Identification of strategies to assist refugee young people in transition to independence



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Transitions to independence


Independence is a concept with different meanings in different cultural settings and ethnic contexts. Anglo- Australian understandings of independence tend to be associated with young people moving out of the family home, getting employment, making decisions and, in general, doing things for themselves. In some ways independence is an unfortunate term because it implies individualist over collectivist values. The term ‘interdependence’ is preferable since it encompasses a sense of family and community connectedness more in tune with the notions of growing up and undertaking responsibility articulated by many young people from refugee backgrounds.

You belong only to one family. You are not supposed to separate. It’s not respectable. In my country, as long as a person is alive, they should stay with their parents. If I got married, probably my wife would come and live at my home. If I did move, I would not move so far away that I could not visit my father every day. I must always be available if he wants something. I am the eldest son. Who else will protect my father? (Afghani refugee, aged 19)

Different challenges are likely to face young people who have no close family or significant adults with them in Australia. Many refugee young people will have lived through circumstances that forced them to ‘grow up’ quickly and, in some cases, to take care of themselves in particularly dangerous circumstances. For these young people, ‘independence’ may be seen as something that has been thrust prematurely upon them. Once in Australia, the rules of the game change again, everything is new and feelings of helplessness may become overwhelming. Yet many refugee young people fully recognise the nature of the demands being made upon them:



The things we need to do in order to feel or be Australian are, number one, language, number two, financial independence, number three, skills and training. When we manage to do something here, and do things on our own, then we will have a right to say that we are Australian. I would like to be able to say that I am Australian (Bosnian refugee, aged 22).

For young migrants in general, the struggle for independence can be understood as an interaction between two challenging periods of transition: from childhood to adulthood and from culture of origin to host culture. These two transitions are considered below.


A transition to adulthood and the formation of identity


Adolescence is generally understood as the period of transition to adulthood. Young people are involved in a series of transitions from educational institutions into the work force, from financial dependence on family to economic independence, and from puberty to physical adulthood and, in many cases, to parenthood. Arguably this transition is less clear-cut in Australia than it used to be. For example, young people into their mid- twenties are expected under current income support arrangements to receive financial and other support from their immediate families. Nevertheless, during adolescence, young people experience dramatic bodily, intellectual and emotional growth and change. An adolescent must search for an acceptable compromise between selfimage and the social roles and behaviour expected by the wider society. This task can be thought of in terms of the formation of identity. It is a difficult task for young migrants because of the dual social world they inhabit and the competing cultural goals and expectations with which they are likely to be faced. Young refugees are likely to be in a particularly vulnerable position during their psychological development into adulthood because of the confusion caused by exile and by the customary periods spent in places of temporary asylum:

I belong everywhere and nowhere. After I spent one year in Germany, I was sure I belonged there. In Germany, I worked, I had a flat and I spoke the language. People who worked with me helped me feel that I belonged. But now I am in Australia and Germany is not my home any more. Maybe I need some time to feel I belong in Australia (Croatian migrant aged 25).

For young migrants and refugees the transition to independence is fundamentally about the formation of identity (Guerra & White 1995; Phinney, Lochner & Murphy 1990). There are several possibilities here. Some young people actively maintain the culture and language of their parents and identify predominantly with the culture of their country of origin. At the other extreme, some young migrants try hard to become part of the mainstream culture and discard the potential contribution of their cultural heritage. Dissociation from cultural and ethnic identity may be hastened by frustration and anger at the inability of the home country to provide protection, an inability to return to that country and a lack of choice in leaving.



Sometimes when I say that I am not Iraqi to people in our community, they get annoyed with me. They say that I am ignoring my country and my heritage. But I insist I am not Iraqi, I am free and I do not like the country that hurt us. A country is only your home if it is safe and you can feel you belong. It is not OK to be forced to do something that you do not want to do (Iraqi refugee aged 20).

As a third possibility, refugee young people may become alienated from both their own culture and the dominant culture. They may accept the negative self-image projected on them by some in the host society, yet fail to understand and participate in the new multicultural communities available to them in Australia. The search for social support and validation draws some refugee young people into subcultures that are marginal to both mainstream culture and the culture of their country of origin. For example, pool rooms and gaming venues are sites that attract young unemployed or alienated young men in search of companionship and recreation, but these settings may also result in exposure to less benign and criminal subcultures.

A fourth option is for refugee young people to reconcile their identity by selecting and adapting aspects of both cultures, leading to the development of a bicultural identity. This last option is likely to be most successful for young people in the longer term.

I want to be both Serbian and Australian (Bosnian refugee aged 15).

I think it is equally important to be Algerian and Australian. Half half. Like I must learn English and retain my native language (Algerian refugee, male, aged 24).

Ethnic identity is constructed, and reconstructed, through everyday life experiences. Camino (1994, p.31) notes that ‘no single or static form of ethnicity develops among refugee youth’. The permutations and combinations of identity formation are complex because an individual’s sense of belonging may relate to multiple groups and change over time as the contexts of belonging change. The circumstances of young refugees are likely to have changed considerably over the period of their migration and settlement. Some migrants from refugee-producing countries have great difficulty in even defining their nationality in terms of the place where they were born. This is clearly true for migrants from the former Yugoslavia, for example. Young people in these circumstances tend to have greater difficulty in developing bicultural skills because their original cultural identity has been subverted or undergone a major transformation in a short period. This is illustrated by the circumstances of a 23-year old Bosnian man:



I don’t know my nationality. I don’t know my religion. I am mixed. I am nothing (Bosnian refugee, male, aged 23).

This young man had an (absent) Bosnian-Muslim father and a Serbian-Orthodox mother, who had since remarried a Croatian-Catholic man and adopted Croatian ways. The young man was raised by his paternal grandparents. He pretended to be Croatian, using false documents in order to secure some freedom of movement in Bosnia, and had effectively concealed his identity for six years. ‘No one knows who I am. I am a name, nothing more.’

A young Eritrean woman had a similarly uncertain connection to her culture.

My mum and dad, although they are both Eritrean, have different languages and different cultures. There are nine languages in Eritrea. I don’t understand my dad’s language. I find it difficult to be with him (Eritrean refugee, aged 18, arrived in Australia with father, despite having spent little time with him in Eritrea.).

The issue of identity is further complicated if personal information on travel documents is incorrect, a circumstance that is not unusual for young refugees. It is quite common for young people not to have any personal identification with them upon arrival in a country of first asylum. Some young people are advised by family or friends to understate their age in the belief that this might improve their chances of selection for resettlement or enable them to qualify for longer periods of education. Young refugees in such circumstances embark on a confusing, time-consuming and frustrating process that can effectively relegate them to a psychological limbo.

Young people experiment with an emerging sense of identity through social interaction and constant feedback from others. When the host society’s reaction involves racism or the under-valuing of minority groups, this feedback will be negative or at best contradictory. Significant adults in the young person’s life can help counterbalance such attacks by positive reinforcement. Parents and other family members who arrived with, or joined, the young person will inevitably be important sources of feedback. As Cahill and Ewen (1987) note, however, young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds often have more in common with Anglo-Australian youth than with their parents’ generation with respect to views on such issues as dating, sexual freedom, leaving home, and educational and career choices. The ambivalent reception of the host society, combined with possible intergenerational conflict within the family, can result in extremely confusing crosspressures.

Conventional wisdom suggests that refugee young people generally acculturate to the host society faster than their parents. This assumption appears to be largely founded on the rate of English language acquisition, but this remains an unsubstantiated indicator of acculturation. Other variables are likely to intervene. For example, in some migrant communities, boys are given more opportunity and freedom to acculturate than girls, yet boys can often bear a greater burden of high parental expectations of success.

In summary, it is clear that the transition to adulthood and the achievement of an integrated identity is a complex process for refugee young people.

A transition to a new culture

Migration is one of the most severe attacks on a person’s identity (Refugee Resettlement Working Group 1994).

The transition from one culture to another is generally seen as complete after a successful settlement period. Morrisey, Mitchell and Rutherford (1991) argue that the literature on settlement leaves a number of important issues unresolved, including how ‘settlement’ should be defined. Is settlement a period of time or the accomplishment of certain goals? If settlement implies certain goals have been achieved, then what are the goals and how do they differ for young migrants? There is no consensus about the answers to these questions. The National Population Council’s (1991) definition of settlement provides a useful starting point:



[Settlement is] the process by which an immigrant establishes economic viability and social networks following immigration in order to contribute to, and make full use of, opportunities generally available to the receiving society (National Population Council 1991).

Settlement programs administered by government tend to target those who have arrived within the previous two years. The implicit assumption is that settlement objectives can largely be accomplished within this period, although it is also recognised that the process of settlement only occurs effectively when the individual sets their own pace.



People coming to Australia as refugees need time to adjust. We all need time. Every nation has its own culture and we need time to see it and learn it. About one year! It took me one year to adjust to Germany and feel like I belonged (Croatian migrant, aged 25, former permanent resident of Germany).
Intersecting transitions

In summary, young migrants have to deal with two interrelated transition processes: an age-appropriate transition, and a transition to a new culture, in which the major life task is identity formation. Hypothetically, the transition to age-appropriate independence can occur before, during or after a culturally appropriate transition. However, arrival in a new country as a teenager is particularly difficult because the two transitions must be managed simultaneously, unless one or the other is delayed.

Young migrants are exposed to varying cultural understandings of what constitutes ‘independence’ that will have consequences for their age-appropriate transition. They must contend with how the transition to adulthood is dealt with in their culture of origin as well as the way it is typically understood in the broader Australian community. Juggling these different expectations around dependence and independence can prove a lifelong challenge.

An example will illustrate this point. Traditionally, Indochinese young people are not seen to reach adulthood until they take over the family business or get married. Those working with ‘Westernised’ Indochinese young people in Australia may spend months coaxing a refugee young person to adopt appropriate adult roles and accept adult responsibilities. Then the young person may seem to make an ‘overnight transformation’ upon the announcement of their intention to marry. The acceptance of adult responsibilities, even for people in their mid-twenties, can be withheld until one of these tasks is achieved.

For adolescents from refugee backgrounds, the challenges of growing up in a new culture are confronted in the shadow of the traumatic experiences of the recent past. Young refugees must struggle to acquire English, perform well at school or find employment, along with everything else in their lives.




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