Me, them, us: Building belonging with young people on the move

By maHp research associate Thea Shahrokh with Giulia Treves and Gerald Jacobs

Who am I? Who are we? Who can we be? These questions frame all of our lives. For young people with migration backgrounds that are building their lives in South Africa, these questions hold unique meaning. A call to recognise the significance of these questions has been growing from migrant young people, and the practitioners that work with them.

Caption: Image created by a 17 year old young woman from Angola within a creative process on relationships of belonging.

For many young people with migration backgrounds, their sense of self, of relationships and of history have become fragmented as a result of both place-based and relational loss. Further, the complex realities of structural and social marginalisation that surround their lives, mean that many have experienced intimate and societal exclusion and violence in both their past and present lives. Reflecting on this context, young people have shared that they feel ‘in-between’ and unsure of how to make sense of self. The implications of non-belonging for the mental health and wellbeing of young people on the move are significant. This is connected to a sense of powerlessness and instability in their lives, impacting their capacities to feel safe, accepted, and to build a future within a collective community.

Coming together to build belonging
Over the past two years a growing community of young people, child and youth care practitioners, social workers, researchers and activists in the Western Cape has initiated a set of reflective processes on the issue of building belonging with young refugees and migrants. Initially, this dialogue grew from a conversation about transitional support for young migrants leaving care, and the significance of belonging in fostering resilience and agency. Through the participatory dialogues and research processes that followed, the importance as well as the precarity involved in the construction of belonging was persistently highlighted.

This led to the coordination of a symposium in Cape Town in June 2019 to share knowledge and build relationships of solidarity on this question of belonging. Hosted by Lawrence House, a Child and Youth Care Centre and the youth transitions organisation Mamelani Projects, the event aimed to shift youth and social work practice in relation to the question of why belonging matters to the development of young people with migration backgrounds. This post is an opportunity to briefly share the insights that came from this collective process and is a way of raising further visibility of this issue.

New questions and new narratives are needed
The symposium highlighted that a significant aspect of the realities young people face are the categories and labels that are used to define who they are and position them in society. Young people with migration backgrounds are constructed through labels, whether in relation to the papers that they do or don’t carry, or other categories such as street child that render them politically, socially or economically Other. Beyond papers young people are constructed in relation to their ‘trauma’, given a diagnosis and a further label, becoming a problem to be fixed. The layers of humanity and everyday experiences that underpin who they are and their desire to belong are rarely recognised. This was felt particularly strongly within initial interactions with service providers.

We learned through this dialogue that talking about building belonging therefore is about starting with different questions and countering these narratives. Belonging is a process that first starts with the self. It was argued that self-acceptance is something that faces attack when young people feel that they don’t belong. It was felt that when a person has made sense of who they are and built a sense of pride in that, it is then possible to have a connection to a wider community. Belonging was seen as relational, bringing with it questions of who you find belonging with? Young people argued that belonging needs to be seen as a choice, or at least a negotiated process, asserting that their agency must be recognised and they as well as others can choose to build inclusive forms of belonging that counter prejudice and discrimination.

A central theme in this conversation was the importance of young people having space beyond a legal environment to express who they are and what their story is. Related to this was the sharing of experience in using creative methodologies. The discussion emphasised the importance of recognising that we move through the world verbally, visually and with our bodies and processes of expression need to support young people across these modes. It was shared how creative approaches can enable young people to recreate memories, and to establish who they are in where they live now. They can create home by articulating everyday details. This goes beyond the ‘label’ determining the intervention, rather going to the whole young person. Creative approaches hold the potential to be a powerful way of supporting young people to build belonging. They provide a sense of safety in looking back as there is control over self expression. They also build resilience as they can amplify young people’s sense of their own power.

Caption: Image created by an 18 year old young woman from DRC within a creative process on relationships of belonging.

Trusting relationships are central
In terms of points of departure for engaging with this question, it was suggested that this is about looking back, and young people finding and creating their roots. What was the life that young people had before the dislocation, what was there, what strength can be taken from this? The construction and negotiation of identities and belonging therefore needs to be seen as intertwined with young people’s past and present lives.

In order for this to happen, ‘the gift of trust’ is needed, so that young people are able to share all of who they are, the many layers of their identities. To enact this gift of trust practitioners and researchers need to reflect critically on how they construct the young people they work with. This is about seeing belonging as a process, and an integral part of this process being the (re)building of trust. The building of trust is supported practically in how creative and participatory approaches promote listening. Meaningful listening relationships can build insight into how young people understand belonging strengthening the support provided for them.

Self-awareness and listening can create change
Importantly, it was highlighted that in these listening relationships, the reality of our personal and collective wounds need to be recognised. It has been argued in different spaces throughout the development of this work that there is a need to be able to process our own trauma. In doing so we are developing our capacities to be able to care for others and build belonging. We also need to look at how we see belonging for ourselves and what this means for how we relate to belonging with young people? What is our self awareness, and how do we let go of power to sit with our own vulnerability, something we are asking of the young people?

From this symposium there was an important recognition from child and youth care and social workers on the importance of belonging and why to approach this differently with young migrants. Further work is needed to share knowledge on how this can happen. How are young people that move building positive self-concept, relationships and community? This includes understanding how connections with people, families, culture, communities, and governments are being established. Young people themselves are taking this conversation forward through the development of safe spaces for dialogue with each other. As researchers, practitioners, activists and friends we must also take this commitment forward so as to respond to this energy and be accountable to this call to action on building belonging with young people that move.

[This symposium was hosted by Giulia Treves at Lawrence House a Child and Youth Care Centre specialising in support for refugee and migrant children and young people, and was funded as a part of the Scalabrini South Africa 25th Anniversary events. It was developed in collaboration with Thea Shahrokh as a part of her doctoral research and Mamelani Projects whose Director Gerald Jacobs and youth transitions practitioners Lewis Kalombo and Adjamali Kwitonda facilitated the event. These hosts also shared perspectives on the realities facing young people in care, sharing the personal stories of youth practitioners who have been through their own transitions out of care. Research inputs were given by ACMS and MaHPSA affiliated researchers Thea Shahrokh, Glynis Clacherty and Rebecca Walker on the role of multi-modal arts-based methods in building belonging. Community psychology inputs were given by the Adonis Musati Project’s youth team led by Watson Moyana and Laverne Jones, and Johanna Kistner of Sophiatown Community Psychological Services to share knowledge on psychosocial responses to building belonging from across the South African context.]