Young refugees feel more at home in cities when they can be young

Twee jongens die elkaar vrolijk begroeten en een hand geven.

Young people with a refugee background who settle in a city benefit from a diverse urban culture. They tend to feel at home in their new city more quickly when they meet other young people at festivals, community centres or on the street – people whose interests in music, art or sports they share. Important aspects in such contacts are their origin and their personal refugee history. Principally, though, encounters of this kind are about sharing experiences. In addition, the newcomers enrich urban culture by introducing new types of music and subcultures.

These are findings from Everyday experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers in public spaces, a European research project in which urban geographer Ilse van Liempt has been involved over the past three years via Utrecht University.

Cities offer space for encounters

Portret van Ilse van Liempt
Ilse van Liempt

"The focus in asylum policy is often on housing, language and employment. What this study clearly shows however is that the integration of young refugees tends to take place in the informal circuit, where they meet other young people in a more casual environment. And we see that an urban context – while certainly also leading to exclusion – has a lot to offer this group of newcomers, because of the mix of communities they can connect with."

Use of urban public space

"Cities have sports facilities, entertainment venues and hang-outs were young people can meet each other. In the study, young people stated explicitly that it was precisely in these places that they could escape the stigma of being a refugee and be 'young' among other young people. Through shared interests, they become part of a specific subculture. This strengthens their sense of being welcome," says Van Liempt. Sara, a young Syrian woman from Amsterdam-Noord, is a case in point. She uses public space to engage in kickboxing. In this way she has found a setting where, for a moment, she can forget all her worries; a place that gives her a sense of being at home in Amsterdam.

In the city young refugees can escape the stigma of being a refugee and be “young” among other young people

Sense of belonging

The venues where newcomers meet other young people also gave them a sense of direction in life. Some young people who were struggling with nightmares as a result of their journey and experiences as refugees took up sports in the evening so as to fall asleep more easily afterwards. Personal encounters with other young people also helped them cope with traumatic experiences and feel less lonesome. They distinguished between appreciated but functional contacts with social workers, and long-term friendships with other young people they met in their spare time.

Cultural enrichment

In addition, the study showed that young refugees introduce new subcultures that enrich urban culture. For example, more and more cities in the Netherlands now offer shisha (water pipe) lounges where young people come together to smoke. They have brought this tradition from the Arab world. Likewise, new music or dance styles enter urban culture via young newcomers.

Field research

Jongeren in het park

Ilse van Liempt coordinated the research in the Netherlands. Together with Mieke Kox and Rik Huizinga, she studied how young people with a refugee background find their way in metropolitan Amsterdam. "We conducted participatory field research in community centres where we worked as volunteers teaching language lessons, combined with qualitative interviews. We also organised photovoice workshops with a professional photographer, in which refugee youth described specific locations in the city using photos they had taken themselves."

Book Refugee Youth: Migration, Justice and Urban Space

The research findings on how young people with a refugee background find their place in urban environments and how this stimulates their sense of belonging, are described in a book entitled 'Refugee Youth: Migration, Justice and Urban Space’. In the book, several authors zoom in on the experiences of young newcomers in various countries. The research was carried out in four European cities: Leipzig, Amsterdam, Newcastle and Brussels. In addition, authors were asked to give an impression of this process in other geographical contexts. For example, the book contains chapters about young refugees in Istanbul, Amman, Johannesburg, Kinshasa and Dar es Salaam.