'Accepting charity is an ugly business': my return to the refugee camps, 30 years on

Dina Nayeri was eight when she and her family fled Iran. Are today’s refugees treated with more dignity?

There have been days, months, when I’ve eaten meals provided by charities, governments, good people. When I was 10, I lived in a refugee camp outside Rome, a temporary safe space for transients seeking asylum outside Italy. The Italian government had leased the building from a hotel owner; though our clothes and sheets were those of refugees, we lived on a hilltop, in the husk of a pretty hotel.

Each day, the residents of hotel Barba were served soup, pasta, coffee, meat, bread. In the mornings, we stampeded for jam. We were given three meals at precise times. When my mother found an English school an hour away by bus, we had to find a way to claim our lunches or they would be lost. She enlisted the help of an Afghan grandmother – she would save our lunches for us, we would eat them for dinner, then we would make sandwiches out of our dinners, hang them in a plastic bag over a balcony and take them to school the next day. The process was embarrassing and very visible. The bringing in of the lunches, now cold, to the canteen at dinner time, the packing away of the fresher dinners. The hotel served hard, round bread rolls and we filled them with peas and mashed potatoes, with pasta and chicken, slices of meat under carrot, letting the gravy soak and soften the bread overnight. To this day, leftover sandwiches evoke survival for me – they bring dread, the pleasure of having solved a puzzle, and also shame.

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