In the late 1980s, Niloo, then 8 years old, left Iran with her mother and brother, thinking her dentist father would meet up with them soon after. As it turned out, this daddy’s girl only saw her father 4 times in a span of twenty years following their exodus. In Refuge, Author Dina Nayeri follows Niloo as a young married, Iranian woman on a journey to find herself and establish roots. Concurrently, through her father, Bahman’s experiences, we gain an understanding of their relationship and his attachment to home.
In her early 30s, Niloo is living in Amsterdam with her French husband. At the same time, in Iran, her father is at the courthouse filing for a divorce from his third wife. She has not seen him in many years and although she feels betrayed and disappointed by him, and has tried to erase him from her memory, Niloo thinks of her father often and recalls their few visits and the precious time they had together when she was a child. Niloo and her husband are working on their young marriage and establish a list of rules; one of them being to have more fun. Attending an Iranian poetry night fits the bill and she meets a traditional older Iranian man, along with a bunch of refugees who she befriends, allowing her to feel comfortably connected and bringing her thoughts back to home and her father.
Because Niloo moved away from her country at an early age and has trouble finding her place in society, she lived like a vagabond, always establishing a “perimeter”; an area in her dwelling where all her most important items are kept; a temporary home. Growing up as a poor refuge, ties she had to her culture were suppressed and although she had the desire to settle down, she seemed to have difficulty laying new roots…constantly being embarrassed by her mother’s stories and not feeling attached to Iran, Amsterdam or anywhere else. Niloo becomes involved in the world of refugees, spending time developing friendships that feel natural, and helping these people in need seems to feed her soul and give her some clarity and insight into who she is and how she can establish a life with solid footing.
Nayeri guides us through each family visit, Brahman’s decisions to finally leave his beloved Iran, the ups and downs of Niloo’s marriage, and her continual search for purpose, identity and home. Refuge highlights this special father-daughter relationship with the backdrop of immigration and the feelings of loss, pressures, uncertainty and bravery of all who are forced to leave their homes and plant roots to begin again.
As someone who lives in the same place I was raised, with at least 3 generations of family nearby for over 100 years, I never struggle with who I am, where I come from or where I belong. I deeply admire those who have left their country and persevered to make a life for themselves somewhere else: they deserve immense respect and support. Niloo’s and Bahman’s stories in Refuge remind me of those struggles, from finances to getting an education to being part of a community and ultimately creating a place to call home. I highly recommend this wonderful novel.
As seen in Goodreads:
An Iranian girl escapes to America as a child, but her father stays behind. Over twenty years, as she transforms from confused immigrant to overachieving Westerner to sophisticated European transplant, daughter and father know each other only from their visits: four crucial visits over two decades, each in a different international city. The longer they are apart, the more their lives diverge, but also the more each comes to need the other’s wisdom and, ultimately, rescue.
Meanwhile, refugees of all nationalities are flowing into Europe under troubling conditions. Wanting to help, but also looking for a lost sense of home, our grown-up transplant finds herself quickly entranced by a world that is at once everything she has missed and nothing that she has ever known. Will her immersion in the lives of these new refugees allow her the grace to save her father?
Refuge charts the deeply moving lifetime relationship between a father and a daughter, seen through the prism of global immigration. Beautifully written, full of insight, charm, and humor, the novel subtly exposes the parts of ourselves that get left behind in the wake of diaspora and ultimately asks: Must home always be a physical place, or can we find it in another person?
Dina Nayeri is a graduate of Princeton, Harvard Business School, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She spends her time in New York and Iowa City.