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What is to be a Refugee (and) Child in the Island?

How do Refugee Children Experience their Lives in the 21st Century England.

(Liana Lewis)

My intention to answer the question “What is to be a Refugee (and) Child in the Island?” is an attempt to bring into the attention the fact that the experience of being a refugee and child in England cannot be represented by a single concept or statement. What I can conclude by getting in touch with the children who took part of my research is that their experience is not determined only by the event of a youthful geographical dislocation. They are not only children who come from another countries to seek sanctuary in England. They are boys, girls, blacks, whites; they come from particular class positions. They are transformed into the Other in different ways, according to particular hierarchies. They are also going to answer to such a movement in accordance with their several positionalities.

I particularly want to challenge the common sense assumption that regards migrant children in general as a group of people who get rapidly assimilated to a new environment as a result of the flexibility due to immaturity. Arriving in a new country, the child will be confronted with specific responses that are a result of the hegemonic culture of the host place, the several ways the groups of such a country are going to represent such children, and how the children themselves will signify the new place and answer the multiple questions their presence evokes.

I want now to introduce you to three of the kids who participated in my research. All of them study in the school where I carried out my participant observation. Maria, eight years old came from Angola with her mum and two teenager sisters. During the classroom observation I noticed that the teacher and children were anglicanising her name, calling her Mary. I asked her how come people were calling her by that name, she responded that in the first day at school the teacher asked her to which way she would like to be called, Maria or Mary. She responded Mary. I ask her then why she made that choice and she replied because the teacher and the students wouldn’t “understand” her name. Besides that, she prefers the name Mary because “It is smaller and more beautiful”. At another moment she said that “Here at home people call me Maria, at school, people call me Mary”.

Indeed, at school, Maria becomes Mary, she internalises the rigid institutional discipline, considered by me as the main ethos of the school. She always responds to the teachers’ commands with a serious face and rigid posture. She internalised the discipline to a degree of applying it to other children telling them off when they don’t attend to the teachers’ expectations. At home, by contrast, she is lively and warm.

Her double consciousness, being Mary at school and Maria at home, seems to be a consequence of the entrance to the white world. It is one of her survival strategies. In the book Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon makes an analysis of the constitution of the subjectivity of the black man as a result of the colonial encounter. Concluding that as a consequence of the colonial violence whiteness became the norm he states that “For the black man (and here I would add the black woman, black boy and black girl) there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Fanon, 1986:12).

During one of the art lectures Maria made a drawing of three girls and one woman as white with blond hair. I asked her who they were and she said they were she, her two sisters and her mum. I pointed out that the people in the drawing were white, to which she replied: “When we were in Angola we were morena [Portuguese word for white people slightly brown skin], but since we’ve arrived in England we are becoming white.” She seems to be internalising the notion of her colour being considered out of order. Indeed, for Maria the destiny is white.

While Maria tries to compromise herself with the white world through the assimilation of the school’s discipline and acceptance of an English name, the blackness of the male child appears to be more problematic. Conditions on the island mean that assimilation is a more difficult strategy for him to pursue, and his own responses place him differently in a hierarchy of Others than Maria.

Armand is a nine years old boy who came from Congo to leave with his aunty. He lost his whole nuclear family in a volcano disaster. Although Armand is a very lively boy and has a good sense of humour, he seems to be experiencing some social problems. Frieda, the coordinator responsible for the refugee children in the school very often complains about his misbehaviour. It looks like he has become the symbol of the problem child. During the playtime he doesn’t have regular friends. On one occasion, seeing him having an argument with some girls at the playground, I asked the dinner lady what was going on to which she replied: “Armand doesn’t need a reason to start a fight”. The fact that there is no reason for him to start a fight means that he is not reacting to anything outside him; he is simply responding to his irrational drives. In this way, the idea that he is a troublemaker is naturalised.

When speaking about some incidents with the kids he points out that he gets bothered when some children think they are stronger then him. The only child he mentions as physically more powerful is a Jamaican boy. His physical supremacy is confirmed by a boy during the literacy lecture. Comforting Armand in relation to a difficulty in writing up a text, the boy says, “You can’t write Armand, but you can run a lot”.

It seems that Armand is starting to be positioned and assuming the stereotype of the black male physically apt/ socially problematic. On the other hand, he seems to understand his difficulties in socializing with the kids as a racial problem. Once he told me in a joking tone that he would like to paint his skin with white. Questioning him why, he replied, “If I paint my skin, if I be white, I can go to, hum. If I am a new person. So I, I’m knowing now. I say that because I want to, I want to have lots of friends.”

Colour and gender are not the only determinants of these children’s lives. The colonial assumption of the superior value of the English language and the idea that such idiom should take over the others, in all or most contexts, is still very current. And the children understand such valorisation and are very active in dealing with it.

A universally imposed language establishes inequality among groups of people; it marks out who is the norm and who are the others. Aasem, eleven years old, a Kurdish girl who came from Turkey with her parents and older brother, tells me that she has difficulties in socialising with the kids at school. Her only friend is a second-generation Turkish/Kurdish girl. She attributes her peer relation difficulties to the fact of having a different language.

Her awareness of the power of the English language is made explicit when she speaks about her occupational future. She says that if she is going to study in a university in England and later goes back to Turkey, she will be able to be a head teacher of a school, since none of the school teachers there speak English. If she stays in England, she wants to be a traffic warden. Speaking Turkish, or not such 'good' English, in England, she will exercise a fairly routine occupation. Speaking English in Turkey she can occupy an intellectual and powerful position. She is very aware of the hierarchy between the languages and takes advantage of that, being very keen on improving her English.

Green Park Primary School is located in a working class area in the Midlands and second-generation Asian children compose the majority of the students. Observing the decoration of the school, assemblies, regular classes and talking to teachers made explicit for me that racist assumptions and colonial and assimilationist perspectives underlie the institutional bias. Walking through the corridors of the school and observing the classrooms’ decoration we can see an attempt at establishing multicultural perspective, which in the words of Troyna (1992) constitutes a liberal response to racism. From my point of view, it helps to propagate racism by denying its existence. The presence of children’s books in several languages, pictures of mosques, black artists, black African children spread around the school seem to constitute an institutional effort to send the message “everybody matters” without taking into account the hierarchies established between the people these pictures represent and the hegemonic culture.

One day, after listening to Frieda’s current complaints in relation to Armand, I asked her why does she think he acts in that way. It is possible to engage with Frieda in this way since she is a thoughtful professional who takes her work with refugee children very seriously. She responded that there is a whole literature related to the “problem” of the black male and that many black kids come from a disorganized family structure. According to her, the fathers of such children often leave the household, not providing a male figure for the boys to identify with. Such discourse and representation of family structure can be found in a particular literature related to Afro-Caribbean children. We must remember, however, that Armand is not Jamaican, he is African; and that his father hasn’t left his house, he died, together with the rest of his nuclear family in a volcano eruption. It is interesting that Frieda cannot understand his behavior as a result of his tragic life history, as a call for help; nor can she understand it as a reaction to the institutional racism, since is common practice among the teachers to pick only on him when other children are misbehaving as well.

While Armand is clearly seen by the institution as the problematic black male child Maria is regarded by the teachers as a very well behaved and “integrated child”. When speaking about her, they stress how disciplined she is and how fast she is in learning English. The assimilationist institutional attitude towards her was made very explicit when they offered her the possibility of the choice of an English name. It was as though they were asking her “Do you want to become one of us or remain yourself?”

In relation to Aasem the response of the school towards her difficulties in socialising is the integrationist notion that she didn’t speak English at the beginning. Although at the present time Aasem speaks very good English, she still faces social difficulties. I understand Aasem’s problem not only as result of her lack of knowledge of the English language, but of being positioned by the children as different, as the one who speaks a “different” language. The difference of her language marks the difference of her as a human being.

Learning English and being white is not enough for Kurdish kids. In the neighbourhood, Irish teenagers call Kurdish teenagers by the word “nigger”. Remember we are speaking of a basically Asian working class area. The refugee children are becoming the others of the others and for that to happen, differences, even ones that don’t exist, like Kurdish children being black, have to be highlighted.

I understand the difficulties of the school in dealing with such issues as a result of its failure to adopt an antiracist perspective, which also takes account of other sources of social differentiation. The school is guided by other coexisting discursive structures especially multiculturalism, integrationism and assimilationism. The institution fails, however, to recognise and tackle the several discriminatory ways that such children are being addressed.

To conclude: in the school, as in the wider society, those children have each mattered in unequal ways. And according to their attributes or what can be ascribed to them - colour, gender, age, social class and their first language - the image of England as an island, as insular, becomes real for them in different ways.


FANON, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

TROYNA, Barry (1992). A Structural Analysis of Multicultural and Antiracist Education Policies. In GILL, Dawn, MAYOR, Barbara and BLAIR, Maud. Racism and Education – Structures and Strategies. London/Newbury Park/New Delhi: Sage Publications and The Open University.