Young Refugees – Identity & Wellbeing

June 2017
Written by Eugenia Tsoulis OAM
Chief Executive Officer, AMRC

Western society is very quick to come to the rescue and care for refugees – those it perceives as downtrodden, traumatised and often tortured through war or civil strife. Yet at the same time, it is quick to deflect the problems refugees encounter in their resettlement as related to a deficit persona. “Due to their past experience as a refugee!” is how systemically their issues are interpreted.

When refugee families are stereotyped as problematic, it becomes a simple next step to identify them all as suffering from torture and trauma, most bringing with them communicable diseases or having fundamentalist ideas.

In response to school fights where for example young people of African background are involved, these young people are describe as: “They come from the jungle – that’s the only way they know how to act!” There needs to be a greater focus on institutional and community responses to their settlement, responses such as discrimination and unemployment.

Young people of refuge background are stereotyped as school dropouts, in trouble with the police, and needing government intervention and care because their families don’t know how to look after them. They are described as not wanting to be Sudanese or Afghani or Congolese, and wanting to be Australian. Yet evidence suggests the high proportion of success stories for young people arriving with their families as refugees over the past 3 decades.

The litmus test of our society’s reception of new Australians (specifically young people) is disclosed in their mental health status, which in turn affects their ability to resettle and to participate. Most young refugees want to integrate so they can be the same as other young Australians. They also see young Australians as having freedoms, material possessions and privileges they don’t have. But most importantly, they also want to be connected with their family, their ethnic community, their language and their culture.

Good mental health depends on a young person’s sense of worth and their ability to belong to a family and a group with a cultural heritage that is accepted and celebrated as equal.

Children of different waves of immigrant families have all to a lesser or greater extent had to negotiate a bicultural space. One space is the world they socialise in with its language, culture, family roles and codes of behaviour. The other is the new society they have immigrated too with its new language, culture, education systems and lifestyle.

Their first world is home where the family tries to preserve traditional values as a way of keeping their cultural identity intact and their children safe. It may be a home where siblings without parents are caring for each other, or a mother is bringing up children on her own, or where a number of family members do not speak English.

Juxtaposed to this is the outside world of school, consumer outlets and entertainment, where it is hard for a young person to bring with them their first world. They become a chameleon to fit in, making up stories to be appreciated or acting out as a way of being noted.

It is a heavy burden and takes considerable resilience for young people to live between two worlds. Yet evidence suggests that over the past 60 years most young people of immigrant and refugee backgrounds have learnt to successfully negotiate this bicultural world often with assistance, but also in spite of the rigidity of the host society.

A culturally caring society that is characterised by its acceptance, celebration and encouragement of individual and their community, supports the growth of a person, rather than continually unpacking their past that causes them to look backwards and remain dependent. Supporting young people’s mental health is celebrating who they are, rather than trying to change them. Nurturing their qualities, experiences and skills without prejudice.

Young people reflect and often act out their pain, anger and frustration at the discrimination towards their families and communities. They are a litmus test of society’s morals and their mental health status is a reflection of society’s health and wellbeing.

At a recent meeting one young Sudanese refugee articulated the feelings of many other young people who have arrived in this country in the past two decade.

“Why are we invited to come to this country where we are told we will be safe, where we will not be further attacked, where we can have an education and pursue the same dreams as other Australians? Why are we then told we are not as good as everybody else, we are not wanted? In our old country they abused us with sticks and guns, in our new country they abuse us with words.”

Settlement cannot be a hurried process, neatly ticking off a checklist of activities and outcomes. It is a process that at some point of time, when their education is completed, permanent housing is gained, family members are in employment, these new Australians can respond to the question of identity, without reservation or embarrassment acknowledging their biculturalism. The time frames that individuals and or groups of new Australians will achieve this will be dependent on the host society’s immediate and long term reception.

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