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«Working Paper Series No. 11-16 November 2011 ‘You have to stand up for yourself’: African Immigrant and Refugee Teens Negotiate Settlement in ...»

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Working Paper Series

No. 11-16

November 2011

‘You have to stand up for


African Immigrant and Refugee Teens

Negotiate Settlement in Vancouver

Gillian Creese,

Edith Ngene Kambere,

and Mambo Masinda

Series editor: Linda Sheldon, SFU;

Krishna Pendakur, SFU and Daniel Hiebert, UBC, Co-directors

Metropolis British Columbia

Centre of Excellence for Research on

Immigration and Diversity

MBC is supported as part of the Metropolis Project, a national strategic initiative funded by SSHRC and the following organizations of the federal


• Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA)

• Canada Border Services Agency

• Canada Economic Development for the Regions of Quebec (CED-Q)

• Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)

• Canadian Heritage (PCH)

• Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC)

• Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor)

• Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSD)

• Department of Justice Canada

• Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)

• Public Safety Canada (PSC)

• Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)

• The Rural Secretariat of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Rural Sec’t)

• Statistics Canada (Stats Can) Metropolis BC also receives funding from the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Innovation (JTI). Grants from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria provide additional support to the Centre.

Views expressed in this manuscript are those of the author(s) alone. For more information, contact the Co-directors of the Centre, Krishna Pendakur, Department of Economics, SFU (pendakur@sfu.ca) and Daniel Hiebert, Department of Geography, UBC (daniel.hiebert@ubc.ca).











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Working Paper Series




Gillian Creese Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia Edith Ngene Kambere Umoja Operation Compassion Society Mambo Masinda Umoja Operation Compassion Society

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ABSTRACT T his research examines how adolescent immigrants and refugees from countries in sub-Saharan Africa negotiate settlement in Metro Vancouver. Adolescence is a particularly difficult time to migrate to another country. Youth must acquire new social and cultural capital to successfully navigate adult roles in the context of a significant ‘clash’ between expectations in African cultures and in Canada. Generational tensions between parents and teens, discouragement in school, low academic achievement, and high drop-out rates can lead to limited career prospects and impaired social

cohesion in the long term. The key questions addressed in this research are:

1) What are the main challenges facing African youth who arrive in Canada during their teen years? 2) What strategies do they develop to navigate new social relationships, cultural expectations, and institutional structures in high school? 3) What policy recommendations will support and strengthen African youth’s own strategies for successful integration? Our findings show that adolescent immigrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa face significant challenges that can be clustered into two main categories: challenges related to a ‘culture clash’ between African and Canadian norms and values, and structural conditions affecting integration, including the organization of the school system. To navigate these challenges African teens in this research learned to ‘fit in’ with their peers while ‘standing up’ for themselves in relation to peers and teachers while drawing on parental supports and African cultural values to develop gendered strategies to overcome difficulties. The experiences of these teens provide a vantage point from which to recommend programs that could help to shore up rather than erode the youthful resilience migrant teens bring with them to Canada.

6 MBC: African Immigrant Settlement in Vancouver


Adolescence is a time of significant transition for everyone, as young men and women negotiate shifts from childhood to adulthood in the context of culturally embedded norms of gender, sexuality, family, peers, schooling, work and civil society. Hence adolescence is a particularly unsettling time to simultaneously traverse the dislocations and challenges associated with international migration. Immigrants and refugees who arrive in Canada during their teen years must, in a very short time, acquire new cultural and social capital required to effectively navigate adulthood in a context as unfamiliar to their parents as to themselves (and, hence, with less knowledgeable guidance from parents), while simultaneously engaging with the strong influences of peers and popular culture.

For migrant teens from sub-Saharan Africa these transitions are further complicated by new processes of racialization encountered in Canada. As studies of African immigrant youth have documented, learning to adjust to life in Canada includes learning to ‘become Black’ and ‘act Black’, processes that are mediated through the history of immigration and racialization in Canada and through dominant forms of African-American youth culture such as music, films, clothing, and ‘Black stylized English’ (Ibrahim 1999; Kelly 1998; 2004).

These influences create additional points of tension between African immigrant and refugee youth and their parents, teachers, and other authority figures in Canada.

Not surprisingly, settlement agencies that work with migrants from subSaharan Africa have identified youth who arrived in Canada during their teen years, and especially those who are refugees, as a sector of the African com

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available in Metro Vancouver (Francis 2010). For example, although there is no empirical tracking of school completion rates by ethnic origin1, those who work with African youth observe high dropout rates, in turn making transition to employment, and indeed adult responsibility, more difficult. In addition, research in Toronto suggests that families with teenage members at the time of migration appear prone to significant family disruptions that can affect integration of all members (Reitsma 2001).

This paper reports on research the authors have undertaken with Umoja Operation Compassion Society/African Family Services2, an immigrant settlement agency operating in Surrey, BC. that works largely with women and children from sub-Saharan Africa. This paper begins to address the challenges facing African teen migrants, as well as the strategies they have developed to cope with those challenges. We focus less on the barriers and service gaps encountered by African immigrant and refugee youth, patterns that have recently been documented in other Metropolis research (Francis 2010), and more on the ways in which teen migrants from sub-Saharan Africa navigate the multiple and complex transitions encountered as part of settling in Metro Vancouver. In this paper, we are particularly interested in exploring these issues from the point of view of teen migrants to better understand the strengths and strategies drawn on to address the challenges faced. We place the teens’ perspectives in a broader context of observations raised by parents and service providers, and consider policy recommendations that will support teen migrants own strengths and strategies.

8 MBC: African Immigrant Settlement in Vancouver

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Immigrants and refugees from sub-Saharan African countries constitute one of the smallest yet most diverse groups in Metro Vancouver. Nearly 1.3% of the population (27,260 people) identified as African-born in the 2006 Census, with 80% originating from countries in Eastern and Southern Africa (Masinda and Kambere 2008; Statistics Canada, Community Profiles 2006 Census). About two-thirds of 1% of the population proclaimed an African ethnic origin, and less than 1% of all Vancouverites (20,670 people) identified as Black in 2006 (Statistics Canada, Special Interest Profiles, 2006 Census).

The importance of place in shaping the nature of integration is clear when we compare Metro Vancouver with Toronto, where the Ghanaian community alone is well over 20,000 people (Manuh 2003). And although there has been a Black community presence since the colonial inception of Vancouver and British Columbia (Compton 2001), it has remained very small compared to other racialized communities. In this context of small numbers and hypervisibility in a diverse population that is largely European and Asian in origin, the new African diaspora in Metro Vancouver has begun to self-identify as a diverse pan-‘African community’; a community that experiences significant marginalization and racism, while simultaneously building new spaces of belonging (Creese 2010; 2011; Creese and Weibe, in press).

Growing up between or across cultures means that immigrant youth navigate paths quite distinct from, and often in conflict with, their parents (Berry et al. 2006; Handa 2003). These generational tensions are much in evidence in Vancouver’s new African diaspora, as in other communities, with Canadian cultural values of individuality, self-expression, and autonomy frequently col

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family status, and gender (Arthur 2000; Creese 2011; Matsuoka and Sorenson 2001). Qualitative research on immigrant youth in Canada shows that youth mediate divergent cultural expectations in unique ways compared to adults, and often develop situational and racialized ‘hybrid’ identities as they negotiate belonging (Berry et al. 2006; Handa 2003; Pratt 2004; 2008). To date, research on African immigrant youth in Canada has focused on racialization processes of ‘becoming Black’ and ‘acting Black’ mediated through AfricanAmerican youth culture such as music videos, rap, hip-hop, films, sports figures, styles of dress and linguistic tropes (Abdel-Shehid 2005; Ibrahim 1999;

Kelly 1998, 2004; Okeke-Iherjirika and Spitzer 2005; Plaza 2006). Kelly (2004) refers to this as “borrowed identities” because it is so heavily influenced by American popular culture as the only space where African-Canadian youth can see themselves reflected bodily.

Youth who arrive in their teens experience an even more difficult transition compared to those who come as young children; this is particularly the case for child refugees, who have experienced significant trauma and may have no prior formal education, but are placed in age-based grades in Canada (Francis 2010; ISS of BC 2009). Overall, the children of immigrants in Canada have higher educational attainment than other Canadian youth. A recent national study by Statistics Canada (Abada, Hou and Ram 2008), for example, found that children of African immigrants have higher rates of university attainment than children of Canadian-born parents, though lower than some other immigrant groups (such as Chinese). However, the sample of African immigrant children in this study is predominantly white (49%) and ‘other visible minority’ (37%), with only 14% of the sample identifying as Black. We do not have any comparable data on patterns of educational attainment among Black African immigrants in Vancouver, but high dropout rates among African youth are a 10 MBC: African Immigrant Settlement in Vancouver great concern in a community that stresses higher education and recognizes its importance for social mobility in Canada (Francis 2010). Many African immigrant parents express fears that they might ‘lose’ their children, particularly their sons, if they reject African identity and values and thereby compromise future prospects by dropping out of school or, in worst case scenarios, getting involved in criminal behaviour (Matsuoka and Sorenson 2001; Creese 2011).

A recent national study on the needs of immigrant and refugee children and youth identified twelve issues that present particular settlement challenges for youngsters (Chuang 2009). These challenges include: learning a new language; peer relationships and ‘fitting in’; negotiating the Canadian school system; difficulty accessing programs that facilitate integration; understanding Canadian norms and expectations; aggressive or delinquent behavior; redefining parent-child relationships; poverty; post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues; parent-child separation anxiety (particularly among young refugee children); strict parental discipline; and racism and discrimination. These complex and interconnected challenges confronting teen newcomers are recognized by immigrant settlement agencies, but effective programming is often stymied by piecemeal and inadequate funding within the sector, which means that there are limited services directed at immigrant teens (Chuang 2009; Francis 2010; ISS of BC 2009; Kilbride and Anisef 2001).

A recent study of programs and services for African youth in Metro Vancouver identifies a series of “missing links” between the needs of African immigrant and refugee youth and access to information and services, particularly related to employment, education, and social adjustments that lead to “negative forms of integration, or social exclusion” (Francis 2010,85). As one Ontario study of ‘at risk’ newcomer youth (Killbride and Anisef 2001) points out, the

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