Common Themes Refugee Youth in the Middle East and North Africa
During the dissemination workshop, portions of the final reports of the research team leaders were presented in order to identify the cross-cutting themes across the three sites. Team leaders from the Palestinian project were also present, as well as a number of their research assistants. Workshop participants were self-assigned into working groups where more detailed discussions around the particular themes took place. In addition, each working group was asked to discuss methodological and ethical concerns in relation to their group topics, as well as the policy and practice implications. It became clear during the discussion that many of the concerns outlined below overlapped and were inextricably linked, underscoring the suitability of the projects holistic approach.
A summary of the emerging findings from the Sahrawi and Afghan data, extracts from the interviews with youth, and the main points which emerged during the working groups are presented in the sections below. These are drawn from the research teams final reports, working papers, and discussions held throughout the research period. The methodological concerns are discussed in the final section.
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4|
|Gender and Generation||
Gender and Generation
One of the aims of the research was to investigate the way gender mediated the experiences of young refugees. Another question investigated intergenerational relations and the impact of the elderly's past experiences of forced migration on the younger generations.
Among the Palestinian, Sahrawi and Afghan refugee networks, social relations and hierarchies are deeply embedded in the family. Both gender and generation organise obligations, responsibilities, and power within households. Young people across the Middle East/North Africa region are embedded in strong family and kin relations in which elders play an important role in terms of status, authority, and respect. Elders are often regarded as symbols of the homeland and represent a physical and immediate connection to the past and family history. Oral history is important to transfer knowledge across the generations.
Photo: A group of Sahrawi girls preparing to do a skit as part of a participatory exercise
Sahrawi children and adolescents imagine the 'homeland' as the place that will restore their dignity and end their status as refugees. To them, the homeland is not so much a particular village or town, but Western Sahara, and a 'way of life'. This way of life is imagined as nomadic, mobile and a place that is more 'green'. Their current circumstances in the camp stand in contrast to this imagined way of life.
The discourse on the significance of the family and family ties contrasts with the conditions that force Sahrawi family members to separate, especially those which result from educational needs. Students are forced to leave home in the refugee camps when they are young in order to continue their education in Algeria, Cuba, Spain, or elsewhere. This produces an emphasis on family relationships, and at the same time creates a parallel social network comprised of peer groups, upon which individuals depend and seek support while away from home. Fathers, mothers and siblings are also separated by the conditions arising from the developing informal economy and the requirements of the SADR, as well as travel/passport/visa restrictions.
Because mothers are themselves so active in community and municipal affairs, older generations step in to play an important role in the education and care of younger children. The latter are taught to respect elders and authority and, in turn, children are generally treated gently and with respect.
The lack of appropriate youth spaces was a concern expressed across the three sites, though their particular needs differed. Palestinian youth in particular worried about threats of physical violence in their schools and neighbourhoods. They also talked about overcrowding, unlike Sahrawi youth, though they also live in refugee camps.
For the Sahrawis, the desert region, combined with a culture of 'mobility' and respect for human dignity, provides them with a sense of social and physical space. Sahrawi girls, unlike Palestinian girls of comparable ages, have a sense of freedom to move around. Nevertheless, this desert environment is limiting, despite the children's creativity to make the most of it.
The difficult weather conditions, especially the pervasiveness of sand 'everywhere' causes ear, eye and chest related illnesses. In the summer months, the heat is suffocating. The lack of special spaces and equipment, such as games and toys where children can play indoors, are also absent.
The Afghan youth who participated in the study do not live in camp settings; their families tend to be self-settled in neighbourhoods largely inhabited by other Afghan families. Interviews with them revealed the importance of the informal Afghan schools for providing a space where they feel a sense of safety and belonging.
In general, Afghan girls are much more restricted in their movements than Afghan boys, and when allowed to leave the home unaccompanied by parents they are advised to go in small groups of four and to strictly observe the Islamic dress code. Boys, on the other hand, avoid walking the streets in groups, as they are often targets of harassments.
One of the research goals was to determine whether refugee generation has a strong affect on Afghan refugee youths' sense of identity. The majority of our sample was comprised of refugee youth who had no memory of Afghanistan, having either been born in Iran, or born in Afghanistan and migrated to Iran before 5 years of age.
This meant that they experienced a high level of anxiety about having to return as well as had a much harder time in dealing with their exclusion and discrimination by the wider society as an Afghans.
Extracts from Youth Narratives
On Intergenerational Relations:
My grandmother informed me that her forced departure from Palestine was the hardest experience of her life. She told me many stories about lots of things in Palestine, even about the cows in our barn and how people used to earn their living by selling oranges. She told me how they were forced to migrate, and how people escaped from the massacres of the Jews and how they thought they would return to their homes soon. Before her death, she gave me a gown and she asked me to hide it to be used in collecting her bones and burying them in her own village in Palestine when we return. (Palestinian, Syria, 17 years old, male)
I like to use [my parents'] experiences and I think that their opinions will be 90% important in my decision making (for who I will marry). But the rest of the relatives are not important. (Afghan, 12 years old, male)
My father and mother’s consultations are very much important and I will act on them 100%. (Afghan, 16 years old, male)
On the Need for Space:
Football is my favourite game; we play in the street of our camp because we do not have a playground to practice. People in the neighbouring houses often shout at us and order us to play away from their houses. We are always scared of being hurt by passing cars. (Palestinian, Syria, 12 years old, male)
Here one cannot live without the knife, but if you have one there is a problem and if you don't it is a problem too. If you have one and the police catch you, you go to prison for God knows how long. If you dont you may be attacked. These problems can start in grade five and up. (Palestinian, Jordan, 17 years old, male)
We are very traditional. We, the Palestinians, have been like this for generations. At home, I treat my children in the same manner. But outside the home, it differs. I pressure my girl much more than I pressure my boy. My parents treated me the same way. I trust [my daughter]. I know what I raised. Still, I have to know where she is. (Palestinian, Lebanon, 32 years old, female)
At home, there is discrimination between girls and boys. Boys can go any time with their friends and come back at any time, but girls cannot do that. They are forced to stay home... If I go out anywhere, it is only if my brothers take me to my uncle's house. [T]here are only youth centres for the young men, but nothing for us. (Palestinian, Jordan,17 years old, female)
Discrimination is in Afghan's blood. Yes, there are many kinds of discrimination in our family. He (my father) is ready to sacrifice three of us for his only son. He always tells him that whenever he wants to get married (she pauses and swallows her sigh and continues) my brother can choose any of us to be exchanged for his wife. Yes, in our society (tears roll down her face) woman is considered an animal. When I argue with my brother he says that if I bother him he would throw me out of the house. So in our house it is whatever my father and brother say. If they tell us that we have to die then we have to die at the moment otherwise then my father starts beating us with his belt. In our house my brother has to eat more and better food and he has to dress better than us. My mother has to ask permission from him if she wants to go somewhere and if he doesnt let her she can't go. (Afghan, 15 years old, female)
In our family, our father was providing living facilities but had a bad opinion regarding school-going girls. Most of the girls weren't covered so my family didn't let me go to school. They told us that it is better that we stay home and weave carpet, and we obeyed. We thought it is better that people not talk about us. My brothers didn't let us either. (Afghan, 15 years old, female)
[M]y father is very sensitive about these things. He cared for us equally... I believe that each human being has his special abilities and we can't discriminate men and women. (Afghan, 16 years old, male)
The working group agreed that programs and policies should be supported that promote the awareness of gender and age-based rights. The older generations should be brought into policy that targets children and links between the generations fostered. The working groups suggested that efforts should be made to document and create points of access to the memories of older generations. Children should be directly involved in these projects and trained to interview members of their own families and neighbourhoods.
The working group suggested that safe, gender appropriate spaces for play, debate, and discussion should also be created.
Practitioners should work to encourage the people targeted in their projects to gain a sense of ownership of and involvement in their programmes. Gender and generation should be prioritised components of refugee research, with an emphasis on building skills and leadership roles for girls and women within their respective social networks and communities.
Participatory methods with children and youth were recognised as important to cultivate a sense of ownership of the project, and to learn priorities and perspectives, but a number of challenges were also identified, especially in regard to capacity, lack of resources, and ethical concerns.
Role of Humanitarian Assistance, Economics and Transgeographical Networks
One of the points that emerged as important in the research was the impact of transgeographical, or transnational, networks on the social, economic, and cultural relations within refugee communities.
In the Afghan case, only one local (state-sponsored) Organisation, HAMI, serves the needs of Irans refugees, directing much of its energy towards women and children. Although there are two UNHCR offices in Iran, they are very rarely referred to by Afghans without education and money. The most important UNHCR function that the Afghan low income community has ever mentioned is their occasional support for medical expenses. Middle-class educated Afghans, however, do use the office, particularly for requesting to be re-settled in a third country.
Sahrawi camp residents, on the other hand, depend almost entirely on humanitarian many of them Spanish, have bases in the camp. However, interviews with Sahrawi camp residents revealed the widespread belief that the humanitarian aid they receive is both unreliable and insufficient. The harsh desert environment makes self-reliance impossible, and only in recent years have small, informal, markets emerged in some of the camps' neighbourhoods.
Economic activities comprise a large part of the lives of many of the Afghan youth in our sample. About 56% of the youth interviewed generated income for themselves or their family. The importance of work to their lives was reflected in the topic of the photography competition held in the Tehran youth club - "Afghan adolescents and youth at work".
Photo: Photography competition entry by two Afghan boys, one of whom is pictured working his usual job as a garbage collector.
Vacaciones en Paz
In the Sahrawi case, the Vacaciones en Paz program represents an important transgeographical link between the thousands of Sahrawi and Spanish families who have taken part in the hosting scheme. The program has been criticised on the grounds that it exposes 'poor' refugee children to a life and a standard of living they could never achieve or experience in the camps. They live in Spanish 'paradise' for two months then are obliged to return home to the harsh desert environment.
Contrary to this image, most Sahrawi youth reflect on the differences that distinguish the Spanish lifestyle from their way of life without glorifying Spain. For the most part, they describe their experiences in Spain positively, without denigrating their life at home. For those who have been to Spain or who have spent even longer periods of time away from home studying abroad, the 'pull' factor back to the camps is based on two fundamental concerns. First, there is a strong sense of loyalty to the family.
Photo: Sahrawi children prepare for their trip to Spain
The interviews with students who have been abroad and returned include references to how they remembered their families while away and felt homesick. Second, a strong political culture exists where the national struggle underpins their sense of obligation to the collective cause. This concern, however, is a more significant concern among parents and grandparents. The younger generations are beginning to have political questions about their future.
The narratives from Sahrawi young people often refer to the desire to be able to 'study in one's homeland' and to use one's own national resources. Such statements reflect the special influence the impact studying abroad has on Sahrawi children and reinforces their desire to have their own country so that they can study near their families and on their own land. They regularly participate in national celebrations and commemorations at home; their politicisation occurs because of the obvious -- they are refugees, their lives in camps indicate that their situation is not normal. Once they leave to other countries, they feel the difference even more.
Extracts from Youth Narratives
On the Struggles of Work:
What can I do? I tried to work but there are no jobs around here and it is difficult for me to work and study at the same time. (Palestinian, Gaza, 15 years old, female)
I have been to Spain and to Algeria, but now I am working in the camps. It is difficult to support my family, because even though the refugees receive humanitarian assistance, it is difficult, because you have to buy meat, bread, gas, cloth, vegetables, and other things. It is very difficult to live like other people in other countries...I used to be a member of my football team, but since I had to work late, I no longer have time for games, or play. I spend all my time trying to secure a living and fulfil the needs of my family. I sometimes work in a small shop to sell goods. Even my mother has opened a small shop to sell the basics, such as bread, milk, sugar, tea, tomato paste, sweets, etc. Sometimes I think it is better to go to Mauritania and work there, or to Spain. (Sahrawi, 15 years old, male)
I have always worked all my life and I am tired of working. I know that I cant continue my education any more. I will just say that I would like to stop working for one week. Of course my other brothers also work but I don't know why we don't get a bit rich. I am tired of working. (Afghan, 11 years old, male)
Sahrawi Reflections on Spain:
We did not know what the sea was until we went on the summer vacation program...we werent familiar with many things, like the buildings, animals...we saw these and we saw elephants and lions...we learned from them (Spaniards) how to wear clothes differently from what we were used to. There it is different from the camps. In the camps, there are only the tents and adobe huts; there they have big buildings and everything. They have large forests and different animals. They also have a different kind of upbringing... Our children do not know the sea, or the animals; they only have stones and sand. There the land is different; they have paved roads and they dont get dirty like here and they can take showers whenever they want. When we saw all those things, we wished so much that we were an independent nation so that we can have those things that they have. (Sahrawi, 14 years old, male)
I went to Andalusia and I saw the sea, swimming pools, and buildings. My (host) families used to take us to different places. There are things that we do not have here and there they do not have tents. I wished we had swimming pools here and the possibility of keeping things clean. I wish we had markets and toys to play with. (Sahrawi, 12 years old, female)
I went to Spain many times, but I do not like Spain. The people have very different customs. They do not respect the elders and they go out without clothes, naked! (laughs) That is difficult for the Sahrawis to do. I was shocked when I was in Spain and since then I refuse to go back. I study Arabic, French, and Spanish and I continue to go to Algeria where people have great respect for us. (Sahrawi, 17 years old, female)
The working group considered the potential role of humanitarian groups in recognising, working through, and strengthening transgeographical networks. Local NGOs should be regarded as potential assets and their cooperation with UN Organisations should be strengthened. One area in particular where local NGOs can play a crucial role is in education. UN assistance programmes mainly target primary school education, to the neglect of secondary school education and vocational training. The latter should also be prioritised in assistance programmes.
Education, Citizenship and Politicisation
The impact of education on the lives of young refugees was a recurrent theme throughout the research and was reflected in the data presented to the working group. The data suggest that education, both formal and informal, in the three refugee contexts, is used as a tool in nation-building; it shapes individual identities and collective memory. It has a key role to play in rights-awareness, citizenship, and politicisation. However, refugee youth, especially in the Sahrawi and Afghan cases, confront a number of barriers that prevent them from putting their degrees and skills to use. The degrees and certificates granted through formal education may impart self-confidence and thus encourage individuals to contribute and participate in their communities and the larger society.
Sahrawi refugees and education
In the past, especially in the seventies and eighties, education was a primary goal for Sahrawi refugees. Eradicating illiteracy was a strategic objective for the SADR. The SADR, families and individuals had a great deal of enthusiasm, believing an educated population was an important contribution to the collective national struggle and a necessary step to improve upon individual conditions of displacement. This sentiment was also widespread among Palestinian refugees and the PLO in the 1960s and 70s.
Over time, and especially following the cease fire, the return of a large number of educated Sahrawis to the camps, who are neither needed on the battle front nor able to use their skills and knowledge effectively, is creating frustration and anxiety regarding the future. The number of returning students is ever increasing and the SADR, with its limited resources, is less effective in providing a complete primary, secondary, and tertiary education and employment than they were able to for the relatively smaller population of the 1970s and 80s.
Photo: Inside a sixth grade classroom, Sahrawi camps
For the age group between 8-14, the main issues were 1) Lack of educational facilities conducive to learning, including necessities such as books, copybooks, libraries, and other educational materials. There are no libraries, labs or computers in the classrooms; 2) Lack of toys and games, especially those that can be played indoors; 3) Extra curricular activities during the holidays and weekends; and, 4) Better nutrition is also needed.
Older youth in the camps, aged 14-18, expressed the following concerns regarding education 1) The educational standards are low and teachers are not effective in camps; 2) They encounter problems keeping up with the standards in other countries; 3) Having studied Spanish as a second language in the camps, they find the switch to French in Algeria particularly difficult; and, 4) Nutrition is still lacking. Poverty is more an issue for students who study abroad. Lack of money to purchase educational materials, clothing and proper food affects their general ability to do well.
Afghan refugees and education
Many of the Afghans who fled to Iran during the 1980s were escaping what they saw as the threat of the Soviet-backed government to their customs and to Islam. When the government introduced a marriage law which legislated the consent of the bride as essential and designated the minimum age of girls for marriage as sixteen, this was seen by many as Russias desire to destroy Islam and Muslims. The idea of education as 'un-Islamic' persisted and the proposed reforms were used as rallying points against the Soviets.
Some of the Afghan families in our study had returned to Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s but returned to Iran when the Taleban took control. Interviewees explained that the closure of schools and the extreme limitation of education for girls in Afghanistan was a major factor in their decision to (re)migrate to Iran in the second half of the 1990s. Education is now widely viewed by Afghans in Iran as an Islamic obligation.
While the easy access of Afghan youth to Iranian schools during the 1980s did not particularly support the development of Afghan identity and solidarity among young Afghan refugees in Iran, this changed with increasing discrimination and the subsequent emergence of a number of informal Afghan schools. The emergence of an Afghan supra-identity and corresponding Afghan nationalism has far reaching consequences for the social and political development of Afghanistan, and should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, these developments have important implications for policies dealing with children and youth with regards to general and educational needs of long-term refugees, at the national (host and country of origin) level as well as for NGOs, humanitarian organisations, and international agencies dealing with and overseeing refugee needs.
The discrimination and hostile treatment many young Afghans faced in the Iranian school system was dispiriting if not devastating, especially for those who had focused on 'Muslimness' as the main axis of their identity. Having established informal Afghan schools, young people began to speak more with each other without fear of interference from Iranian students or teachers, and their pride in being Afghan and their desire to know more about Afghanistan germinated and grew. In some ways, an unintended consequence of informal Afghan schools was that youth brought up in Iran were encouraged to think of themselves as being Afghan, and began, at least ideologically, to want to go back to Afghanistan and feel a sense of belonging.
The Afghan data speak to the need for unambiguous educational policies to deal with long-term refugees, particularly in cases of large scale exodus. Policies must be devised for the basic needs of refugee communities, including and prioritising education. If the host country is reluctant to incorporate the refugee population, it must provide institutional support for education geared towards the needs of their country of origin, so that refugees can develop a sense of identity and nationalism that will facilitate their return home. Such schooling should not necessarily separate long-term refugees from the main educational system of the host country, but at least provide some enrichment programming and curricula, and the establishment of special youth centres or clubs where refugees can develop a sense of shared identity and belonging.
Extracts from Youth Narratives
On Palestinian Education:
Palestine is located in the Middle East and in 1948 the Jews occupied it because of its strategic and important location. The Jews are a group of people who are spread throughout the whole world; they don't have a country so they occupied Palestine and claimed that it is their own land. I got this information from school because the teacher asked us to collect information about Palestine. I also get some information from my grandmother and grandfather and mother. Last year we had an exhibition to demonstrate Palestinian folklore; I myself took a scarf and an embroidered dress. (Palestinian, Syria, 11 years old, female)
On Sahrawi Education:
The main problem that students face is education. It is the hope for us all and we cannot do without it. Our country (SADR) does not have the resources, such as proper places for teaching, therefore they send people on the summer program (to Spain), but also to friendly countries such as Algeria, Spain Libya, Syria, and others. ..."if the school educates one person it educates the whole nation as well". School is what produces all this; it is indispensable. (Sahrawi, 16 years old, male)
I respect teachers and professors. I remain grateful for all they have done... Despite our exile and hardships, we study and we educate ourselves to become doctors and we struggle to return to our land and we teach the new generations and the old. I hope that I will continue until I finish and receive a high diploma, so that when we achieve our independence I can work (Sahrawi, 17 years old, female)
I studied my primary school here in school in Dakhla (camp). Here we are far from everything...The cold is bitter and school is far from home...[T]hen I went to the October 12 School between Smara and Dakhla. It is a boarding school...I went to Algeria and enrolled in the seventh grade...I miss home and always think about the camps here. (Sahrawi, 18 years old, female)
On Informal Afghan Schools:
I am among my people and nobody teases and despises me and since our teacher is Afghan she explains everything to us and speaks about Afghanistan more and we write essays about Afghanistan and its future. (Afghan, 14 years old, female)
I studied up to fifth grade in Afghanistan and I quit school for two years after we came to Iran. Then I studied fifth grade in our Afghan schools and then I attended pre-high school...Considering the stories that students tell about Iranian schools, in our schools it feels like we are in Afghanistan and we never feel like strangers in this school. Our friends that are studying in Iranian schools feel bad since all their classmates are Iranians...[T]hat is why we study here and we are happy since I am with my own kind and I can study easily. (Afghan, 17 years old, male)
When I came to this school I was very happy that I was with Afghans and we would sympathize and it has had a very positive impact on me and I like it very much. Here I feel that everything belongs to me and we are friendly and we don't have bad feelings regarding each other and we don't tease each other about our nationality. (Afghan, 15 years old, female)
The working group emphasised that as long as refugees are denied rights within their host societies, they will remain at a legal, structural disadvantage in relation to full citizenship. Education can raise awareness of this structural inequality and fuel the movement towards policy and practice that gain rights for refugees. Degrees and certificates granted through formal education in the host society should have a recognised equivalency in the event that refugees return to their home countries to work or continue their studies.
Impact of Host Society on Refugee Experience, Identity and Integration
The legal status of refugees within their respective host societies establishes a certain framework of limitations and/or opportunities that impacts their lives. The legal position of refugees and the general attitudes of the public towards them changes over time.
Interviews with Afghan youth, previous research data, and the published scholarly works do not indicate the prevalence of discrimination or bullying against Afghan youth in Iranian schools during the 1980s.
However, the situation changed in the early 1990s with a shift in ideology from Muslim solidarity to Iranian nationalism. Discrimination against Afghan students became socially and legally rampant; nonetheless, there is little evidence to suggest that a collective effort on the part of the Afghan community was made to deal with grievances related to youth discrimination. The emergence of Afghan informal schools in the latter half of the 1990s provided a forum for youth to talk about and deal with their experiences as unwanted refugees; they were able to develop awareness, opinions and perspectives on collective and individual rights, and principles of tolerance.
In conversations with members of the research team, many used the language of social justice and human rights, some invoking an international or Islamic (hoghogh-i-islami insane) human rights framework. The stories told by the Afghan youth indicate an identity crisis that went unaddressed by older members of their communities until the advent of the informal schools. It was the comparison of the experiences of youth in both Afghan and Iranian schools that focused attention on the significance of their Afghan identity and newly formed sense of belonging.
The Sahrawi case differs markedly from the situation of Afghans in Iran. Unlike the self-settled Afghans, Sahrawi refugees live in a camp setting and are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival.
Interviews with young Sahrawis reveal a generally positive attitude towards their Algerian hosts. Many of them had studied in Algerian schools and made friends with Algerian classmates. Nonetheless, the physical isolation of the Sahrawi camps from the rest of Algeria contributes to their social exclusion and inability to fully integrate into the larger society. The youth clearly prioritise national independence from Morocco rather than integration into Algerian society.
Photo: Youth newsletter committee at work, Mashad, Iran.
Extracts from Youth Narratives
On Difference and Discrimination:
A nation does not turn racist and chauvinist in one generation. You would not hear from Afghans complaints about discrimination in Khomeini's era. Not that they did not have problems or that everybody treated them well, but that when it happened they did not feel it was part of a collective discriminatory and exclusionary approach, but things have changed now. The government does not want us here. We, the Afghans are blamed for everything that goes wrong here, from serial killings to high unemployment, to spread of diseases. But the problem is that most of us have nowhere to go back to... (Afghan youth)
The game we played as children was 'Arabs and Jews'. In this game the Arabs would attack using stones and the Jews would retaliate with guns. Children were divided into those who played the role of Jews while others were Arabs. Children who represented the Jews in our games were those who assumed the power and were stronger, while others chose to represent the Arabs and refused to be part of the Jewish group. Our games had violent elements; I thought that it was a useful training for the future. In our play it was always victory for the Arabs. (Palestinian, Gaza, 17 years old, male)
The working group concluded that policy and practice should prioritise the protection of choice and the dignity of refugees.
They suggested documenting the regional and international laws and policies towards specific refugee groups in their respective host countries. They stressed the importance of gauging how these policies are being carried out in practice and the possibility of devising a system capable of measuring the degree to which refugee rights are protected in practice in particular contexts.
This working group argued that refugees need to be given access to the same rights and services as the local population. Credible studies need to be carried out and publicised that analyse the contributions refugees make to their host societies (economic, social, cultural, etc.). This can hopefully allay some of the worries held by locals that prejudice attitudes towards refugees.
Other research can survey the attitudes of the host society towards the integration of refugees, as well as the attitudes of refugees towards their integration.