Her father chose to stay in Iran to keep his dentistry practice and opium drug habit going.

At first glance, Niloo seems to be adjusting fairly well to life in America.  She grows up to become a world traveler and highly educated. However, once the reader gets deeper into the story, a different story emerges. Niloo is unaware of how unhappy she is.  She does not speak her native language nor does she hang out with other Iranian people. Everything she does is precise and calculated - even her relationships.  “In her third year in Yale, she needed a boyfriend, so she began to accept dates … she created a chart of the boys and scored them … Gui [her husband] scored three standard deviations above the mean…” (pg. 33).

Niloo works non-stop, is a perfectionist, and can’t seem to settle in one place for very long. She creates a perimeter wherever she goes. Niloo does not allow Gui into this personal space. “[I]n every new place she had a corner, just a corner, that was hers only” (pg. 39). Niloo saw her father only four times since leaving Iran and cannot reconcile the hero of her childhood with the older version of her father who is an opium addict. Each visit becomes more difficult for both father and daughter.  Niloo blames her father for abandoning his family and for his addiction and Bahman, her father, finds Niloo distant and humorless. Niloo finally decides to check out an Iranian poetry group. She doesn’t join in right away but chooses to observe the Iranian stories and poems. Slowly, she begins to join in and make friends. Niloo finds herself developing new friendships with Iranian refugees, which helps her on the road to self-discovery. 

Although I found this book a little dry for my taste, I really appreciate learning a little about what some of my own students might be going through. Refugee students may be adjusting to all sorts of new things that can be overwhelming. They no longer belong in their country nor do they fit in where they have settled. They are trying to adjust to new foods, language, and climate, and fighting stereotypes. Refugees may have lost family members and are fighting loneliness, and homesickness.

Refuge is a great book that can help advisors see the struggles refugees go through on a more personal level. Even though the story is fiction, the issues are not. The best thing we can do is to be genuinely friendly, empathetic, and culturally aware. It is important to gain their trust so they are comfortable enough to tell you their story. Students bring their values, religious beliefs, and customs with them and we need to help them navigate college. Advisers working with refugees should understand that our Western ideas are very confusing to them. Plagiarism is a good example of this. Western rules on plagiarism are very different from other countries. Refugees are unaware of their wrongful behavior due to these cultural differences. I would definitely recommend this book for other advisors looking to find out what it feels like to be a refugee. This book is a great reminder that our students come from a multitude of backgrounds and we need to be sensitive to each student’s situation.

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