Young people in circulation and the re-construction of complex selves

by Thea Shahrokh

Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     1      : Representation of personal relationships by young woman of Somali descent (age 18)

Figure 1: Representation of personal relationships by young woman of Somali descent (age 18)

The lived experience of being a young person who moves via migration can manifest itself in a circulating identity. This is where the experience of moving, of having once moved, and of moving in the future contribute to a layering of moments, relationships, places, and decisions that in turn circulate within oneself. For many young migrants, this circulation is often accompanied by a fracturing of control over the question: ‘Who am I?’. The breaking down of one’s identity in turn makes it difficult for global youth to imagine a ‘collective’ within which they have a legitimate part. This has lasting impact for young people both personally and politically, as it constrains their pursuit of rights and belonging.

The complex and fluid identities of young migrants demands greater attention. Emergent research in South Africa has found that for young people with migration backgrounds, making sense of these circulating identities is particularly challenging. Young people are trying to make meaning of who they are in a context where their lives are further ruptured by everyday xenophobia and a restrictive immigration system that constrains young people’s access to legal immigration status. As documented across diverse global settings, these systems of exclusion can have a deep personal impact on young lives.

In response, this piece outlines how young migrants articulate the complexity of their lives, the meaning they assign to it, and the role of creative, story-based research methodologies in supporting the re-construction of complex selves.

Creative and story-based research

The surfacing of complexity in young migrants’ lives highlights how their social position is intersected by axis of inequality such as gender, sexualities, age, race and nationality. In turn, a homogenous grouping of ‘young migrants’ is challenged, as are the relationships of power that bind certain groups together. The meta-narrative constructed around young people’s lives too often reduces their identities to stereotypes, and their lives as problematic. In its place, an emphasis on complexity has the potential to shift harmful and simplistic ideas.

Creative storytelling approaches in research can help to surface complex and personal accounts of young people’s lived realities. Through group-based and iterative learning processes participants are supported to build an understanding of who they are and how they have lived, and to re-construct future pathways. By incorporating narrative reflection, the re-negotiation of self in relation to others is supported. Visual and embodied creative expression can further enable alternative ways of seeing and knowing. Over time, the many stories that research group members hold are surfaced and woven together into a moment that captures youths' multiplicity and is significant to them.

Narrating complex identities in Cape Town, South Africa

Along with contemporary questions around the politics of belonging, complex histories of movement into and within South Africa have highlighted how migration-related experience can deeply impact a person’s understanding of self in relation to community. Our recent story-based research with 28 young people aged 14-25 in Cape Town aimed to deepen an analysis of these issues. This research took place over nine months and included young people born in South Africa and those not originally from South Africa. As we documented, a broken sense of belonging in young people with migration-related life experience can be related to personal experiences including loss and exploitation alongside experiences of exclusion reinforced within South African Society. Yet to more fully understand the lives of mobile youth, scholars must move beyond what youth may ‘lack’ towards recognising how they are navigating difficult contexts and building their lives.

I’m a square trying to fit into a star on a kiddies’ game. Everybody loves stars. I am a square trying to fit into a heart. Eventually I’m a square trying to fit into a square, because honestly I can’t remember who I am.

Complex lives and selves

For many young people in this research, there was a strong desire to be recognised by diverse social actors and institutions - peers, community members, teachers, social workers, the police, the immigration regime - as complex individuals, rather than singularly as ‘migrants.’ As an 18-year-old youth with Angolan and South African heritage highlights, “I’m a square trying to fit into a star on a kiddies’ game. Everybody loves stars. I am a square trying to fit into a heart. Eventually I’m a square trying to fit into a square, because honestly I can’t remember who I am.” The drive to attain an accepted identity as a child or as someone who gazes at stars limits his self-expression and, ultimately, contributes to a deep uncertainty and ambiguity in his sense of self beyond what others expect of him.

Throughout this research, young migrants argued that recognising complexity in their lives is important—both for being comfortable within themselves and likewise for connecting with others. For young people who move, this complexity brings a possibility of understanding how diverse lives touch and interweave. In addition, as the young people in this process became aware of their own multifaceted identities, they realised how various aspects are silenced by themselves and by others, in turn hindering their capacity to build connections and relationships. Surfacing the complexity of identities – whether at the local level in schools or clinics, or nationally in policy or in the media – is not however a neutral process. Instead, it makes visible the power relations and inequalities that position different groups at the centre or periphery of society. Complexity in this sense is a threat, as it questions the construction of hierarchy and the power of dominant groups.

Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     2      : Young South African woman's self-representation (age 14)

Figure 2: Young South African woman's self-representation (age 14)

Re-constructing self and re-telling narratives

Creative and story-based research approaches direct young people to re-imagine who holds the power to conceptualise and narrate their identities and sense of belonging. In processing past experiences and creatively constructing new ways of telling, young people are able to build their own visual and narrative representations of self and community.

Within this participatory and creative research process, some young people actively engaged in re-constructing their identities. This involved creating counter-narratives which recognised their past while simultaneously exploring how they saw themselves and how they wanted others to see them in their future. Within a digital storytelling process – from writing to image selection to crafting a digital story – one 15-year-old young man from DR Congo changed his self-representation between his written story (script) and recording it digitally. He chose to use imagery to represent his past and present harmful behaviour and enlisted language to articulate his strength, love and motivations for the future. In so doing, he chose not to reify negative opinions of who he and others like him are. Notably, he did not to erase the past but rather layered it into his story through images, creating a more ‘complex’ representation.

This re-telling is similarly exemplified by the story excerpt below of a young Zambian/DR Congolese woman who re-imagines her relationship with her mother, internalising this relationship as a strength rather than exclusively as a loss or abandonment.

Figure 3: Young Zambian/DRC woman's narration of self in relation to other (age 17)   

Figure 3: Young Zambian/DRC woman's narration of self in relation to other (age 17)


It is important to recognise that this learning was not an individualised process, but group-based. Within our group-based processes, learning from diverse young people enabled understanding of others’ contexts and experiences which strengthened reflexivity and nurtured empathy. Young people learned the importance of traveling on a journey alongside someone and finding strength through listening; this addressed feelings of isolation and ‘Othering’ that they experience in their lives. Young people coming together across migration backgrounds, genders, race, nationality and culture provided an opportunity to make sense of their lives and challenges together.

Moving forward with complexity to enhance young migrants’ lives

The participatory, creative and story-based approach proves important for supporting young people to critically engage with their identities, how they are constructed, and where they belong. The open and emergent nature of the work enabled young people to ‘safely’ explore and experiment in who they are--both independently and with each other. As young people’s narratives shifted and evolved, so did the depth of understanding in their lives.

The complexity of their identities rather than the simplicity of a ‘truth’ emerged.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues, moving beyond a ‘single story’ enables an understanding of a shared humanity that is often lost when young migrants are demonised and Othered. Furthermore, this richness of understanding provides deeper insights into how and why change happens in the lives of young people with migration-backgrounds. This, in turn, can strengthen the ways they are supported and positioned in society.

Identities thus must be understood as shifting, relational and dynamic rather than fixed or essentialised. For young people with migratory experiences, it appears necessary to surface and claim ownership of the complexity of their identities, even whilst they are constrained by boundaries of power. That said, it is insufficient for only young people’s understanding of who they are to shift; so too must the state and society’s harmful narratives be transformed. Where this transformation is possible for young people, however, it provides an opportunity for young migrants to lead the way.

In South Africa, the young people involved in this process, alongside other collectives, are leveraging their learning to support young people, NGOs, service providers and UN agencies to understand who they are, their humanity, their rights, and their claims to belonging. The questions I ask myself throughout are: How can we as researchers, activists, academics and advocates continue to work in collaboration with young people to amplify their work? How can we impact the harmful and limiting meta-narratives that circulate globally--and within youths' own lives?


Thea Shahrokh is currently  a doctoral researcher in the Migration, Displacement and Belonging group at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, UK. Drawing on cases from Cape Town, her research is focused on questions of agency, identities and belonging for young people with migration-related life experience. Thea works through creative and participatory methodologies with a focus on the ethics, inclusivity and politics of knowledge production working for social justice. Previously Thea was located at the Institute of Development Studies where a large body of her work explored collective action in addressing sexual and gender-based violence, including in South Africa, and with refugees in Uganda.

More information – Transformative Story: An online Handbook for Creative Storytelling

Contact Thea and follow Thea on Twitter: @TheaShahrokh