Telling the ‘Right’ Story: Dina Nayeri on Refugee Credibility


To be granted asylum in the U.S., it doesn’t matter if a person is in undoubtedly in danger. A refugee needs to have the “right” story—the one that matches the official definition of being a refugee—and be able to tell that story in a believable way.

In her newest book, Who Gets Believed?, writer and refugee Dina Nayeri explores the role of credibility in seeking aid, from access to asylum to the criminal justice system. According to Nayeri, the most vulnerable (the uneducated, neurodivergent, etc.) are often deemed the least credible, because they don’t know how to tell the “right” story: the one that could save their life.

Who Gets Believed is available March 7 by Catapult Press.

Jera Brown: How did your understanding of what it means to be a refugee change in writing this book?

Dina Nayeri: Well, it didn’t in writing this book, but it did in the last book, because I wrote The Ungrateful Refugee about the entire arc of the refugee life and did some deep digging into what refugees go through. The aim of that book was to really look back on my own experience, and what people go through now to make some sense of the modern displacement experience.

One of the sections of the book is about asylum storytelling, and I had so many stories of people getting disbelieved for the stupidest reasons, and the way that the asylum officers listen to the stories. It was very shocking. I wanted to write a lot more about that and, with this book, I wanted to expand that out to just how the vulnerable are listened to, versus people who are very privileged.

In her latest book Dina Nayeri, sets out to explore “how the vulnerable are listened to, versus people who are very privileged.” (Instagram / Chavez van den Born-Lawalatta)

Brown: The book covers a lot of types of people who are commonly disbelieved, from immigrants to the neurodivergent. On the flip side, you talk about your experiences working for McKinsey & Company, one of the most prestigious consultancy organizations in the country, and how people were eager to believe you.

Nayeri: When you have that level of privilege, all that people see is your potential, and they just want to believe you. You are just your strengths embodied. And when you’re someone that’s vulnerable, you are just your needs embodied.

In the book, there are people seeking medical treatment, people of color, poor people, people who’ve been to jail—all summarily disbelieved. They all are suspected, simply because they perform differently the thing that they need.

Benefits offices, doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, the housing offices, and especially the criminal justice system—all of these systems that we’ve created—have put gatekeepers in place who have the instinct to look for the discrepancy and to throw it out. This is just not the way to dole out the world’s resources, especially to the most vulnerable.

Asylum is a very good encapsulation of how we all believe in disbelief. When I talk to asylum officers, they all very openly admit that their job is to find discrepancies and to turn people away. This is not an accusation I’m making; they admit it.

But it’s this very overt version of the way we all dismiss people subconsciously when we’re listening to strangers. We’re actually listening for something discrepant. We don’t realize that we do it, because we’re cloaked by our instincts to listen for something that sounds untruthful or sketchy. It comes from our training about what’s believable, but it also comes from our fear. So when we’re looking to dismiss someone’s story subconsciously, we’re doing the very thing that asylum officers do overtly.

You have to tell the right story and only the right story.

Dina Nayeri

Brown: The legal definition of a refugee is “a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Why is this definition so important?

Nayeri: While we throw around the term ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ randomly, there’s a very specific definition to ‘refugee’ according to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Your reason for fearing for your life has to fit into one of those five categories. So you can come and say, ‘I’m definitely going to die back home.’ And the asylum officer can say, ‘Yeah, we believe you’re going to die, just not for the right reasons.’ So you’re not a refugee and you could be sent away for that, which is absurd.

The first pothole you can fall into is telling the wrong story. And even if you tell the right story and accidentally tell some of the wrong story, you can still fall into that pothole. For example, say I ran because I converted to Christianity, and the government came after me. But then, say we had no money, and we didn’t know what to do. They’ll be like, ‘Aha, you’re an economic migrant.’ And I’d say, ‘But I just told you it was my religion.’ But they’d believe this other part, because they’re looking to reject. So you have to tell the right story and only the right story.

There are a lot of people are dismissed because they lock themselves into the wrong story early. They may be quickly interviewed before they see a lawyer, and they don’t know that they said the wrong thing. And even if later they try to change it, it’s already on the record, and there’s nothing they can do. If they say something else later, the officer can say they’re lying.

It really favors people who are more educated, more Western, or have been able to read up on the refugee laws, etc. And especially those who are represented. If you have access to a lawyer, your chances suddenly go way up. So then after that, if you have the right story, and you’ve shaped it the right way, and you’re not saying anything extra, then you have to be believed. And here come all of those intangible things to do with culture and trauma and shame — all the many reasons you might not tell your story right, and that person might just not believe.

When we’re looking to dismiss someone’s story subconsciously, we’re doing the very thing that asylum officers do overtly.

Dina Nayeri

Brown: The process favors those with access to a lawyer, but so few asylum seekers obtain access. What would equitable access to representation look like?

Nayeri: There are a lot of organizations that work on gathering pro bono lawyers to go to places like the southern U.S. border or Greece to offer representation. But right now, it’s very patchy. What happens is, those who are asylum seekers who have money hire lawyers, and the ones who don’t have money, if they’re savvy, they will ask for one from a charity, but lawyers are all completely overworked.

So what would it look like? We can’t rely on people just to come and volunteer more and more. In the long term, the process has to look completely different.

First of all, you can’t have these gatekeepers who are just looking to kick people out. They need to understand their humanitarian purpose. And then we need to have some way of providing access to representation to everyone across the board, and that representation needs to be paid. Just that small thing is such a huge overhaul of the system and takes a lot of resources.

We also need to stop relying on a case-by-case determination of truth and credibility and whether or not people are really in danger. There needs to be more blanket policies. For example, if a country is going through a particular kind of hell, we should just open the doors to people from that country. When people were coming in en masse from Syria, or people were coming in with the same scars from Sri Lanka into the U.K., it was the same case again and again and again. And not only were some of the people turned away when they were telling the truth, the asylum officers were becoming desensitized.

We can make better use of the temporary protection status, which is something that we have for people who are from a country where suddenly something is happening and a lot of people are in danger, and they don’t want to process individually.

One of the lawyers I spoke to in the book talked about this. If you look back to, say, the ’40s, when we were getting refugees from Europe: If every Jewish person coming through is saying, ‘They’re killing all of us,’ and then you ask that person, ‘So were they specifically targeting you? Let’s hear your story’—that is so meaningless. That person is definitely in danger; we can just go ahead and let them in.

Guatemalan migrant minors arrive back in Guatemala on Feb. 7, 2023, after being stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border and deported. (Johan Ordonez / AFP via Getty Images)

Brown: You wrote, “Once a refugee finds the one correct story of her many stories, her battle changes. With home receding into the horizon, she must now persuade, though her performance (of the story, of her grief and fear) is tainted by a hundred cultural and trauma-born factors.”

Can you talk about the relationship between trauma and performance?

Nayeri: A lot of writers who have written about pain talk about the fact that we just can’t imagine other people’s pain. It’s impossible. We know our own, only. Trauma doesn’t make us bad at performing our pain: It makes us bad at performing it for strangers and makes us very good at performing it for people who are similar to us. We feel pain a certain way.

Think of it as: Who is the closest person who can truly feel your pain? It’s your mother, your partner. We can perform our pain for that person, and we are often heartbreaking and convincing, and we can create something beautiful. But for strangers, it always seems like melodrama. They want to see things played out the way that they’re used to seeing them.

I think there is something grotesque about the petition for safety being tied to performance, because we come at our most wretched moment to other people’s doors. And we should not have to be thinking about how we come across, or how we present right then.

There is also something grotesque about the fact that the world is divided between the rich and the poor, and between people who are safe and who are not safe, and there are closed doors between them.

I just wish people would think about that—about what it means that you could be injured and covered in shame and trauma and bad memories, having lost your home and all your money and the people that you love, and then you have to do a song and dance in order to be have all of that believed. It is possibly the grossest thing that we do in relation to the vulnerable. It’s possibly the least civilized, the ugliest, most morally impoverished thing that I have seen in modern world.

If every … person coming through is saying, ‘They’re killing all of us,’ and then you ask that person, ‘So were they specifically targeting you? Let’s hear your story’—that is so meaningless. That person is definitely in danger; we can just go ahead and let them in.

Dina Nayeri

Brown: What is your hope for this book?

Nayeri: I hope that people will understand that not everything that looks false to them is false. That their idea of truth and falsehood is completely determined by their culture and experiences: the joys and pride and shame and performances and rituals that they’ve lived through. And that they will open their hearts a little bit to people who may be performing those things differently. And that also they will open their minds to the literature and stories from around the world so that those instincts can be reset in a more global way.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Jera Brown is a freelance writer covering sexuality, spirituality and social justice. Their Radical Soul newsletter looks at modern spiritual movements that center justice, offer healing from religious trauma, and reject white and Christian supremacy.