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.
During 2015, almost 96,500 unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) arrived in Europe. More than 22,300 of them applied for asylum in Germany. From these, the state of Bremen received about 2,600 refugee minors. In comparison, approximately 3,030 unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors arrived in Finland during the same year. In Bremen, these children and youth were first placed in temporary living units, often container homes and festival tents, because the existing refugee centres were already full. Unaccompanied refugee children and youth often lack the support of family and community to integrate into their new host country. This is why they need a lot of support to create a stable and lasting relationship with adults that they can trust. To tackle the problem of insufficient time and presence of supportive adults, one solution could be to create a network of trusted adults, who help the unaccompanied refugee children in their daily lives.
A civil society organisation called Fluchtraum Bremen e.V. organises a mentoring programme for volunteers to support the social inclusion of unaccompanied refugee minors. According to this organisation, the mentor’s tasks are to support, listen and show understanding to the children. He or she introduces them to the new culture and familiarises them with their new home city. The mentor helps with the homework and learning of the language, as well as assists in finding education and accommodation. Fundamentally, the mentor is a trusted adult who supports the unaccompanied refugee minor and helps with his or her daily life. In Germany, every child has a legal guardian, which means that the mentor does not need to take part in the practicalities of the asylum process. He or she is acting outside the official decision-making procedure, which means that the mentor is a neutral person the child can trust and feel comfortable with.
While I was living in Bremen during 2014–2015, I met Felix Göbel, a 29-year-old legal guardian for unaccompanied refugee minors. He used to be a mentor near the end of his studies and later became a legal guardian for unaccompanied minors. Felix explains that the role of a mentor is all about being a trusted individual, whose role is to introduce, explain and reassure unaccompanied refugee minors. In addition, he reflects on his role as mentor: “It’s not always just about the bureaucratic stuff. The mentor can also be the first contact in the normal life in the new country. Getting to know the culture, learning the language and getting to know the place you live in are really important things.”
While doing our fieldwork for the TRUST project in autumn 2016 and spring 2017 in Finland, we have noticed that unaccompanied asylum-seeking youth need to have a positive relation with an adult person. Furthermore, they need to have Finnish-speaking friends in order to facilitate their arrival and their inclusion in their new environment. Every single underage asylum seeker in Finland has a legal guardian. The problem is that the guardian´s statutory task is not to be an adult friend and support the daily lives of the refugee minors. Often integration, cultural adaptation and creating social belonging are left as duties to housing units or schools. These institutional settings do not have enough resources and time for individual meetings with the young. Luckily, some meaningful and important projects exist to overcome the deficiency of the state: for instance, the Tutoring programme of Plan International Finland and the Sport Mentor project of Save the Children Finland. However the unaccompanied refugee minors in Finland lack a sustainable and systematic network of trusted adults who could support them by spending time with them and by showing interest in their hopes, fears and dreams.
The creation of a mentoring or tutoring programme to support the social belonging of refugee children is a necessity if we want to assure their well-being in Finland. To act as a trusted adult does not mean that one should have any official degree in social work for example but that the mentor has the will to help and is sensitive to what the child has been through. In this sense, he or she is more like a first friend in a new and often really different culture. As Felix explains how he sees the role of a mentor: “It’s nice to have people who are not official employees and who bring various ideas of spending free time to the mostly boring life in a living unit. I think the nonconformity of ideas can be one of the strengths of mentoring.”
I had a great opportunity to take part in an urban gardening project at a temporary housing unit for asylum seekers during my stay in Bremen, northern Germany, in 2015. In this blog, I reflect on my experiences as a volunteer but also on how these social gatherings improved the daily life of the asylum-seeking youth.
The aim of the urban garden project, ”Kulturgarten Abergen”, was to create a space where different actors from different cultures could meet. The objective was to create a space where every family could have their own small plot of land to cultivate but also where the residents of the refugee shelter and the local people could organise different activities and celebrations. The project was funded by the non-profit organisation Eko Stadt Bremen e.V and it was built with the help of the AWO Bremen Refugee Centre. The nearby refugee centre offered transitional residential accommodation (Übergangswohnheim) for families with a permission to stay in Germany, but who had not yet received permanent housing.
To my surprise, the project was especially favoured by the children, who participated playfully, if somewhat irregularly, in the gardening work. This meant that the function of the project changed during the process and it became a place for the children to play, bustle about and do things. For the children and the young people, it was important that the place was lively and exciting. Whenever there was an activity in the garden, children would join the work or just come to play there. Interestingly, the children did not seem to play in the garden if there was no one gardening at the same time. Most of the volunteers were young adults, which meant that it was a good place for the young residents of the shelter to make contact with local people. This was important because many of them lived in extreme uncertainty, making it challenging for them to create these contacts. Furthermore, adults were comfortable with leaving their children to play in the garden under the supervision of other trusted adults so that they could have their own time to take care of their daily errands.
Doing things together with adults helped asylum-seeking children and youth to overcome the difficulties they encountered in their daily lives filled with waiting and constant uncertainty. The various kinds of construction projects we had (e.g. building a warehouse or a yurt tent) and the different festivals and celebrations we organised certainly helped to improve the atmosphere in the refugee shelter. During my voluntary work, I really understood the meaning of being and hanging out together. I would argue that for refugee children and young people, spending time socially with different people is one of the most important things in making their daily lives more secure.
I noticed during my voluntary work that children and youth have many social skills and wish to actively participate in various activities. Doing things together offered them a short release from the harsh and burdensome period of their lives characterised by waiting, uncertainty and concern for the wellbeing of their family members. Supporting transcultural belonging and doing things together are important steps toward creating a more sustainable and secure environment on a daily basis for asylum-seeking children and youth. In addition to the carers, it is important to bring together another group of trusted adults that will spend time with the refugee children and youth and this way support their inner worlds and multiple agencies.