“How are you, my brother?”

By: Jaakko Tuominen

During the spring 2017, I had the pleasure of conducting nine weeks of ethnographic fieldwork as a TRUST-researcher in a family group home for unaccompanied refugee minors in Bremen, Germany. I visited this housing unit for nine boys, aged between 17 and 19, two to four times a week, and wrote a research diary about my experiences with them. In this blog, I discuss the different roles I had to adapt during the fieldwork, as well as the flexibility required to conduct research with respect and care for the youth taking part in it. My roles ranged from an unknown visitor to a researcher and a volunteer, and as we spent time together, a friend, and sometimes even a “brother” or an adult figure to talk to. My relationship with the youth changed with each type of encounter and where it took place.

Before entering the field, one of my main worries was whether the teenagers would accept and welcome me into their home. Would they see me as trustworthy enough to invite me into their private space, accepting me as an adult friend, or would they see me just as another adult quickly passing through their lives? Refugee youth are balancing between their past and present, between different identifications and transcultural belonging. Unaccompanied refugee minors are displaced persons; therefore, for them, the meaning of a home as one’s own safe place bears a specific and crucial meaning. This has to be carefully considered in research design, too, because the family group home is, after all, a place where they should be able to sustain this feeling of “home”.

In that sense, I felt it was important to tell them about where I come from, but also to be honest and clear about the temporary presence I would have in their life. At the first meeting, I gave a short presentation on Finland and showed some images of my hometown. I wanted to show them that Germany was not my home country either, and that I was not fluent in expressing myself in German. After the presentation, I asked the youth if they would allow me to spend time with them in their home. Luckily, one Afghan teenager declared out loud: “No problem! You are a nice man!” This statement meant a great deal to me; the boys themselves welcomed me in their home. For the upcoming weeks, I helped them with their homework, we played table football and football, went swimming several times, cooked together, and so on. Spending time together had an important meaning for these young people, who often expressed loneliness and lack of adult presence in their daily lives. As Mervi Kaukko noted in her blog, refugee children, like any other children, will not speak about important things if there is no genuine presence of adults in their lives. They might invite us into their world if we show them we are interested and available.

Spending time with these young people activated a diversity of roles for me that proved challenging sometimes when I struggled with the switch from one role to another. For the youth, my being a researcher seemed something abstract, formal and rather hard to understand. Therefore, the different interactive roles were necessary, and also supported the research. After a while, I became more like a volunteer worker and an adult friend for them, while still conducting the fieldwork for the research. However, this new role as a trusted adult created some challenging situations, with the youth sometimes testing me to find out if I were trustworthy. They started to share their personal experiences and confided their frustrations, disappointments and other issues of everyday life to me. I frequently heard comments like: “Don’t tell this to my supervisor”; or “I don´t care if you tell this to someone…”. In such situations, I was trying to balance between the different roles of researcher, friend or volunteer worker. After a while, some of the young started calling me “akhi” (my brother in Arabic) or “Bruder” (brother in German). These names meant that I was somebody they considered equal to them and part of the group.

Often practitioners, supervisors and other adults who work with youth are those who define the relationship with the youth. I believe that the fact that the boys called me “akhi” meant that they were actively challenging the power relation by defining their relationship with me by themselves. As such, navigating between the different roles of researcher, friend, volunteer worker and “brother” was challenging not only for me and for them, but also for the structures within which we acted. It is a hard task for any researcher, whose interest it is to understand the personal world and the daily lives of unaccompanied refugee minors, to stay only in the researcher’s role. Therefore, I argue that multiple roles are not only a part of the process, but a requirement for the understanding of the everyday life of refugee youth.

Photo: Jaakko Tuominen
Photo: Jaakko Tuominen