Fitting in as a minority ethnic teenager in Ireland – inside and outside the home
‘Parents have to let us go and grow ourselves in our new culture, in our new home and our new country’
The Samuel family, originally from South Sudan, from left: Gabriel, Jennifer, Salome, Morgan, Emmanuel, Esther, Grace and Victoria at home in Kilkenny. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan.
“My parents don’t understand me” is the cry of most teenagers during the fraught years of establishing their independence from those who raised them.
But for minority ethnic teenagers in Ireland, whose parents’ experiences growing up are a world apart from their children’s lives, the gulf in understanding can be truly huge. The pull between family and peers is all the greater, as these teenagers try to balance assimilation into Irish society with the cultural values of their parents.
“In the house I could be completely different to when I am outside the house,” says Emmanuel Samuel. He was on the brink of being a teenager when he arrived with his family in Ireland 10 years ago from a refugee camp in Uganda, to which his parents had gone from South Sudan. “In the house, I generally try to keep up with our culture because I feel it is part of me and part of my identity and I need to hold on to it.”
It’s a constant inner struggle – there are two Emmanuels, he says, and he never knows which one is going to react. He was born and spent his first 12 years in the refugee camp, where his father, Morgan, taught English.
Now a family of 11, with the children ranging in age from seven to 26, they live in Kilkenny city, where home “is a bit chaotic but it’s fun”, says Emmanuel (22), who is studying social science at Waterford Institute of Technology. Drawing on his experience as a teenager here, he is co-founder and director of a youth group in Kilkenny for ethnic minority young people.
“We wanted to be there for each other, kind of as a support group, and also to take action against issues we feel that are having an impact on our lives such as racism,” he explains. Currently about 10 countries, including Ireland, are represented as countries of origin among the 26 members.
Migrant parents of teenagers need support too, fearful as they are not only for their children’s safety but they also worry about the social and cultural influences of Irish peers. Some are so concerned, they are sending their teenagers back to their countries of origin for two or three years, to attend boarding schools operating within the British education system.
This tends to happen when their teenagers reach Transition Year (TY), says Kizito Mutahi Wahome (41) from Kenya, who lives in Drogheda, Co Louth, with his wife, Faith Shamiso, and his 15-year-old son Che.
“Ninety-nine per cent of migrant parents in Ireland just want their children to have good grades in school – they want their kids to go to university. That is the main thing. So, they do anything to make sure they get a good education,” he says.
Che is doing well at school but Kizito was worried about the impact a break from studying during TY might have on him. As a parent, he didn’t know how he would navigate the year either, he says, so his son went straight into fifth year, with the agreement that he might have a gap year after he leaves school at the age of 17. “I didn’t want to experiment with it [TY]. He didn’t want do it himself. So, we didn’t even argue about that!”
Within the African community here, parents are “extremely protective”, says Kizito who is doing a Master’s in Social Work in Trinity College, Dublin. They don’t want to let their teenagers out, for fear of what people might say about them, or who they might talk to. They are concerned about “what they might learn that is out of their culture or out of their expectations and end up embarrassing you”.
Kizito says it takes work and patience to adjust his style of parenting to Irish ways, and agrees “absolutely” that he would be a different sort of parent if still living in Kenya. He is trying to be more relaxed, so that his son has the same sort of freedom as his peers, “but it’s not easy”.
Teenagers here are “extremely free”, he observes. But he sees a conflict between a teenager having their freedoms and doing the right thing as parents. “They will say they have the right to go out somewhere - but is it right for them? That’s what parents have to ask themselves.”
Teenagers by their nature tend to be egocentric, but he sees this as particularly true in Western culture. “It’s ‘me, me, me’,” whereas in Kenya they would be reminded of their responsibility to the community.
“The community is looking after you and when you grow up, you look after the community.”
Respect for elders is still deeply engrained in African culture and Kizito found it “a bit of shock” when he came here and heard youngsters address adults by their first name, while he was raised to call anybody the same age as his parents “aunt” or “uncle”.
Some of the intergenerational issues within migrant families are identified among the key findings of a report published at the end of 2017 by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI). It says that youth workers need to be aware of how ethnic minority youngsters have to manage complex and often competing expectations, as well as different value systems; the youth work sector also needs to understand parents’ different child-rearing practices and their fear about children losing their cultural and religious traditions.
NYCI Intercultural and Equality officer Anne Walsh, author of the report “Make Minority a Priority: Insights from Minority Ethnic Young People”, says increasingly youth leaders are realising that they need to work with migrant families, as “young people aren’t entities in their own right – you have to build up trust with the parents”.
There are plenty of integrated youth services where Irish teenagers and those from ethnic communities mix, she acknowledges, but that is where the trust of parents has been gained. It’s the youngsters who aren’t engaging that she worries about.
We need dedicated minority ethnic youth groups as well as integrated services, she says. While up to now the approach has been one of integration, to avoid ghettoisation, “I think 10 years down the line we are realising they need their own spaces”.
They need to be able to vent among peers who understand them, she suggests, as well as celebrate their own cultures.
“As one of the girls said, ‘our parents are stricter’. They are so conscious that is not something they can say to their native Irish friends because they’ll just get a ‘oh that’s terrible’ and then they feel bad for their parents and their cultural norms.”
Walsh was prompted to conduct the in-depth survey of 50 young people from different ethnic communities because she kept hearing that identity and belonging are issues for them. Parents may be telling their teenagers one thing, she says, while the youngsters themselves are trying to figure out who they are in a different context.
It’s not easy either for migrant parents who make “absolutely huge” sacrifices for their children; they are not experts in raising children in multi-ethnic environments, she points out.
“You will have one parent who will almost say ‘go off there and become as Irish as possible’ and you will have another parent who will be completely resistant to that.”
The issues raised in the NYCI report all sound very familiar to Kizito, who is concerned about the lack of places for migrant teenagers to go in Drogheda. In the absence of facilities and structures, they are more likely to end up in gangs, he says, referring to what’s being going on in Balbriggan, Co Dublin.
“It is a timebomb for me,” continues Kizito, who sees youngsters in the migrant community in Drogheda “moving together in evenings and in the holidays, it is not a good sign”.
Che did try to join a local youth club but his father thinks he did not feel comfortable there. Now the teenager attends a local multicultural Pentecostal church, Solid Rock, which has a youth club that meets every Friday night and is a real mix of cultures, including Irish.
“He feels a sense of connection there,” says Kizito, who knows his son is also looking to be accepted in wider society. “His family is black and African but he wants to be part of the community – the life he is living.”
They understand that Irish society – and Western societies – is quite different, so they have a constant fear of losing us to Western culture
Emmanuel says his parents, like other migrant adults, grew up in a different culture and when they came over here they already had their identity established.
“At home they try to tell us and teach us what our traditional culture is – what we do and how we should behave. As well as that they understand that Irish society – and Western societies – is quite different, so they have a constant fear of losing us to Western culture.”
This fear creates a lot of tension between teenagers and parents, he explains, and while that’s more of a problem in some households than others, it is one they all share. He believes parents like his do understand the situation and don’t act too harshly.
“They understand we also have to adapt to our new life, which has literally everything they ever hoped for us. They also have to let us go and grow ourselves in our new culture in our new home and our new country.”
However, like most first-generation migrant youngsters, Emmanuel feels the heavy weight of expectation.
“It is not just expectations from the parents here, it is the expectations from all your relatives who are still back home as well.” His parents’ relatives are still in South Sudan, which continues to be at war.
In phone calls, members of the extended family say “they are putting all their hope in us, to change their situation at home”, explains Emmanuel.
“We don’t even know what we want in life; we are struggling just to get along with the rest of the society here and it just adds more pressure. If you’re not really strong, it could affect you badly – your mental health. There is never good news when we get a phone call from Africa – someone is dead or someone is in trouble, or in hospital, or been attacked.”
He admits he finds it difficult to talk to his uncles on the phone; not only he is losing their language but “our perceptions are different now; it is just a lot of chaos”.
Migrant parents tell their children they came to Ireland for their sake, which adds to the pressure.
“You want to find your own pathway but then the other is also holding on to you and you can’t really let that path go. I just can’t forget about everybody else left in the camp.” This has motivated Emmanuel to pursue youth work and build up his leadership skills.
“I still have the vision of trying to change the situation back home and here simultaneously,” he adds. “If only I could figure out a formula to do that, but we’ll see how life goes.”
MUSLIM FAMILY IN IRELAND
With an Irish mother and an Egyptian father, Amina Moustafa (20) believes her upbringing within a Muslim family here gives her an interesting perspective on multi-cultural Ireland.
When they were living in Coolock, Dublin, she never felt particularly different. It is a fairly diverse area, she says, and “some of my friends weren’t fully Irish”, while her primary school teachers respected her religion.
But, at age 10, when the family moved to Drogheda, she began to realise she wasn’t a stereotypical-looking Irish child, even though she identified as Irish. She remembers being called black “and I am not even that tanned”, she remarks. “As a kid you just laugh it off.”
In the summer before sixth year at secondary school, Amina decided to start wearing a hijab. “Around that age, you are discovering who you are,” she says. “I felt like I was only connecting with my religion and that I wanted to be identified as a Muslim.”
But on the first day back at school, the principal told her she couldn’t wear it as she would be bullied by other pupils.
“I did still wear it” – just to the school gates where she took it off. But as they lived opposite, “I was literally wearing it for two minutes” so, after a few months, she stopped. She felt if somebody such as the principal could persuade her to take it off, she wasn’t doing it for the right reasons.
“I was wearing it because I wanted to be identified as a Muslim and the hijab is a sign of modesty. I felt I wasn’t able to explain that well enough to people.”
Currently studying neuroscience at Trinity College, Dublin, she plans to go back to wearing it, but, when she does, she won’t be taking it off again, so she wants to make sure she’s ready.
“My Mum and Dad taught me what I know about my religion but they wouldn’t necessarily say ‘this is the way you have to do it’. I was never forced to wear the hijab.”
For their family, religion is very personal, she explains and she thinks it’s the same for her father when it comes to his culture. “It’s an internal thing.”
The rest of her mother’s family are Christian – her mother converted when Amina was six – so she believes she has a different experience to other Muslim families living here. She has become used to explaining their way of life to cousins.
Amina works with Sports Against Racism in Ireland and she joined its Hijabs and Hat-tricks programme, which was set up to encourage Muslim women to play soccer after FIFA dropped the ban on wearing the hijab in 2014.
Many of the problems of racism in Ireland are down to ignorance, she suggests, because people don’t know members of ethnic communities. She recalls facilitating a workshop at a No Hate Speech event in Belfast, where a youth leader at her table said she had never met a Muslim and nobody in her youth group had ever met one either.
“Well, you’ve just met one now!” Amina told her.
“She had assumed they were all black and covered up,” she says. “She was definitely surprised. I thought it was really funny how it came up, as it was all about stereotypes.”