From everywhere and nowhere: Placing value on liminal identity formation in exile for migrant and displaced youth
Picture by the author.
This article seeks to explore the effects that migration, displacement, and eventual resettlement have on the formation of identity in diaspora populations. Prior to migration journeys, ethnicized individuals already exist in cultures which have been shaped by colonisation to varying degrees, and are further impacted by an increasingly globalised and interconnected world. Once transplanted, this is exacerbated by the exposure to resettlement cultures and adjacent immigrant influences. Subsequently, a collective longing is formed for an authentic cultural approach that does not exist, and perhaps never has, by people in exile. However, the development of multi-hyphenated identities adds a richness to both individuals and communities which should be encouraged and cultivated.
I will employ vignettes of my own experience as a second-generation settler from a twice-migrant multi-ethnic community, as well as reflections from my work as a mental health practitioner with refugee children and youth, in order to contextualise the permeable locations of identity, including gender roles. To situate myself in this work, I identify as a racialised female raised in Toronto, Canada, which presently boasts a population of just over 50% foreign-born, where more than 52% are people of colour like myself. My family hails from the nation of Guyana on the northern coast of South America. European colonialism began in the 1500s and led to the decimation of the once-dense indigenous peoples. African slaves were later brought in droves as forced labour. With the eventual abolishment of slavery, indentured servitude from the Indian sub-continent (experienced by my own ancestors) was devised to fill the perceived employment gap in the 1830s. In the generations that followed, sizeable Chinese and European groups arrived for economic opportunities. Not surprisingly, this composition would cultivate a plurality of culinary, musical, religious practices and local customs. As a whole, the general cultural atmosphere more closely reflects its Caribbean neighbours rather than their Latin American ones. A common English-based dialect with bits of lexicon from all of the aforementioned ethnic communities evolved as a mode of communication. In the 1970s my parents moved to North America in search of educational advancement at a time when their nation began to experience scarce resources and political and social instability.
I present my family’s background as a somewhat extreme example of the role of historical migration, displacement and colonial settler narratives on identity formation. My own home culture was simultaneously both rich and confusing. As an added layer, as I matured in urban Toronto, I lived closely among many other diasporic populations. Through my own lens, I experienced the spaces I existed in as both an insider and an outsider. I understood much of the world I saw around me, but could never quite fit into any one place. This liminal position would be reinforced by everyone around me, including my loved ones, who were proud of my perceived Canadianness. In my formative years, I lived in a figurative state of being neither here nor there.
As an adult, I became employed as a mental health practitioner in the city of my birth, supporting refugee youth and families in their lives as new Canadians. Through this work, I witnessed first-hand innumerable generational cultural clashes along with instances of ‘third-culture kid’ in the young service users, a concept which was very familiar to my own personal development. In our current climate, migration and forced movement of people have reached unprecedented heights, which further exacerbates these phenomena.
Young people, particularly children, pick up the languages of their new countries with incredible ease and speed, emerging as de facto interpreters for their elders; often with disorienting effects on family dynamics. For the youth, there is the discovery of new foods, slang, and popular music that can practically help them ingratiate themselves with peers, but can also serve as a significant irritant to parents. However, the impacts of exposure can go far beyond superficial aspects of enjoyment to include influences on spirituality, personal philosophy and radical ideological shifts in later years. Commonly, families combat these emerging identities with contentious assertions of traditionalism, employing comparisons of often imagined ideals and longing for the authenticity of ‘back home’.
No single culture exists in a silo unsullied by external influences. Even cultures that to our limited understanding have been constructed as traditional still may have pervasive influences from outsiders. This has been aided by advancements in communication, instant media and global entertainment, which is consumed with vigour. This position is evidenced throughout history. In the contemporary era, a plethora of diasporic communities has formed globally, both transient and permanent. We need to be mindful that migrant and displaced peoples may pass through many places before finding home – if ever. The very notion of cultural authenticity is a fallacy, an imagined collective memory to compare and contrast strange behaviours of the acclimated youth.
Moreover, varied cultural influences have profound effects on gender roles, a strong identity marker. There continues to be a passionate debate on the proponents of western versus non-western traditional ideology on existing binary roles related to caregiving, education, careers, gender identity and expression. Whatever your stance on these issues, one can concede that individuals exposed to a myriad of philosophies rooted in diverse histories allow people to engage in valuable choices for their life trajectories irrespective of the cultural confines they exist within. In my opinion, Europe is no longer primarily the purveyor of cultural currency. Essentially this creates nuances in gender role refinement that goes far beyond the familiar dichotomy of historical perspectives.
I urge caregivers and frontline practitioners to actively encourage the hybrid identity cultivation in migrant and displaced children and youth on their journeys to becoming rooted, in whatever form that may be. This cohort is a direct product of larger global processes heightened by unprecedented technologic advancements. There is a lot of value in embracing all aspects of their diverse cultural compositions: increased self-esteem and sense of self alongside lessened family tensions. More community promotion of new ideas, practices and learnings will lead young people to be more intelligent and compassionate toward the global citizenry.
Nadia Umadat is a Canadian social worker. She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and a Graduate Diploma in Refugee and Migration Studies as well as specialised honours Bachelors’ degrees in Social Work and International Development Studies, from York University. Among other roles, she was a Youth Mental Health Counsellor for over 5 years, primarily supporting newcomer and refugee families who endured experiences of war, torture, crimes against humanity and genocide. In her free time, she enjoys being a tourist and a forever student. She continues to reside in Toronto.