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The refugee camp is notorious for its overcrowding, fires and riots. But for the people who live there, life goes on and every day brings new stories of resilience, bravery and compassion

It is not easy to find the library at Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos. Before reaching the refugee camps main entrance, you turn off the road where the police bus is always parked, then walk up the track that runs beside the perimeter fence. You walk past the military post and the hawkers selling fruit and veg, trainers, cooking utensils, cigarettes, electrical equipment pretty much everything; past huge stinking mountains of bagged-up rubbish so much rubbish; and past the worst toilets in the world, overflowing with excrement and plastic.

Then, opposite the hole in the fence where people who dont want to use the main gate come and go, you turn right, into what they call the Jungle, the olive groves into which the camp has exploded, because it was meant for 3,000 people and now has 20,000. Continue along the winding path, watching out for low-slung washing lines, past the burnt-out olive tree and the tiny tent with the family who always say hello, then turn left up the steep hill that becomes a muddy slide after rain. And there it is, on the right: Morias new library.

From the outside, it looks like all the other structures in this part of the camp a shack cobbled together from bits of wood and tarpaulins. But inside there are shelves and books. And, standing behind a counter, wearing a New York Yankees beanie, a librarian Zekria, from Afghanistan.

He runs a school, too that is how the library started. Zekria, 40, his wife and their five children arrived on the island a year ago in the usual perilous way, in a small boat at night across the 12-mile strait from Turkey. He tried to register the kids at one of the NGO-run schools that provide some educational activities, but they were all full; the waiting list could have been a month, two months, three months.

So Zekria, who used to teach law at a university in Kabul, decided to start his own class. I bought a whiteboard and some markers. It started in an open area under an olive tree last March, teaching English, he says. English is the most important, because, even though people get stuck here for a year, two years, more even, no one wants to live here for ever. He speaks excellent English, softly.

Everyone especially children needs hope … young refugees on the outskirts of Moria. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

More and more people mostly Afghans, but also Syrians, Iraqis and members of other nationalities wanted classes. Zekria was invited to peoples tents and containers to teach; soon he had more potential students than he could cope with. So he set up a team and they built a classroom. Registration opened one Friday morning. When I came here at 7.30am, more than 600 people were in the line.

They scheduled lessons for everyone: no one gets turned away, even if it means 50 to a class. We cannot say no, says Zekria. As if to prove it, 14-year-old Somahya shows up to register for German lessons (her family is trying to get to Germany) and is told there will be a class available by next week.

Now there are three classrooms and the teaching team numbers 30, with more than 1,000 students learning English, German, French and Greek, guitar and art. In the room next to the library, a class mostly of teenagers is painting designs on T-shirts on the floor. Its very important for people living in this stressful place, says Zekria. They come here, paint or listen to music, they learn something, theyre busy, they forget the other traumatic stuff they suffer in this camp. Psychology starts in action. Doctors will advise, but we are doing it in action.

The library is the latest project. Zekria hasnt quite worked out the system yet. It doesnt officially open until tomorrow. He thinks it is going to be one book borrowed at a time, maybe two if users travel a long distance within the camp. They will be able to keep items for a week, maybe 10 days. So far, books have mostly been donated by aid workers and NGOs, some possibly more pertinent (Catch-22) than others (the Lonely Planet guide to China). Zekria would like more books in Farsi and Arabic. I have only one book with me, a new one by the film-maker Chris Atkins about his time banged up in Wandsworth prison in London. That could be relevant, I guess. Anyway, it is there now, in the library at Moria.

Humanity survives in hell … South Sudanese migrants outside Moria. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

Zekrias own sentence and his familys is further uncertainty. Their asylum application has been rejected. He doesnt know why, but suspects it may have something to do with this educational activity. The authorities dont like it, he says.


I have come to Moria on the hunt for hope. It began with a letter to the Guardian from an aid worker there. He was concerned that the notorious camps portrayal in the media was relentlessly negative. But working there, he said, was an amazing experience; every day, he witnessed acts of kindness by extraordinary people. It gave him faith in humanity.

You will have heard about the desperate conditions, the overcrowding, the fires, the riots, the unaccompanied minors, the trauma, sexual exploitation, rape and murder. I am here to see if there is another, more positive side to Moria.

Bloody hell, that looks unlikely. Moria no good, is the chorus to my time at the camp. The same issues come up again and again: the fear and the cold at night, freezing showers, the unreliable supply of water, no electricity, queueing for hours for food, for months, years or for ever for permission to leave the island. Then there are the fights that break out among the frustrated, angry, bored young men who make up a high proportion of those living here. Just before my arrival, a 20-year-old Yemeni man was fatally stabbed, the second death this year. No one came here for this.

Moria is hell, a stain on 21st-century Europe, where bureaucracy, politics and simply not caring enough have left tens of thousands in limbo people fleeing war and danger, looking for a future for themselves and their children and not finding it. Morias existence is a disgrace, a failure of morality.

Yet, somehow, a sort of life goes on; humanity survives in hell. I am here for three days two alone, then another with the photographer Byron Smith and experience so much goodwill and humour.

I am offered warm flatbread fresh from one of Morias many ovens, sunflower seeds from kids, shisha from a bunch of Iraqi lads standing around a fire. Language is sometimes a problem, but it turns out it is possible to discuss the demise of Manchester United through sign language. There are more people here from Afghanistan than from any other country and I end up talking to more Afghans than anyone else, but I also meet people from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, Zimbabwe and even Myanmar.

Abdullah Najafi (second left), from Afghanistan, and two of his children Mohammad (left), 14, and Meraj, five show photos and share tea with Sam Wollaston inside their tent. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

There is no power to make coffee or tea in Wahid Aminis store today, but he has cold drinks. A cameraman back in Kabul, Wahid, 20, is trying to join his family in France, but his application has been rejected. He is hopeful that, with legal help and more documentation, he might get there one day. The shop, next to a busy barbers, is a new enterprise, to try to make a bit of money. He sells shampoo, rice, spaghetti, washing-up liquid, disposable razors, etc, which he buys outside the camp. He is open 24 hours.

The Najafi family Abdullah and Gulbdan, plus their sons Ali Reza (15), Mohammad (14) and Meraj (five) invite us into their homemade tent. It is tiny for five people six, actually; their 16-year-old daughter, Faezh, has gone to queue for a cold shower. But it is spotless and tidy blankets have been folded and piled up for the day and we leave our muddy shoes at the entrance. The familys belongings hang in rucksacks from the wall, next to the Afghan flag and a couple of soft toys, one of which looks like a Kevin the Carrot from Aldi. I really hope it is one of the Kevins I recently sneaked into the charity-shop bag at home.

Gulbdan must know of a secret power source, as she conjures up an electric kettle and hot water to make tea, served in cracked cups with almonds and biscuits. Touching hospitality in any circumstance; properly moving in Moria.

Mohammad shows me footage on his dads phone of him taking part in a karate tournament in Iran. Abdullah and Gulbdan left Afghanistan 20 years ago; the kids have been brought up in Iran until now. Mohammad, already a black belt, won his bout. There is no karate in Moria, just actual fighting. The Najafi family keep to their tent after dark.

They show us pictures on Faezhs camera of some of their journey. Playing on a beach in Turkey, rock pools, jellyfish. She didnt take pictures of the crossing it was too dark and too scary but there is a little video of them on the beach where they landed in the north of Lesbos, looking tired but happy, in Europe at last. They never imagined they would end up like this.

There is plenty of humanity on show from the aid workers. Kind Danish women distribute clothes; a group of Dutch Christians hand out boxes of toys; a middle-aged British man with a background in water engineering leads a team to maintain the camps showers, toilets and sewers. There are hundreds of mostly young volunteers, who consider Moria unacceptable and Europes shame. They are not indifferent: they want to make a difference. I meet many who came for a few weeks and ended up staying for a year, sometimes two.

One Happy Family is, as you might expect from its name, good news. A community centre a few miles from the camp, run by various organisations along with many refugee volunteers, it has a medical centre, a playground, a gym, a womens space, a cafe, board games, a phone-charging station and an electrical repair shop. There is also a garden, where refugee volunteers including Sima Mohammedi and Reza Rezaie show me the beetroot, spinach, turnips, chard, beans and herbs they are growing. Covering the compost heap is a big piece of black rubber, just recognisable as part of one of the dinghies that bring refugees from Turkey and then get abandoned. Recycling.

The vegetables contribute to the OHF kitchen, where they cook lunch for up to 1,200 people every day. Todays chefs are Fifie from Zimbabwe and Mohammed from Myanmar. They are cooking vegetables, lentils, chickpeas and flatbread. Once a week they do chicken and the queues get really long.

Back at Moria, it is hard not to meet Ali Shama Eddin. He must be the most famous and is certainly the tallest person here. Ali, 23, from Damascus in Syria, arrived in Moria in 2016. He was alone: his parents had already reached Germany but that helps your case only if you are a minor. He started helping, volunteering with the Dutch organisation Movement on the Ground, and learned English from hanging out with the Europeans he worked with.

It took Ali almost two years, but he got his travel documents eventually and went to Germany to join his family. But my heart, my mind, my feelings were here, so I decided to come back, he says. Now he works here, as the general manager for the same NGO, Movement on the Ground. He strides about the place in his bright yellow jacket, greeting everyone in several languages, trying to sort out peoples problems, finding room in a tent for a new arrival. I understand Im a refugee as well, he says.

I understand Im a refugee as well … Ali Shama Eddin, from the charity Movement on the Ground, mediates a dispute in the camp. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

When there is a dispute between two men, one of whom says the other owes him money, Ali sits them down to try to sort it out. I want to hear from both of you to understand how we can solve this problem, he tells them. This one doesnt end in a fight for now.

There is love and communication between people from different countries we can all be together, share a meal, discuss something. We can learn from each other, inspire each other, support each other. This is amazing, says Ali, who is very much on board with the NGOs ethos, which is all about treating people with dignity and respect and empowering them.

Who is this European woman, who looks a bit like Johan Cruyff and smokes like him, too? Ah, Susila Cruyff, the daughter of the footballer. She is here with the Cruyff Foundation, which develops sports activities for children in need around the world. Nowhere are kids more in need than here. The foundation is going to build a football pitch a Cruyff court in the camp and Susila is here to look for a suitable site. At the moment, there is nowhere flat in camp to kick a ball. My father used to think that sport is more than sport, she says. Its good for your health, but also for your mental health, she says.

The foundation will build two pitches: one here, one somewhere else on the island for the locals the hope being that it will encourage competitions and build bridges between refugees and residents. The relationship between the two has been far from easy.


They steal, they fight, they dont respect us, says Sofia, my taxi driver from the airport. Tourists no longer come; Lesbos is now an Islamic place, she says.

There are about 25,000 refugees on an island with a permanent population of 86,000. That is an increase of almost 30% (think of 19 million people suddenly showing up in the UK). It has put a massive strain on the islands resources: water, services, the hospital. Ambulances are frequent visitors to Morias main gate; I see a woman in labour and obvious pain being lifted into one. She will be back within a couple of days with Morias youngest resident.

Close the borders … a woman holding a Greek flag protests against the countrys refugee camps. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

There is a one-day general strike on the island while I am here; everything is shut down. Hundreds of protesters gather in the capital, Mytilini, waving Greek flags, demanding the closure of the camp and the removal of refugees from the island. We want our islands back, we want our lives back, is the main slogan of the protests, which are taking place on the islands of Samos and Chios at the same time.

A few miles from Mytilini, in a tiny hamlet on the Gulf of Giera, a very different scene is playing out. In what used to be a restaurant, a cosy dining room with a woodburner, four Afghan teenagers are playing with a kitten. One of them puts on some music from home and they dance.

They are unaccompanied minors from Moria, children lost in a world that isnt fair, but brought here today for something a bit like a home. They are accompanied by Eleni Dimou, who works for the government, looking after boys at Moria. Some have psychological problems; some self-harm, she says. It is hard enough being a teenager anywhere, but it is really hard at Moria.

Some call her Mother, says Eleni, whose own children are grown up. Because they need a mother, they need someone.

It is a really hard job, but not a thankless one. I get a lot of love from them, says Eleni, who is learning Farsi. On Christmas Day, one boy gave me a pair of socks. I said: Why did you do that? It costs money. He said: Because I know in your country, on Christmas, you give presents to the people that you love.

This place was set up by a lovely local couple, Nikos Katsouris and Katerina Koveou. They turn up later and tell me how it came about. In 2014, Nikos, then a fisherman, was driving around with a van of fish to sell when he came across a group of refugees from Syria who had just landed. They were wet, tired and hungry; there was a pregnant woman and a boy of about 10, who was on his own. Shocked by what he saw, Nikos used the money he got from the fish to buy them food and gave the boy his jacket. When he got home and told Katerina, she got to work immediately, cooking for them. Then they set off to find them, with 40 homecooked meals and all the blankets and clothes they could lay their hands on.

We try to give back what others took from the people … Home for All founders Nikos Katsouris and Katerina Koveou (left) say goodbye to Zakira Naderi, an Afghan asylum seeker. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

That first lot never got their dinner: they were detained by the police before Nikos and Katerina found them. But the couple found another boatload of arrivals to give it to. Ever since, they have been helping refugees, adapting to the changing needs of the situation. When Moria opened, they took sardines, bread, rice and vegetables to the camp and they fed hungry volunteers in their restaurant. Then they started to bring families from the camp to the restaurant. We try to give back what others took from the people, Nikos says. They took their lives, their smiles, their humanity, their dignity. These things we have here.

It hasnt gone down well with the authorities. They have broken petty rules, such as that you are not allowed to be a charity and a restaurant at the same time. Nikos and Katerina have been fined a total of 47,800 (40,000). So they have given up the restaurant and are now solely an NGO, Home for All. They have refugees here every day, to eat, to learn to cook, to be at home, like the boys today. They cook and deliver food for the most vulnerable in the camp minors and sick people.

Katerina has had to accept that they cant help everyone. This was my problem in the beginning I wanted to help them all. But then I realised: If I do this, probably I am not going to help anyone. You help those you can, and if you can do more, you do.

Why do they do it? Because we want to and because we can, she says.


I return to Moria one more time, turning off the road where the police bus sits, up the dirt track that runs parallel to the perimeter fence, right into the Jungle. I am not going to Zekrias library this time, not yet, but to his school, to see one of his teachers.

It has been more difficult for me to talk to women in the camp than to men, mostly because of culture and tradition. No problems with 19-year-old Azita Barekzai from Afghanistan, though. She is happy to chat. Her English is good; she is ambitious and wise (I hope that doesnt sound patronising). When I ask her something I have already asked, she tells me off: I told you! She doesnt want her photo taken, because she has a cold, but in the end she relents. I am glad there is a picture of Azita; like many of the people I meet in Moria, she is amazing.

I enjoy it a lot because I can make some people smile … Azita Barekzai, a 19-year-old Afghan English teacher, poses inside a classroom at the school founded by Zekria Farzad. Photograph: Byron Smith/Getty Images

She got here seven months ago, with her parents and her three siblings. She is the oldest of the kids. The crossing was terrifying, really dangerous. I never thought we were going to survive.

Then she was shocked by what they had come to in Moria. The usual issues the cold, the rubbish, the fights, being too scared to leave the tent at night. It is especially horrible when it rains. You cannot imagine how people tolerate it. Life is really difficult here.

She wants to go to Switzerland, because she heard it accepts refugees and is beautiful. She would like to be a doctor. She has her papers already; she can travel, but the rest of her family hasnt been approved. They are still waiting.

In the meantime, she is teaching English to kids in Zekrias school. I enjoy it a lot because I can make some people smile. I just want to make them laugh. I know that if someone laughs it doesnt mean they dont have problems. We need hope. Everyone especially children needs hope. We are really hopeless sometimes because of this bad situation. Maybe learning English gives them some hope for the future. They can go somewhere else better.

It is time for the librarys opening ceremony next door. There is a small gathering; someone has brought a basket of sweets and a red ribbon. Zekria says a few words, thanks the people who nailed the bits of wood together and attached the tarpaulins, and the book donors. Then, with a pair of scissors, he cuts the ribbon. Morias library is, he declares, officially open.


A couple of weeks later, back in my nice, safe, warm office, I WhatsApp Zekria to check a couple of things. First, he tells me that the pictures I took of the opening (Byron wasnt around at the time) were terrible. He is not wrong. Then he says his asylum application was rejected again. Fearing deportation, he and his family managed to get to mainland Greece, where they are staying in a squat. Its cold, there is no electricity, it is the life of refugees, he says. I hate the fucking politics of the world.

He has no money left and will try to find informal work, then perhaps try to cross a land border into Albania or Macedonia. The library and the school in Moria are fine, he says. The team is running them; he is in touch regularly. I have to go, he says. We will speak later, my friend.

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Dina Nayeri was just a child when she fled Iran as an asylum seeker. But as she settled into life in the US and then Europe, she became suspicious of the idea that refugees should shed their old identities and be eternally thankful

A few weeks ago I dusted off my expired Iranian passport photo, an unsmiling eight-year-old version of me stunned, angry, wearing tight grey hijab and staring far beyond the camera. Its not the face of a child on the verge of rescue, though I would soon escape Iran. I have kept that old photograph hidden since the day I threw away my last headscarf, and now its the bewildered face and parted lips, not the scarf, that capture my interest. No matter how hard I try, I cant reconcile this child with the frazzled American writer in my recent pictures.

In 1985, when I was six years old, my family left our home in Isfahan for several months to live in London. The move was temporary, a half-hearted stab at emigration; nonetheless, I was enrolled in school. In Iran I had only attended nursery, never school, and I spoke only Farsi.

At first, the children were welcoming, teaching me English words using toys and pictures, but within days the atmosphere around me had changed. Years later, I figured that this must have been how long it took them to tell their parents about the Iranian kid. After that, a group of boys met me in the yard each morning and, pretending to play, pummelled me in the stomach. They followed me in the playground and shouted gibberish, laughing at my dumbfounded looks. A few weeks later, two older boys pushed my hand into a doorjamb and slammed it shut on my little finger, severing it at the first segment. I was rushed to the hospital, carrying a piece of my finger in a paper napkin. The segment was successfully reattached.

I never went back to that school, but later, in the chatter of the grownups from my grandmothers church and even in my parents soothing whispers, I heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected me and so I shouldnt look at the event in a negative light. It was my moment to shine! Besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys? Maybe they were just playing, trying to include me though I didnt speak a word of their language. Wasnt that a good thing?

Eventually we returned to Iran. I was put under a headscarf and sent to an Islamic girls school.

No matter how hard I try, I cant reconcile this child with my recent pictures Dina Nayeri, then aged six, in her passport photo

Three years later, my mother, brother and I left Iran for real, this time after my mother had been dragged to jail for converting to Christianity, after the moral police had interrogated her three times and threatened her with execution. We became asylum seekers, spending two years in refugee hostels in Dubai and Rome. By that time I had lived my first eight years in the belly of wartime Iran for most of the 80s, the Iran-Iraq war wrecked our country and trapped us in a state of almost constant fear. I had grown accustomed to the bomb sirens, the panicked dashes down to the basement, the taped-up windows. So the time that followed, the years in refugee hostels, felt peaceful, a reprieve from all the noise. My mother urged me to thank God in my prayers.

When I was 10, we were accepted by the United States and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first gulf war began. By the time of our arrival in the American south, the nail on my pinkie had grown back, my hair was long, and I was (according to my mother) pretty and funny and smart. The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange ching-chongese intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected but I wasnt Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America? If you want to mock me, I wanted to say, dig down to the guttural khs and ghs, produce some phlegm, make a camel joke; dont ching-chong at me, you mouth-breather. (See? I had learned their native insults well enough.)

Of course, I didnt say that. And I didnt respond when they started in on the cat-eating and the foot-binding. I took these stories home and my mother and I laughed over chickpea cookies and cardamom tea fragrant foods they might have mocked if only they knew. By then it was clear to me that these kids had met one foreigner before, and that unfortunate person hailed from south-east Asia.

I neednt have worried, though; the geographically correct jokes were coming. Like the boys in London, these kids soon spoke to their parents, and within weeks, they had their turban jockeys and their camel-fuckers loaded and ready to go. Meanwhile, I was battling with my teacher over a papier-mache topographical map of the US, a frustrating task that was strangely central to her concerns about my American assimilation. When I tried to explain to her that only a few months before I had lived with refugees outside Rome, and that most of the social studies work baffled me, she looked at me sleepily and said: Awww, sweetie, you must be so grateful to be here.

Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.

The children were merciless in their teasing, and soon I developed a tic in my neck. Other odd behaviours followed. Each time something bad happened, I would repeat a private mantra, the formula I believed was the reason for my luck so far, and my ticket to a second escape maybe even a life I would actually enjoy. I said it again and again in my head, and sometimes accidentally aloud:

Im lucky. Im grateful. Im the smartest in my class.

Im lucky. Im grateful. Im the smartest in my class.

That last sentiment (which I did a poor job of hiding) didnt go over too well. What right did I, a silly Iranian, have to think I was better than anyone?

Still, my mother suffered more. In Iran, she had been a doctor. Now she worked in a pharmaceuticals factory, where her bosses and co-workers daily questioned her intelligence, though they had a quarter of her education. The accent was enough. If she took too long to articulate a thought, they stopped listening and wrote her off as unintelligent. They sped up their speech and, when she asked them to slow down, they sighed and rolled their eyes. If someone messed up a formula, she was the sole target for blame.

The hate did eventually wane; some would say that thats the natural cycle of things. We assimilated. No longer dark strangers from war-torn lands, at some point we stopped frightening them. We went to work, to school, to church. We grew familiar, safe, no longer the outsiders.

I dont believe in that explanation. What actually happened was that we learned what they wanted, the hidden switch to make them stop simmering. After all, these Americans had never thought we were terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists or violent criminals. From the start, they knew we were a Christian family that had escaped those very horrors. And they, as a Protestant community, had accepted us, rescued us. But there were unspoken conditions to our acceptance, and that was the secret we were meant to glean on our own: we had to be grateful. The hate wasnt about being darker, or from elsewhere. It was about being those things and daring to be unaware of it. As refugees, we owed them our previous identity. We had to lay it at their door like an offering, and gleefully deny it to earn our place in this new country. There would be no straddling. No third culture here.

Nayeris family having a picnic in Iran in 1976

That was the key to being embraced by the population of our town, a community that openly took credit for the fact that we were still alive, but wanted to know nothing of our past. Month after month, my mother was asked to give her testimony in churches and womens groups, at schools and even at dinners. I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like, what fruits we grew in our yard, what books we read, what music we loved and what it felt like now not to understand any of the songs on the radio. No one asked if we missed our cousins or grandparents or best friends. No one asked what we did in summers or if we had any photos of the Caspian Sea. Men treat women horribly there, dont they? the women would ask. Somehow it didnt feel OK to tell them about my funny dad with his pockets full of sour cherries, or my grandpa who removed his false teeth when he told ghost stories.

Such memories, of course, would imply the unthinkable: that Iran was as beautiful, as fun, as energising and romantic, as Oklahoma or Montana or New York.

From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities every quirk and desire that made us us and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.

In 1994, when I was 15, we became American citizens. I was relieved, overjoyed and genuinely grateful. We attended a citizenship ceremony on the football field of a local college campus. It was the Fourth of July and dozens of other new citizens would be sworn in with us. It was a bittersweet day, the stadium filled with cheering locals, a line of men, women and children winding around and around the field towards a microphone at the end zone, where each of us would be named and sworn in. I remember staring in wonder at the others in line: I didnt realise there were this many other brown and yellow people in Oklahoma. Yes, there were a handful of black people, a few Jews here or there. But this many Indians? This many Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Chinese and Bangladeshis and Iranians and Afghans? Where had they been hiding? (Not that I had looked.)

Halfway through the ceremony, an Indian man, around 80 years old, was led to the microphone, where he introduced himself and swore allegiance to the United States. When he was finished, he raised his fists and thrashed the sky. I AM AMERICAN! he shouted into the microphone. FINALLY, I AM AMERICAN! The crowd erupted, joining his celebration. As he stepped away, he wobbled and collapsed from the effort, but someone caught him. He turned back and smiled to the crowd to show he was OK, that this fit of joy hadnt killed him, then walked away.

Thats my favourite day as an American, my first one, still unsurpassed. No one was putting on a face that day. No one felt obliged or humbled, imagining their truer home. That old man was heaving with love. The people in the stands were roaring with it. Its a complicated memory for me now. I refuse to deny the simple and vast beauty of it, though I know they cheered not the old man himself, but his spasm of gratitude, an avowal of transformation into someone new, into them.

Years passed. I became as American as a girl can be, moved far away, grew into my mind and body and surrounded myself with progressive, educated friends. The bad feelings disappeared. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it. I moved around with ease, safely flashing my American passport, smiling brightly when customs officers squinted at my place of birth. It didnt matter: I was no longer an asylum seeker. I had long ago been accepted. I had a stellar education. My confidence showed (and maybe it helped that I had caramel highlights in my hair). Again and again I was welcomed home at JFK with a polite nod or a smile.

Other immigrants have written about this moment: the welcome home at JFK, its power on the psyche after long flights. For me, as soon as those words leave the officers mouth, my confidence is replaced by a gush of gratitude. Thank you! I say breathlessly. Thank you for saying its my home. Thank you for letting me in again. In that instant before my passport is returned to me, Im the old man punching the air.

When I was 30, I had another citizenship ceremony. This one wasnt the sleepless obsession that the American one had been. It was simply that I had married a French citizen, he had applied on my behalf, and, having passed the language and culture tests by a whisker, I became a Frenchwoman of sorts. I travelled a lot in those days and so I decided to have my fingerprints taken (the last step in the paperwork) on a stopover in New York. The police officer whose job it was to oversee the process asked why a nice girl like me needed fingerprints. I told him, to which he replied: Couldnt you find an American man?

Though I hadnt given it much thought back then, I said: American men dont like me. He gave me a puzzled look, so I added, The American men I know never try to impress you or not me, at least. They think I should feel lucky to have them.

He gave a weary sigh. No man likes to work for it.

Some men work for it, I said, trying to sound defiant.

He laughed and bashed my fingers into the ink.

My second citizenship ceremony was held at the French embassy in Amsterdam (my then home) beside families from Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and a number of sub-Saharan countries. The image that stays with me is of families singing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The awe in their faces as they sang that song, every word practised, moved me. Even the small children straightened their shoulders and sang from memory. I had made a stab at memorising the words, but mostly I read off a sheet. I was proud, but they were experiencing something else: a transformation, a rebirth. They were singing their way into a joyous new life. I took a moment to think of that old Indian man from years before, to do an imaginary fist-pump in his honour.

Ive been moving back and forth between New York and Europe pretty much my entire adult life. When I lived in Amsterdam, even highly educated people openly complained of too many Moroccans and Turks in certain neighbourhoods. Geert Wilders, the head of the far-right Party for Freedom, had warned that the country would soon become Nether-Arabia.

In Amsterdam, I got to know Iranian refugees who didnt have my kind of luck with their asylum applications. One man in our community set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011. He had lived in Amsterdam for a decade, following their rules, filling out their papers, learning their culture, his head always down. He did all that was asked of him and, in the end, he was driven to erase his own face, his skin.

Remembering Kambiz Roustayi, a man who only wanted a visa, his family and his own corner of the world, I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind dont do enough. You dont know what grateful is, I want to say. You havent seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You dont know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. Sometimes all thats left of value in an exiles life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as tribute.

With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, Ive 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 shes done. As if thats proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.

But isnt glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isnt 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?

This semester, Im teaching an American literature course at a private international school in London. My students have come with their families from all over the world and have empathy and insight, but for the most part, they have lived privileged lives. For the last semester, Ive forced them to read nothing but outsider fiction. Stories by immigrants and people of colour. Stories about poverty. Stories about being made to sit on the periphery. Most are loving it, but some are frustrated. Ive already learned the race stuff, one said, after our third story with a protagonist of colour. More than one parent advised me thatBharati Mukherjeeand James Baldwin are not important when these kids have yet to read classic writers such as Harper Lee (because how could they develop their literary taste if they hadnt first grounded themselves in the point of view of the impossibly saintly white family?).

Even among empathetic, worldly students, Im finding a grain of this same kind of expectation: the refugee must make good. If, in one of our stories, an immigrant kills himself (Bernard Malamuds The Refugee), they say that he wasted his opportunity, that another displaced person would have given anything for a shot at America. Theyre right about that, but does that mean that Malamuds refugee isnt entitled to his private tragedies? Is he not entitled to crave death? Must he first pay off his debt to his hosts and to the universe?

Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilised people dont ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldnt matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying Welcome home.

I became as American as a girl can be. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it Dina Nayeri

But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we dont give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy khs and ghs, and even if, after all that, we dont spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.

In 2015, I moved to England again, a place I no longer associated with the permanently numb tip of my little finger, or the strange half-sensation of typing the letter a on a keyboard. I became a mother in a London hospital. Now I have a little girl who already looks Iranian. The first major event of her life was Brexit. The second was Trumps election. At 5am on Brexit morning, as I was feeding her, the memory of my pinkie returned. We had just learned of the referendum results. On Facebook, every former immigrant I knew released a collective shudder all of them recalling their first days in England or America or Holland. They began sharing their stories. What I remembered was that boy who pushed my finger into the hinge of a door. That other boy who slammed the door shut. Theyre adults now. Most likely, theyve lived lives much like their parents, the ones who taught them to hate me in 1985. Most likely they believe the same things. England doesnt want us, I thought. It doesnt want my daughter. It doesnt want me.

Nowadays, I often look at the white line through my pinkie nail, and I think I finally understand why gratefulness matters so much. The people who clarified it for me were my students, with their fresh eyes and stunning expectations, their harsh, idealistic standards that every person should strive and prove their worth, their eagerness to make sense of the world. They saw right through to the heart of the uneasy native.

During our discussion of Flannery OConnors A Displaced Person, the class began unpacking Mrs Shortleys hatred of Mr Guizac, the Polish refugee whose obvious talents on the farm would soon lead to her mediocre husbands dismissal as a farmhand. Shes seen the images from the Holocaust, the piles of bodies in Europe, said one student. So if one of those bodies in the pile can escape death and come to America and upend her life, then how much is she worth?

I was stunned silent (a rare thing for me). By the time I formulated my next question the conversation had moved on, and so I presented the question to my next class. Would anything be any different, then, if Mr Guizac had been grateful to Mrs Shortley for making room for him?

Around the table every head shook. No. Of course not. Nothing would change. Mrs Shortley wants to be above him, to be benevolent, to have control, said one insightful student. Once the guy starts doing better on his own, control goes, no matter how grateful he acts.

The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. Thats the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And thats precisely it one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. Youre not enough until youre too much. Youre lazy until youre a greedy interloper.

In many of the classes Ive taught, my quietest kids have been Middle Eastern. Im always surprised by this, since the literature I choose should resonate most with them, since Im an Iranian teacher, their ally, since the civilised world yearns for their voices now. Still, they bristle at headlines about the refugee crisis that I flash on the screen, hang their heads, and look relieved when the class is finished. Their silence makes me angry, but I understand why they dont want to commit to any point of view. Who knows what their universe looks like outside my classroom, what sentiments theyre expected to display in order to be on the inside.

Still, I want to show those kids whose very limbs apologise for the space they occupy, and my own daughter, who has yet to feel any shame or remorse, that a grateful face isnt the one they should assume at times like these. Instead they should tune their voices and polish their stories, because the world is duller without them even more so if they arrived as refugees. Because a persons life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now theres just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.

Main photograph by Anna Leader

Dina Nayeris new novel, Refuge, will be published by Riverhead Books in July

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The long read: When she was 30, Suzy Hansen left the US for Istanbul and began to realise that Americans will never understand their own country until they see it as the rest of the world does

My mother recently found piles of my notebooks from when I was a small child that were filled with plans for my future. I was very ambitious. I wrote out what I would do at every age: when I would get married and when I would have kids and when I would open a dance studio.

When I left my small hometown for college, this sort of planning stopped. The experience of going to a radically new place, as college was to me, upended my sense of the world and its possibilities. The same thing happened when I moved to New York after college, and a few years later when I moved to Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. But the last move was the hardest. In Turkey, the upheaval was far more unsettling: after a while, I began to feel that the entire foundation of my consciousness was a lie.

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for ones own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.

Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we dont become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still dont know myself.

I grew up in Wall, a town located by the Jersey Shore, two hours drive from New York. Much of it was a landscape of concrete and parking lots, plastic signs and Dunkin Donuts. There was no centre, no Main Street, as there was in most of the pleasant beach towns nearby, no tiny old movie theatre or architecture suggesting some sort of history or memory.

Most of my friends parents were teachers, nurses, cops or electricians, except for the rare father who worked in the City, and a handful of Italian families who did less legal things. My parents were descendants of working-class Danish, Italian and Irish immigrants who had little memory of their European origins, and my extended family ran an inexpensive public golf course, where I worked as a hot-dog girl in the summers. The politics I heard about as a kid had to do with taxes and immigrants, and not much else. Bill Clinton was not popular in my house. (In 2016, most of Wall voted Trump.)

We were all patriotic, but I cant even conceive of what else we could have been, because our entire experience was domestic, interior, American. We went to church on Sundays, until church time was usurped by soccer games. I dont remember a strong sense of civic engagement. Instead I had the feeling that people could take things from you if you didnt stay vigilant. Our goals remained local: homecoming queen, state champs, a scholarship to Trenton State, barbecues in the backyard. The lone Asian kid in our class studied hard and went to Berkeley; the Indian went to Yale. Black people never came to Wall. The world was white, Christian; the world was us.

We did not study world maps, because international geography, as a subject, had been phased out of many state curriculums long before. There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries. Even the Soviet Union seemed something more like the Death Star flying overhead, ready to laser us to smithereens than a country with people in it.

Boardwalk empire a variety shop in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photo: Michael S Williamson/The Washington Post

I have TV memories of world events. Even in my mind, they appear on a screen: Oliver North testifying in the Iran-Contra hearings; the scarred, evil-seeming face of Panamas dictator Manuel Noriega; the movie-like footage, all flashes of light, of the bombing of Baghdad during the first Gulf war. Mostly what I remember of that war in Iraq was singing God Bless the USA on the school bus I was 13 wearing little yellow ribbons and becoming teary-eyed as I remembered the video of the song I had seen on MTV.

And Im proud to be an American

Where at least I know Im free

That at least is funny. We were free at the very least we were that. Everyone else was a chump, because they didnt even have that obvious thing. Whatever it meant, it was the thing that we had, and no one else did. It was our God-given gift, our superpower.

By the time I got to high school, I knew that communism had gone away, but never learned what communism had actually been (bad was enough). Religion, politics, race they washed over me like troubled things that obviously meant something to someone somewhere, but that had no relationship to me, to Wall, to America. I certainly had no idea that most people in the world felt those connections deeply. History Americas history, the worlds history would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever.

Racism, antisemitism and prejudice, however those things, on some unconscious level, I must have known. They were expressed in the fear of Asbury Park, which was black; in the resentment of the towns of Marlboro and Deal, which were known as Jewish; in the way Hispanics seemed exotic. Much of the Jersey Shore was segregated as if it were still the 1950s, and so prejudice was expressed through fear of anything outside Wall, anything outside the tiny white world in which we lived. If there was something that saved us from being outwardly racist, it was that in small towns such as Wall, especially for girls, it was important to be nice, or good this pressure tempered tendencies toward overt cruelty when we were young.

I was lucky that I had a mother who nourished my early-onset book addiction, an older brother with mysteriously acquired progressive politics, and a father who spent his evenings studying obscure golf antiques, lost in the pleasures of the past. In these days of the 1%, I am nostalgic for Walls middle-class modesty and its sea-salt Jersey Shore air. But as a teenager, I knew that the only thing that could rescue me from the Wall of fear was a good college.

I ended up at the University of Pennsylvania. The lack of interest in the wider world that I had known in Wall found another expression there, although at Penn the children were wealthy, highly educated and apolitical. During orientation, the business school students were told that they were the smartest people in the country, or so I had heard. (Donald Trump Jr was there then, too.) In the late 1990s, everyone at Penn wanted to be an investment banker, and many would go on to help bring down the world economy a decade later. But they were more educated than I was; in American literature class, they had even heard of William Faulkner.

TV memories Lt Col Oliver North is sworn in before Congress for the Iran-Contra hearings, July 1987. Photograph: Lana Harris/AP

When my best friend from Wall revealed one night that she hadnt heard of John McEnroe or Jerry Garcia, some boys on the dormitory hall called us ignorant, and white trash, and chastised us for not reading magazines. We were hurt, and surprised; white trash was something we said about other people at the Jersey Shore. My boyfriend from Wall accused me of going to Penn solely to find a boyfriend who drove a Ferrari, and the boys at Penn made fun of the Camaros we drove in high school. Class in America was not something we understood in any structural or intellectual way; class was a constellation of a million little materialistic cultural signifiers, and the insult, loss or acquisition of any of them could transform ones future entirely.

In the end, I chose to pursue the new life Penn offered me. The kids I met had parents who were doctors or academics; many of them had already even been to Europe! Penn, for all its superficiality, felt one step closer to a larger world.

Still, I cannot remember any of us being conscious of foreign events during my four years of college. There were wars in Eritrea, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Kashmir. US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed. Panama, Nicaragua (I couldnt keep Latin American countries straight), Osama bin Laden, Clinton bombing Iraq nope.

I knew Saddam Hussein, which had the same evil resonance as communism. I remember the movie Wag the Dog, a satire in which American politicians start a fake war with foreign terrorists to distract the electorate during a domestic scandal which at the time was what many accused Clinton of doing when he ordered a missile strike on Afghanistan during the Monica Lewinsky affair. I never thought about Afghanistan. What country was in Wag the Dog? Albania. There was a typical American callousness in our reaction to the country they chose for the movie, an indifference that said, Some bumblefuck country, it doesnt matter which one they choose.

I was a child of the 90s, the decade when, according to Americas foremost intellectuals, history had ended, the US was triumphant, the cold war won by a landslide. The historian David Schmitz has written that, by that time, the idea that America won because of its values and steadfast adherence to the promotion of liberalism and democracy was dominating op-ed pages, popular magazines and the bestseller lists. These ideas were the ambient noise, the elevator music of my most formative years.

But for me there was also an intervention a chance experience in the basement of Penns library. I came across a line in a book in which a historian argued that, long ago, during the slavery era, black people and white people had defined their identities in opposition to each other. The revelation to me was not that black people had conceived of their identities in response to ours, but that our white identities had been composed in conscious objection to theirs. Id had no idea that we had ever had to define our identities at all, because to me, white Americans were born fully formed, completely detached from any sort of complicated past. Even now, I can remember that shiver of recognition that only comes when you learn something that expands, just a tiny bit, your sense of reality. What made me angry was that this revelation was something about who I was. How much more did I not know about myself?

It was because of this text that I picked up the books of James Baldwin, who gave me the sense of meeting someone who knew me better, and with a far more sophisticated critical arsenal than I had myself. There was this line:

But I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.

And this one:

All of the western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the west has no moral authority.

And this one:

White Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any colour, to be found in the world today.

I know why this came as a shock to me then, at the age of 22, and it wasnt necessarily because he said I was sick, though that was part of it. It was because he kept calling me that thing: white American. In my reaction I justified his accusation. I knew I was white, and I knew I was American, but it was not what I understood to be my identity. For me, self-definition was about gender, personality, religion, education, dreams. I only thought about finding myself, becoming myself, discovering myself and this, I hadnt known, was the most white American thing of all.

I still did not think about my place in the larger world, or that perhaps an entire history the history of white Americans had something to do with who I was. My lack of consciousness allowed me to believe I was innocent, or that white American was not an identity like Muslim or Turk.

White Americans are probably the most dangerous people in the world today author James Baldwin in New York, 1963. Photograph: Dave Pickoff/AP

Of this indifference, Baldwin wrote: White children, in the main, and whether they are rich or poor, grow up with a grasp of reality so feeble that they can very accurately be described as deluded.

Young white Americans of course go through pain, insecurity and heartache. But it is very, very rare that young white Americans come across someone who tells them in harsh, unforgiving terms that they might be merely the easy winners of an ugly game, and indeed that because of their ignorance and misused power, they might be the losers within a greater moral universe.

In 2007, after I had worked for six years as a journalist in New York, I won a writing fellowship that would send me to Turkey for two years. I had applied for it on a whim. No part of me expected to win the thing. Even as my friends wished me congratulations, I detected a look of concern on their faces, as if I was crazy to leave all this, as if 29 was a little too late to be finding myself. I had never even been to Turkey before.

In the weeks before my departure, I spent hours explaining Turkeys international relevance to my bored loved ones, no doubt deploying the cliche that Istanbul was the bridge between east and west. I told everyone that I chose Turkey because I wanted to learn about the Islamic world. The secret reason I wanted to go was that Baldwin had lived in Istanbul in the 1960s, on and off, for almost a decade. I had seen a documentary about Baldwin that said he felt more comfortable as a black, gay man in Istanbul than in Paris or New York.

When I heard that, it made so little sense to me, sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, that a space opened in the universe. I couldnt believe that New York could be more illiberal than a place such as Turkey, because I couldnt conceive of how prejudiced New York and Paris had been in that era; and because I thought that as you went east, life degraded into the past, the opposite of progress. The idea of Baldwin in Turkey somehow placed Americas race problem, and America itself, in a mysterious and tantalising international context. I took a chance that Istanbul might be the place where the secret workings of history would be revealed.

In Turkey and elsewhere, in fact, I would feel an almost physical sensation of intellectual and emotional discomfort, while trying to grasp a reality of which I had no historical or cultural understanding. I would go, as a journalist, to write a story about Turkey or Greece or Egypt or Afghanistan, and inevitably someone would tell me some part of our shared history theirs with America of which I knew nothing. If I didnt know this history, then what kind of story did I plan to tell?

City watch US army troops stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2007. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My learning process abroad was threefold: I was learning about foreign countries; I was learning about Americas role in the world; and I was also slowly understanding my own psychology, temperament and prejudices. No matter how well I knew the predatory aspects of capitalism, I still perceived Turkeys and Greeces economic advances as progress, a kind of maturation. No matter how deeply I understood the USs manipulation of Egypt for its own foreign-policy aims, I had never considered and could not grasp how American policies really affected the lives of individual Egyptians, beyond engendering resentment and anti-Americanism. No matter how much I believed that no American was well-equipped for nation-building, I thought I could see good intentions on the part of the Americans in Afghanistan. I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it, but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilisation, and everyone else was trying to catch up.

American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others. How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.

In my first few months in Istanbul, I lived a formless kind of existence, days dissolving into the nights. I had no office to go to, no job to keep, and I was 30 years old, an age at which people either choose to grow up or remain stuck in the exploratory, idle phase of late-late youth. Starting all over again in a foreign country making friends, learning a new language, trying to find your way through a city meant almost certainly choosing the latter. I spent many nights out until the wee hours such as the evening I drank beer with a young Turkish man named Emre, who had attended college with a friend of mine from the US.

A friend had told me that Emre was one of the most brilliant people he had ever met. As the evening passed, I was gaining a lot from his analysis of Turkish politics, especially when I asked him whether he voted for Erdoans Justice and Development party (AKP), and he spat back, outraged, Did you vote for George W Bush? Until that point I had not realised the two might be equivalent.

Then, three beers in, Emre mentioned that the US had planned the September 11 attacks. I had heard this before. Conspiracy theories were common in Turkey; for example, when the military claimed that the PKK, the Kurdish militant group, had attacked a police station, some Turks believed the military itself had done it; they believed it even in cases where Turkish civilians had died. In other words, the idea was that rightwing forces, such as the military, bombed neutral targets, or even rightwing targets, so they could then blame it on the leftwing groups, such as the PKK. To Turks, bombing ones own country seemed like a real possibility.

Come on, you dont believe that, I said.

Why not? he snapped. I do.

But its a conspiracy theory.

He laughed. Americans always dismiss these things as conspiracy theories. Its the rest of the world who have had to deal with your conspiracies.

I ignored him. I guess I have faith in American journalism, I said. Someone else would have figured this out if it were true.

He smiled. Im sorry, theres no way they didnt have something to do with it. And now this war? he said, referring to the war in Iraq. Its impossible that the United States couldnt stop such a thing, and impossible that the Muslims could pull it off.

Some weeks later, a bomb went off in the Istanbul neighborhood of Gngren. A second bomb exploded out of a garbage bin nearby after 10pm, killing 17 people and injuring 150. No one knew who did it. All that week, Turks debated: was it al-Qaida? The PKK? The DHKP/C, a radical leftist group? Or maybe: the deep state?

The deep state a system of mafia-like paramilitary organisations operating outside of the law, sometimes at the behest of the official military was a whole other story. Turks explained that the deep state had been formed during the cold war as a way of countering communism, and then mutated into a force for destroying all threats to the Turkish state. The power that some Turks attributed to this entity sometimes strained credulity. But the point was that Turks had been living for years with the idea that some secret force controlled the fate of their nation.

In fact, elements of the deep state were rumoured to have had ties to the CIA during the cold war, and though that too smacked of a conspiracy theory, this was the reality that Turkish people lived in. The sheer number of international interventions the US launched in those decades is astonishing, especially those during years when American power was considered comparatively innocent. There were the successful assassinations: Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1961; General Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, also in 1961; Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam, in 1963. There were the unsuccessful assassinations: Castro, Castro, and Castro. There were the much hoped-for assassinations: Nasser, Nasser, Nasser. And, of course, US-sponsored, -supported or -staged regime changes: Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Congo, Syria, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina. The Americans trained or supported secret police forces everywhere from Cambodia to Colombia, the Philippines to Peru, Iran to Vietnam. Many Turks believed that the US at least encouraged the 1971 and 1980 military coups in Turkey, though I could find little about these events in any conventional histories anywhere.

But what I could see was that the effects of such meddling were comparable to those of September 11 just as huge, life-changing and disruptive to the country and to peoples lives. Perhaps Emre did not believe that September 11 was a straightforward affair of evidence and proof because his experience his reality taught him that very rarely were any of these surreally monumental events easily explainable. I did not think Emres theory about the attacks was plausible. But I began to wonder whether there was much difference between a foreigners paranoia that the Americans planned September 11 and the Americans paranoia that the whole world should pay for September 11 with an endless global war on terror.

The next time a Turktold me she believed the US had bombed itself on September 11 (I heard this with some regularity; this time it was from a young student at Istanbuls Boazii University), I repeated my claim about believing in the integrity of American journalism. She replied, a bit sheepishly, Well, right, we cant trust our journalism. We cant take that for granted.

The words take that for granted gave me pause. Having lived in Turkey for more than a year, witnessing how nationalistic propaganda had inspired peoples views of the world and of themselves, I wondered from where the belief in our objectivity and rigour in journalism came. Why would Americans be objective and everyone else subjective?

I thought that because Turkey had poorly functioning institutions they didnt have a reliable justice system, as compared to an American system I believed to be functional it often felt as if there was no truth. Turks were always sceptical of official histories, and blithely dismissive of the governments line. But was it rather that the Turks, with their beautiful scepticism, were actually just less nationalistic than me?

American exceptionalism had declared my country unique in the world, the one truly free and modern country, and instead of ever considering that that exceptionalism was no different from any other countrys nationalistic propaganda, I had internalised this belief. Wasnt that indeed what successful propaganda was supposed to do? I had not questioned the institution of American journalism outside of the standards it set for itself which, after all, was the only way I would discern its flaws and prejudices; instead, I accepted those standards as the best standards any country could possibly have.

Red state Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoan attends a rally following a failed coup attempt last year. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

By the end of my first year abroad, I read US newspapers differently. I could see how alienating they were to foreigners, the way articles spoke always from a position of American power, treating foreign countries as if they were Americas misbehaving children. I listened to my compatriots with critical ears: the way our discussion of foreign policy had become infused since September 11 with these officious, official words, bureaucratic corporate military language: collateral damage, imminent threat, freedom, freedom, freedom.

Even so, I was conscious that if I had long ago succumbed to the pathology of American nationalism, I wouldnt know it even if I understood the history of injustice in America, even if I was furious about the invasion of Iraq. I was a white American. I still had this fundamental faith in my country in a way that suddenly, in comparison to the Turks, made me feel immature and naive.

I came to notice that a community of activists and intellectuals in Turkey the liberal ones were indeed questioning what Turkishness meant in new ways. Many of them had been brainwashed in their schools about their own history; about Atatrk, Turkeys first president; about the supposed evil of the Armenians and the Kurds and the Arabs; about the fragility of their borders and the rapaciousness of all outsiders; and about the historic and eternal goodness of the Turkish republic.

It is different in the United States, I once said, not entirely realising what I was saying until the words came out. I had never been called upon to explain this. We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you are doing just now, because to us, that isnt propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isnt nationalism, its patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how free-thinking we are, that we are free. So we dont know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.

Wow, a friend once replied. How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isnt it?

It was a quiet kind of fascism that would mean I would always see Turkey as beneath the country I came from, and also that would mean I believed my uniquely benevolent country to have uniquely benevolent intentions towards the peoples of the world.

During that night of conspiracy theories, Emre had alleged, as foreigners often did, that I was a spy. The information that I was collecting as a journalist, Emre said, was really being used for something else. As an American emissary in the wider world, writing about foreigners, governments, economies partaking in some larger system and scheme of things, I was an agent somehow. Emre lived in the American world as a foreigner, as someone less powerful, as someone for whom one newspaper article could mean war, or one misplaced opinion could mean an intervention by the International Monetary Fund. My attitude, my prejudice, my lack of generosity could be entirely false, inaccurate or damaging, but would be taken for truth by the newspapers and magazines I wrote for, thus shaping perceptions of Turkey for ever.

Years later, an American journalist told me he loved working for a major newspaper because the White House read it, because he could influence policy. Emre had told me how likely it was I would screw this up. He was saying to me: first, spy, do no harm.

Main photograph: Burak Kara/Getty Images for the Guardian

Adapted from Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 15 August

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Interior minister Thomas de Maizires newspaper column on Leitkultur seen by some as implicit attack on Muslim immigrants

An ear for Bach and Goethe, a willingness to shake hands, and pride in Europe, are just three of the distinguishing characteristics that the German interior minister has included in a catalogue of guidelines about what it means to be German.

The minister, Thomas de Maizire, has reignited a debate about the need to foster a Leitkultur a dominant culture which first surfaced in the 1990s and looks set to be one of the leading issues in the campaign for Germanys general election in September.

The term Leitkultur is being used in debate about immigrants having to incorporate a set of shared cultural values to ensure German society functions smoothly.

Resurrected as political discourse, the topic has become dominated by discussion about the long-term integration prospects of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that Germany has taken in during recent years.

De Maizire, a Christian Democrat politician, used a guest column in the tabloid Bild am Sonntag to pose the question who are we and who do we want to be? He referred to Leitkultur as a vital yardstick for the coexistence of Germans and immigrants.

In his lengthy essay he took a critical and sweeping view of what has contributed to shaping modern Germany, from its classical music and philosophy to its darkest chapter, the Nazi era.

We are the heirs of our history with all its highs and lows. Our past shapes our present and our culture, he wrote.

German fans celebrating during a World Cup match in Dortmund in 2006. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

De Maizires intervention has drawn a mixed response that has underlined just how sensitive the issue of national pride or patriotic traditions remains. Many Germans still find it difficult to contemplate harbouring such feelings lest they appear to be celebrating or belittling the crimes of the Nazi era. Flag waving only became at all acceptable in 2006 when Germany hosted the football World Cup.

Critics have accused de Maizire, a close ally of Angela Merkel, leader of the CDU party, of delivering nothing more than a thinly disguised critique of Muslim immigrants. Germany is home to about four million Muslims.

Writing in Der Spiegel, Severin Weiland accused de Maizire of digging up an old political debate so as to steal political thunder from the populist extremists Alternative fr Deutschland (AfD).

Weiland referred to the propositions as nothing less than a catalogue of behavioural guidelines for Muslims meant to appease AfD supporters. He wrote: His we dont do burkas can only be understood one way. His catalogue doesnt even make an effort to pretend to be an elegant subtext even the most politically illiterate can get what hes driving at.

He argued that de Maizires propositions came at a time when the Christian Democrats under [their leader] Angela Merkel have moved so far to the left they have enabled the AfD to grow.

Shoppers in Saxony-Anhalt. Bargain hunting has been listed as a national trait. Photograph: Eckehard Schulz/AP

The ideas have also fed into a fierce debate over the issue of dual citizenship, which some CDU politicians would like to abandon following the recent Turkish constitutional referendum. The majority of the 400,000 Turkish citizens living in Germany voted for Turkeys president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, leading to questions over how they could claim loyalty to both countries.

The guidelines have also sparked a passionate national debate about alternative views of what it means to be German.

It is different things to different people, according to Nina Pauer, writing a response to de Maizire in the weekly Die Zeit, in which she listed more tangible traits such as a national hatred of drafts, a love of crusty bread, coffee and cake, and an obsession with punctuality. In short, in Germany, we want everyone to be like us, because we do everything best, she wrote.

Others have listed a host of characteristics, from a penchant for socks and sandals, to bargain hunting, hypochondria, and the habit of Wildpinkeln peeing in public.

Joining the debate, the philosopher Jrgen Habermas said that de Maizires proposals were unhelpful, and would sit uneasily alongside the German constitution. But he said civil society in Germany should expect immigrant citizens who had come to the country to immerse themselves in the political culture, even if they cannot be legally forced to do so. He added: You cannot for example force a Muslim to shake de Maizires hand.

The word Leitkultur was originally a farming term to describe dominant plant varieties within a habitat. It has long been a favourite word of Germanys rightwing thinkers, but was first used as a political term by the Syrian Islam expert Bassam Tibi, from the University of Gttingen, central Germany. He said, 20 years ago, that Europe needed a Leitkultur to consolidate its common values, such as tolerance, separation of church and state, and human rights.

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Stories and photographs of families who have found peace and pride after resettling in Tamworth, New South Wales, a regional centre that has been transformed since 2006 when it drew national ire for its rejection of refugees

In a country town we need to all work together, know each other, says Tamworth resident and refugee advocate Eddie Whitham.

We need to find a common ground. Its not going to work if we have isolated people. We want to make our town work. The hope is that this will become a natural thing that there will be no us and them.


On the traditional lands of the the Kamilaroi people, Tamworth in New South Wales is now home to people of more than 80 different nationalities and has an estimated population close to 43,000.

Yet as recently as 2006, when it was proposed that the area resettle five Sudanese families fleeing from war, hunger and persecution, there was such concern from the community that a quarter of those who took part in a residents survey expressed their disapproval and the plan was voted down by the council, attracting national criticism.

Whitham, the founder of Multicultural Tamworth an organisation with the ethos of being good neighbours to newcomers says a lot has changed with the help of open and honest discussion. The region is now welcoming and celebrating diversity.

Here are the stories and portraits of those who have joined the community.

Shalini Pratap and family


A third-generation Fijian Indian, Shalini Pratap came to Australia in 1999 with her husband, an air-conditioning and refrigeration technician, who was issued a skilled workers visa.

Our first move was to Alice Springs, she says. It was a great move, a beautiful connection with Australia. A chance to experience real Australia.

The family decided to move to Tamworth in 2003 to be closer to family. At the time there were no other Fijian Indians in the region.

My husband started his business in Tamworth and it has been very successful. This is a reflection of the community, how welcoming they have been to us. Tamworth is very much home, a great community.



When asked about maintaining a connection to her culture, she replies: We owe our ancestors to maintain some of our culture and teach our daughter about her family history. We have a great sense of pride in being Aussie and Fijian Indian.

Shalinis daughter, Vineesha Veer, 15, is excelling at school and dreams of studying medicine. Australia has given me everything, she says.

Vineesha often wears traditional dress and joins her mother in regular Bollywood film nights. I love to wear clothes from India, she says. Fashion is one of the strongest links to my culture.

Nicole Li and family


Chinese couple Nicole Li and Charlie He arrived in 2014 as skilled migrants and have now applied to become permanent residents. Li, an engineering surveyor, and He, who has a background in IT, are settling into their new home with their nine-year-old son, James.


Li says the decision to migrate was tough on her parents, owing to Chinas one-child policy.

Wed never been [to Australia] before so coming here has been a total adventure for us, Li says. Coming from Beijing, we love the quiet and less-stressful lifestyle. We feel very free.

David Thon and Deborah Manyang


David Thon and Deborah Manyang came to Australia from the Kakuma refugee camp that is home to thousands, many known as the lost boys of Sudan.

Thon was resettled through the United Nations in 2007, along with his cousin. I was so happy to be coming to Australia and definitely felt some comfort knowing my cousin was with me, he says.

Manyang arrived in 2010 and, as a family, they moved to Tamworth in 2015. Its safe here, she says. We cant hear guns or see soldiers. Were happy. Its a new future for our children, they are adapting well and the local people have been very helpful.

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Leader of Catholic church stresses need to turn away from views that exclude the needy during service at St Peters Basilica

Homeless people received VIP seats to a special mass in St Peters Basilica on Sunday, where Pope Francis stressed the need to avoid exclusionary views that reject those in need.

Along with cardinals and other prelates dressed in impeccably pressed bright green vestments, homeless people sat near the ornate central altar.

The pope elaborated on his recent comments encouraging policies of social inclusion, at a time when the popularity of politicians who advocate exclusionary policies toward migrants of other religions, races or ethnicities is rising in several developed countries.

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The Republican candidate wants to deport immigrants and build a wall to keep Mexicans out. So what drives los Trumpistas?

Trump is our wakeup call

Raul Rodriguez, 74, Apple Valley, California

I always carry a bullhorn with me to rallies and campaign events. Into it I shout: America, wake up! Americans have been asleep for way too long. We need to realise that the future of our country is at stake.

If we dont elect Donald Trump, well get another four years of Barack Obama and frankly, I dont know what would happen to this wonderful country of ours. Obama has already done so much to destroy our way of life and Hillary Clinton is promising to carry on where he left off. Like Obama, she wants to change our fundamental values the ones people like my father fought to defend.

My father was born in Durango, Mexico. When he came to the US he joined the military and served as a medic during the second world war. He was a very proud American he truly loved this country. I think I got my sense of patriotism from him.

Obama and Hillary Clinton want to have open borders. They let illegal immigrants cross our borders and now they want to accept thousands of Syrians. We dont know who these people are. If they want to come to this country, they have to do it the right way, like my father did it.

Im tired of politicians telling voters what they want to hear and then returning to Washington and doing whatever their party tells them to do. Politicians are supposed to represent the people not their parties or their donors.

Part of the reason I like Donald Trump is because he isnt an established politician. Sometimes that hurts him and people get offended. But the truth hurts. Even if he doesnt say it well, hes not wrong. Trump is our wakeup call.

Democrats treat Latinos as if were all one big group

Ximena Barreto, 31, San Diego, California

Ximena Barreto Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

I was in primary school in my native Colombia when my father was murdered. I was six just one year older than my daughter is now. My father was an officer in the Colombian army at a time when wearing a uniform made you a target for narcoterrorists, Farc fighters and guerrilla groups.

What I remember clearly from those early years is the bombing and the terror. I was so afraid, especially after my dad died. At night, I would curl up in my mothers bed while she held me close. She could not promise me that everything was going to be all right, because it wasnt true. I dont want my daughter to grow up like that.

But when I turn on my TV, I see terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and in Orlando. There are dangerous people coming across our borders. Trump was right. Some are rapists and criminals, but some are good people, too. But how do we know who is who, when you come here illegally?

I moved to the US in 2006 on a work permit. It took nearly five years and thousands of dollars to become a US citizen. I know the process is not perfect, but its the law. Why would I want illegals coming in when I had to go through this? Its not fair that theyre allowed to jump the line and take advantage of so many benefits, ones that I pay for with my tax dollars.

People assume that because Im a woman, I should vote for the woman; or that because Im Latina, I should vote for the Democrat. The Democrats have been pandering to minorities and women for the last 50 years. They treat Latinos as if were all one big group. Im Colombian I dont like Mariachi music. Donald Trump is not just saying what he thinks people want to hear, hes saying what theyre afraid to say. I believe that hes the only candidate who can make America strong and safe again.

Trump beat the system: whats more American than that?

Bertran Usher, 20, Inglewood, California

Bertran Usher, centre. Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

Donald Trump is the candidate America deserves. For decades, Americans have bemoaned politicians and Washington insiders. We despise political speak and crave fresh, new ideas. When you ask for someone with no experience, this is what you get. Its like saying you dont want a doctor to operate on you.

But Trump is a big FU to America. He beat the system and proved everyone wrong. Whats more American than that?

As a political science student who one day hopes to go into politics, I am studying this election closely. Both candidates are deeply unpopular and people of my generation are not happy with their choices. I believe we can learn what not to do from this election. I see how divided the country is, and its the clearest sign that politicians will have to learn to work together to make a difference. Its not always easy, but Ive seen this work.

I was raised in a multicultural household. My mother, a Democrat, is Latino and African American, raised in the inner city of Los Angeles. My father, a Republican, is an immigrant from Belize. My parents and I dont always see eye to eye on everything, but our spirited debates have helped add nuance to my politics.

Im in favour of small government, but I support gay rights. I believe welfare is an important service for Americans who need it, but I think our current programme needs to be scaled back. I think we need to have stricter enforcement of people who come to the country illegally, but I dont think we should deport the DREAMers [children of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally, named after the 2001 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act].

Trump can be a nut, but I think hes the best candidate in this election. Though there are issues of his I disagree with, at least he says whats on his mind, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, who hides what shes thinking behind her smile.

Its up to my generation to fix the political mess were in. I plan to be a part of the solution.

Trumps The Art Of The Deal inspired me to be a businessman

Omar Navarro, 27, Torrance, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

When I was a kid, people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would tell them: I want to be president of the United States. If that doesnt work out, I want to be a billionaire like Trump.

In a way, I supported him long before he announced he was running for president. He was my childhood hero. I read The Art Of The Deal as a student; it inspired me to become a businessman. Now I own a small business and am running for Congress in Californias 43rd district.

Trump built an empire and a strong brand thats recognisable all around the world; hes a household name and a world-class businessman. Almost anywhere you go, you can see the mark of Donald Trump on a building or property. When I see that, I see the American Dream.

Some people ask me how I can support Donald Trump as the son of a Mexican and Cuban immigrants. They are categorising me. In this country we label people: Hispanic, African American, Asian, Caucasian. We separate and divide people into social categories based on race, ethnicity, gender and creed. To me, this is a form of racism. Im proud of my Hispanic heritage but Im an American, full stop.

Like all immigrants, my parents came to this country for a better opportunity. But they did it legally. They didnt cut the line. They assimilated to the American way of life, learned English and opened small businesses.

Why should we allow people to skirt the law? Imagine making a dinner reservation and arriving at the restaurant to find out that another family has been seated at your table. How is that fair?

We have to have laws and as a country we must enforce those laws. A society without laws is just anarchy. If someone invited you to their house and asked you to remove your shoes would you keep them on? If we dont enforce the rules, why would anyone respect them? I believe Donald Trump will enforce the rules.

He has taken a strong stand against abortion

Jimena Rivera, 20, student at the University of Texas at Brownsville

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

Im Mexican, so I dont have a vote, but I support Donald Trump because he is the one candidate who opposes abortion. He may have wavered in the beginning, but since becoming the nominee he has taken a strong stand against abortion.

Hillary Clinton is running as the leader of a party that has pushed a very pro-choice platform. Even Democrats like her running mate, Tim Kaine, who is a devout Catholic, compromise their faith to support abortion.

I dont always agree with his positions on immigration. I see the border wall every day. Im not convinced that its effective. The people who want to cross will find a way. I dont think its right that they do, but most of them are looking for a better way of life. A wall wont stop them.

Lower taxes and less regulation will create more jobs

Marissa Desilets, 22, Palm Springs, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

I am a proud Hispanic conservative Republican woman. I became politically engaged as a political science and economics major at university. By my junior year, I was a member of the campus Republicans club. As a student of economics, I am very impressed with Trumps economic agenda. I believe we must cut taxes for everyone and eliminate the death tax. Lowering taxes and reeling back regulations will create more jobs meaning more tax-paying Americans. This in turn will generate more revenue for the Treasury.

I also support Trump because he favours strong leadership and promised to preserve the constitution of the United States. We must have a rule of law in this country. We must close our open borders. Like Trump says: a nation without borders is not a nation. This doesnt mean we should not allow any immigrants. We should welcome new immigrants who choose to legally enter our beautiful country.

This wont be the case if Hillary Clinton becomes president. I would expect the poor to become poorer and our country to become divided. I believe that liberals reckless domestic spending will bankrupt our future generations. I refuse to support a party that desires to expand the government and take away my civil liberties.

He has gone through so many divorces, yet raised such a close-knit family

Dr Alexander Villicana, 80, Pasadena, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

I am an example of the opportunities this country has to offer. My parents came from Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. They were not educated but they worked hard to make a better life for us and it paid off.

I went to school and studied cosmetic surgery. Now I work as a plastic surgeon and have been in practice for the last 40 years. I have a beautiful family and my health. I am Hispanic but I am a citizen of the United States and I feel very patriotic for this country that has given me so much.

Im supporting Trump because I agree with his vision for our economy. He has experience at the negotiating table, so he knows what to do to create jobs and increase workers salaries. In Trumps America people would be rewarded for their hard work rather than penalised with hefty taxes.

The security of our nation is a top priority for me. I think it would be impossible to deport 11 million people who are here illegally, but we have to do a better job of understanding who is in our country and who is trying to come into our country.

A lot of what Trump says, especially about security and immigration, is twisted by the media. What he said about Mexicans, for example, that wasnt negative it was the truth. There are Mexicans bringing over drugs and perpetrating rapes. But what he also said and the media completely ignored is that many Mexicans are good people coming over for a better quality of life.

He may be blunt and occasionally offensive but I find him likable. I was so impressed by Trump and his family at the Republican National Convention. Its hard for me to imagine that someone who has gone through so many divorces has managed to raise such a close-knit family. None of his children had to work and yet they spoke with eloquence and integrity about their father.

When Trump is harsh about Mexicans, he is right

Francisco Rivera, 43, Huntington Park, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

People ask me how I can support Donald Trump. I say, let me tell you a story. I was in line at the movie theatre recently when I saw a young woman toss her cupcake into a nearby planter as if it were a trash can. I walked over to her and said, Honey, excuse me, does that look like a garbage can to you? And you know what she told me? Theres already trash in the planter, so what does it matter?

I asked her what part of Mexico she was from. She seemed surprised and asked how I knew she was from Mexico. Look at what you just did, I told her. Donald Trump may sound harsh when he speaks about Mexicans, but he is right. Its people like you that make everyone look bad.

I moved from Mexico with my family when I was seven. I still carry a photo of my brother and I near our home, to remind people how beautiful the city once was. Now I spend my time erasing graffiti from the walls and picking up trash. Sixty years ago, we accepted immigrants into our country who valued the laws, rules and regulations that made America the land of opportunity. Back in those days, people worked hard to improve themselves and their communities.

Im tired of living in a lawless country. Its like we put a security guard at the front door, but the Obama administration unlocked the back door. And I have seen what my own people have done to this country. They want to convert America into the country they left behind. This country has given me so many opportunities I wouldnt have had if my mom had raised her family in Mexico. I want America to be great again, and thats why in November I am going to vote for Donald Trump.

I voted for Obama twice, but Hillary gets a free pass

Teresa Mendoza, 44, Mesa, Arizona

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

In my day job I am a real estate agent but every now and then I dabble in standup comedy. Comedy used to be a safe space. You could say whatever you wanted to and it was understood that it was meant to make people laugh. Now everything has to be politically correct. You cant say Hand me the black crayon without someone snapping back at you: What do you mean by that? Donald Trump offended a lot of people when he gave the speech calling [Mexicans] rapists and criminals but he didnt offend me.

I was a liberal Democrat all my life. Before this I voted for Obama twice. I wanted to be a part of history. If it wasnt for Obamacare and the ridiculous growth of our federal government, Id probably still be a Democrat, asleep at the wheel. But I woke up and realised Im actually much more in line with Republicans on major policy points.

I like to joke that Im an original anchor baby. My parents came from Mexico in the 1970s under the Bracero work programme making me a California-born Chicana. We later became US citizens. But now that Im a Republican, Hillary Clinton is trying to tell me Im alt-right. Its strange isnt it? All of a sudden Im a white nationalist.

My sons and I go back and forth. They dont like Trump. But its what theyre hearing in school, from their friends and teachers, who are all getting their news from the same biased news outlets.

Im very concerned about the role the media is taking in this election. The networks sensationalise and vilify Trump while they give Hillary Clinton a free pass. It amazes me. I dont care if Trump likes to eat his fried chicken with a fork and a knife. I do care that Clinton has not been held responsible for the Benghazi attacks.

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While waiting in Tapachula for US exit permits, African and Asian migrants recount the treacherous journeys they took to get one step closer to a new home

Global development is supported by

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The sun has barely risen and already hundreds of migrants are gathered outside the vast white and green immigration detention centre, hoping to get through its gates.

Most have travelled thousands of miles on foot, by boat and bus from South America, but few here speak Spanish. In front of the locked gates near Mexicos southern border, its an eclectic mix of French, English, Creole, Urdu, Lingala and Somali.

This eclectic crowd is part of a huge surge in African and Asian migrants traversing the Americas in hope of a better life in the US. The circuitous passage means paying thousands of dollars to coyotes or people smugglers to cross 10 countries, where overcrowded fishing boats, mosquito-infested jungles, armed bandits and immigration agents await.

A child waits in front of the immigration center in Tapachula for an exit permit to the US. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

Despite the dangers, about 7,882 Africans and Asians presented themselves at Mexican immigration in the first seven months of this year 86% higher than in the whole of 2015 and more than four times the number registered in 2014. At the end of August, Tapachulas immigration registered 424 Africans in just two days.

Over the past decade, Latin America has become an increasingly popular route of entry to the US for Asian and African migrants, but the current surge in numbers is unprecedented.

The numbers are still tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty, but the treacherous route crossing Latin America is becoming increasingly popular as people from across the world seek new ways to reach the US.

The vast majority arrive in the city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, without a visa or even a passport. But unlike Central Americans, these migrants can obtain a temporary travel document which allows them to continue unimpeded to the US border since Mexico has no deportation agreements with their countries.

We saw a dead man without head or hands

By 8am, its already fiercely hot outside the immigration center and there are too few shady trees for the growing crowd. To kill time, people listen to music on their phones or discuss the best ways to travel north. Those with money will fly to the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Matamoros or Mexicali, others will risk several days on buses through states plagued by organised crime, where Central American migrants are routinely targeted by traffickers and kidnappers.

Habte Michael, 28, from Asmara, Eritrea, just arrived three months after setting off from So Paulo, Brazil. After a punishing journey hes exhausted, but optimistic hell soon be in America where he will seek refuge.

Michael left Uganda for Rio Branco in northern Brazil in September 2015. He spent a few months learning Portuguese and planning his route, before crossing into Peru in May 2016. Next, he travelled overland on buses with the help of connectors an organised network of individuals who help migrants buy bus tickets and find cheap hotels through Ecuador and Colombia. In Turbo on Colombias west coast, he took a boat to Panama where he walked with Africans, Bangladeshis and Haitians for five exhausting days through acres of mountainous jungle with a coyote.

African and Haitian migrants cross the Suchiate river at the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Local rafters charge them eight times the normal rate. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

In June, after walking for three days, his group found the washed-up body of a west African man. The river took him as he was walking in a group without a coyote, so he didnt know where it was safe to cross. In Panama we saw another dead man, also black, without head or hands.

Entering Costa Rica is fine, but leaving ithas been much tougher since Nicaragua decided to close its border last year to stop the flow of Cubans migrating to the US. There are about 2,000 migrants from across the world currently trapped in dire conditions on the border with Nicaragua, at a camp in Peas Blancas. In August, 10 migrants mostly Haitians drowned crossing Lake Nicaragua.

Michael was caught three times by Nicaraguan immigration agents and sent back to the camp. Like at least two dozen other migrants interviewed by the Guardian, he was robbed at gunpoint while walking through the Nicaraguan jungle. Desperate, he paid $1,000 to a truck driver to take him to Honduras, but the driver never showed up.

Each time a coyote takes your money or you get robbed, you must wait for family to send you something to carry on, Michael said. Its the only way I cant go back.

Michael eventually made it to Honduras six weeks after arriving at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Many migrants described Honduras as the easiest country to cross, as irregular migrants those not from Central America are given travel permits.

In contrast, Panama and Nicaragua are the most dangerous.

Abdua Kareema, 38, from Ghana, was robbed by four gunmen in the jungle near Managua.

They stripped the women and searched them intimately to see if they were hiding anything, Kareema said. One woman had her time of the month, but the robber thought the feminine pad was something hidden, so he slapped her face.

Similar reports of sexual violence against women are common.

We just looked up a route on Google

By mid-morning, immigration officers have let through about 200 people who will spend a few days or weeks locked in, while their travel permits which give them 21 days to leave Mexico are processed. Most are economic migrants and will be given safe passage by Mexico. Meanwhile, busloads of detained Central Americans enter the gates; with most deported home the next day, to face the violence and threats they fled.

The rest, including Michael, are given dates to return later in the week. Disappointed, they sit around eating lychees and cheap biscuits, deciding what to do next.

But still, more people arrive. About 15 young men from the Punjab region of India arrive with their rucksacks, straight from the Guatemalan border which they had crossed by raft.

Some flew from Delhi to Ecuador via Istanbul, others came via Indonesia and Dubai.

Indian migrants travelled for several months through Latin America before arriving at the immigration offices in Tapachula. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

We didnt pay guides, we just looked up the route on Google, said Herdeep Ghotra, 26, a truck engineer. Also my cousin came the same way two years before.

Ghotra walked six days through the Panama jungle where he saw seven dead migrants six men and one woman, all black. Its not clearly how or when they died, or if their bodies have since been recovered. Ghotra was also robbed at gunpoint in Nicaragua: They took $200 and my love, my HTC phone.

The Indians talk mostly about wanting to make a better a life for themselves. Some are trying to reunite with family members in the US, while Ghotra says a violent family conflict forced him to leave.

An immigration officer emerges to tell them to come back in two days and prepare to be inside the center for a week. After that, theyll wait for money to be wired by relatives to fly to Tijuana where thousands of Africans, Asians and Haitians have descended this year.

No one here seems to be aware that US border control agents are now working here amid growing American concerns about security risks following recent terrorist attacks in the west.

I welcome them with love

Tapachulas main square is jam-packed with people enjoying noisy fair rides and junk food stalls.

On an avenue just off the main square, lie the cheap hotels where most African and Asian migrants choose to stay; where a new curry house run by a Mexican cook who was taught to make dhal and fish curry by a Bangladeshi migrant is the most popular food joint.

Just off the main drag is Mama Africas what everyone calls Concepcin Gonzlez, 56, who runs the $3a-night, no-frills Imperial Hotel. Here, there are people from across Africa: Burundi, South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique, Ghana, Congo and many Haitians pretending to be Congolese in order to avoid deportation.

Migrants gather in a hotel known as Mama Africa in downtown Tapachula, which is almost exclusively African. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

They tell me how they want to make a better life for their families, I can understand and welcome them with love, Gonzlez told the Guardian.

There are 70 beds squeezed into 15 rooms, but tonight its packed, so there are couples and mothers with infants resting on wafer-thin mattresses in the internal patio.

Fedolina, 39, from Angola, has a ghostly look of pain and fatigue marked across her face. She fell while running from armed robbers in Nicaragua two weeks ago. Her right arm hangs limp, her shoulder looks dislocated, and theres a nasty gash on her forehead. She has yet to see a doctor.

Gonzlez moves her into a quiet room and promises to take her to hospital in the morning.

As the plight of Syrians fleeing war continues to yield untold horrors in Europe, in this region, emerging crises also provoke new routes and new dangers.

Last year, Mama Africa was Mama Cuba as almost 10,000 Cubans entered Mexico amid rumours that the US visa waiver programme could end with the thawing of diplomatic ties. The numbers have plunged amid tighter travel restrictions in Latin America, but those determined to leave Cuba have found new routes.

Pig farmers Ernesto Prez, 46 and Onel Martn, 44, left their hometown Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast last July on a handmade boat. Powered by a car engine, they sailed with 25 others, including nurses, a mechanic, and an economist. It took seven days and 1,000km to reach the Honduran Bay Island of Guanaja Bay, a risky but increasingly common route used by Cubans.

Our reason for leaving is purely economic, increased tourism has made no difference to our lives. I sold my few valuable things, my pigs, television and fan, to make this journey. But now what? said Martin, contemplating his next move outside the Beln migrant hostel.

After a temporary reprieve, immigration raids in Mexico are once again targeting Cubans.

Ernesto Prez, left, and Onel Martn sailed seven days on a handcrafted boat in Mexico. Junior Bordon flew to Guyana and travelled on foot, bus and boat to Mexico. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

In a surprise visit to Mexico earlier this week, Republican candidate Donald Trump reiterated his intent to build a wall along the US-Mexican border in order to end all migration from the Americas.

But wall or no wall, desperate people do desperate things.

In Tapachula airport Lejma, 21 and husband Ahmed, 22, from Mogadishu, Somalia, comfort their hysterical little girl, who thinks the immigration officers in white uniforms are doctors.

She was very sick in the boats and got bitten by many mosquitoes when we walked seven days in the jungle, said Ahmed. She was then in hospital in Costa Rica for nearly one week and had many injections.

Somaya, just 22 months, is covered in bite scars.

The family left Somalia to escape a police officer who was harassing Lejma, a waitress, demanding she be his wife. When she refused, the family was threatened by the officers colleagues and clan.

Their plan is to fly to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and then claim asylum at the Brownsville border crossing in Texas.

There is no justice in my country, we had to leave, Ahmed said. I hope we can work and one day bring our families to America.

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