From Mogadishu to Istanbul: An auto-ethnography on childhood, migration and education

By Eda Elif Tibet

Prior to a radio broadcast, I asked youth residing in a shelter for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Turkey to draw his dream of an ideal life. Showing them the outline of a world map with no country names and no borders, I asked them to draw their dreams of living any place they wanted. Below is an excerpt from my conversation with Caadil.

Elif:          Caadil, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Caadil:     My name is Caadil, I am from Somalia. I came in 2012 into Turkey. I am living in Istanbul and I am a student. Would this be enough?

Elif:          Sure, thank you. Today, I asked Caadil to draw his dream. Could you tell us something about what you drew?

Caadil:     I draw something like this; far away, there is an island. I have a small boat, a small house, and I have a beautiful tree. I have some vegetables and then there is a flag that will bring peace to my island. The world is truly an annoying place; therefore, this is the picture of someone who wants to stay on his own, someone who wants to be left alone.

Elif:          Caadil, most of the times, I too feel the same way as you do—how much I wish to be away from the maddening crowd. But what about friends? Don’t you have friends that are dear to you at your high school, for instance?

Caadil:     Yes, I have some very good friends. Sometimes they ask me questions like, what kind of animal would you be if you were one? And I tell them that I would have liked to be a butterfly. I could have lived only for a day and then die. They only live for 18 hours. Then they ask me, but why? And I tell them that I want to stay away from the world. I want to get lost but I am joking; it’s not real. I actually don’t want to be anyone or anything, and I also don’t want to die too early.


During the activity, Caadil receives a phone call from his mother. By the time he ends his prolonged conversation with her, Caadil walks towards the world map hung on the wall. Spotting his hometown in Somalia, he begins to recount his migration story with great fluidity.

Al-Shabaab has killed my father during the civil war. My mother took all of us [two sisters and two brothers] and we escaped up north. My mother still lives together with my sisters that are about to finish high school there. It would be very hard for them to continue university, as it is extremely expensive. So, my mother sold her farmlands, and paid to the smugglers to take us out from Somalia. But only for me and my one year elder brother. The girls, she told me, that will stay with her. She told us that we could have built a better future for ourselves if we decide to leave but if we were to stay it was very likely that the murderers of our father would come after us too.

“We followed a group of twenty people that were leaded by a man who knew the roads very well.  We firstly went to the Emirates, we spent some time there close to Dubai and then we crossed to Damascus in Syria in 2012, which we found ourselves once again in the middle of the war. We were locked in a house in a single room with nearly thirty people and we did not see the sun light nearly for six months. I was nearly suffocating at some point, and not wanting to wait for more, a few of us separated from the bigger group and continued. We walked during the night and hid during the days. We luckily managed to find all our way to Istanbul, in which we have spent a month staying in a room in Aksaray. 

“As our money finished and the smuggler did not hold his promise to take us to Norway. We found ourselves stuck in Istanbul and not able to pay for the rent. While we were in great destitution a friendly old black man came, and informed us about UNHCR. He told us about our rights to apply for asylum. We had no other option but to try. He took us to the police, and the police took us to UNHCR, they firstly took us to a hotel, they listened to our story and then sent us to the shelter Istanbul. Can you imagine? We were only 13 and 14 years old when we were crossing these roads. We had to go through a lot; we had to endure all of it.”

Conducting a radio programme with youth enabled young refugees to narrate their own stories by participating as researchers, ethnographers, presenters, scriptwriters, performers, artists, interviewers, producers, sound engineers, and content makers; the roles depended on their choices and at spaces also outside the radio room in the streets of Istanbul.[1] For example, Caadil leveraged his interest in cameras and visual and sociological studies, creativity contributing to the project while also honing professional skills he saw as important to accessing higher education later in life. Other young people were also attracted to expressing their experiences through their own lenses becoming ethnographers of their own lives (Oester & Brunner, 2015). I secured four second hand digital SLR cameras that youth utilized—both alone and collaboratively—discovering their own worlds at any time they wished.

In the vein of Paulo Freire’s ‘hinged themes’, the stories youth produced illustrated the relations between the general programme content of the radio show and their own worldviews (Freire, 1972: 92). According to Freire, such participatory learning processes address oppression, as the oppressed themselves advance and actualize a pedagogy of their own liberation (Freire, 1972).  The researcher becomes the learner who must cast off assumptions and expectations and remain open to new approaches and possibilities that emerge. Through this collaborative approach, notions of authority are flattened, creating space for youth to develop their own narratives on their own terms.

Caadil’s photographs revealed the deep sadness resulting from forced migration. His keen interest in discussing his photographs animated our radio sessions. As Harper (2002: 23) describes: “Photographs appear to capture the impossible: a person gone; an event past. That extraordinary sense of seeming to retrieve something that has disappeared belongs alone to the photograph, and it leads to deep and interesting talk.” For Caadil, he unconsciously produced photographs that were inspired by his past memories. As he explored his surroundings, he produced aesthetically provocative photographs while simultaneously discovering his inner-world marked by existential questions about life, childhood, and belonging. His photographs were phenomenologically experienced, insightful and also self-reflective.

Below are some examples of Caadil’s photographs and the meanings he assigns to them.


Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

Uprooted. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Can a tree ever give up on his roots? If it does, it can’t drink water anymore; it will die. I wonder sometimes: Why did my mother send us away? Why did not all of us live in another village? I could have built a hut from wood for all of us, next to the sea. I could have made a boat and fish for all my family; we could even open a restaurant. Maybe we wouldn't earn that much but we wouldn't go hungry; I am sure about that. But perhaps the rebels would have found us there too, and we would have had to leave everything behind once again, and we would have to live running away all the time, like a fugitive, so I suppose my mother must have known something that we did not understand at that time. Otherwise why would she send us so far away? I ask this question all the time to myself, and sometimes I just cannot sleep, thinking all about the ifs: What if we stayed? What if we never migrated? How would have life been, back there?”


These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

These trains go nowhere. Photo credits: Caadil.

“While we are dying, people are only watching. And we are watching for these trains leaving, but we are never the real passengers, as when it comes to us, these trains go nowhere.”

For Caadil, staying in Turkey is a temporary phase. He mentions that it is impossible for him to see a future where he will not have the same rights and opportunities as the citizens of Turkey. He says he will lose his mind. Without the right to work, it would be virtually impossible to earn a living on his own. He also described that not being able to travel is particularly terrible; when he dreams, he recounts, his dreams are about exploring and discovering different cultures and tastes, particularly visiting Iran of which Ali has a great interest in its people and culture. Without travel, he would suffer.


Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

Catastrophe on the sea. Photo credits: Caadil.

“There is no such thing as preferring to stay in Turkey. Everyone wants to go, because we have no rights and opportunities here. We, the ones who stay here, are either still waiting to leave or actually have failed many times going to Europe. Some of my friends were nearly drowned in the Mediterranean. It is a true catastrophe in the sea.”


“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“When every day is the same”. Photo credits: Caadil.

After becoming more self-aware of who he is, where he is now, and where he is leading to, this time he turns his lens to his friends and tries understanding the other minors that share similar contexts with him. The photograph “When every day is the same” is of his best friend from Afghanistan. “Unfortunately he is depressed most of the times. He sleeps a lot, and I try to cheer him up,” Caadil explains. “You know, we are like brothers, he is much closer to me then a brother in fact.”

“When I was 14, in my earliest days in [the shelter], there was an Iranian boy. He was small and had a pretty face. Afghans in the dorm, bullied him all the time. They were so mean to him. I always tried protecting and saving him from their hands.  Later on, as I started to speak their language, I made a really good friend among the Afghans. He was not treating anyone badly; he told me that he too was bullied during his entire life. But not by the Afghans, by Iranians back in Tehran. He told me that at school he was like an invisible. No one talked to him; no one wanted to be friends with him. Even if he studied till the last grade, he was not able to receive a diploma because of his status (he was an undocumented Afghan born and raised in Iran). But, Afghans and Iranians never had a war. The Hazaras even speak the same language. How is it possible that in schools Iranians and Afghans never talk to each other, they do not build relationships, as if Afghans do not exist? How is this possible and why? Since 95% of the Afghans I met here come from Iran, they all tell me how awful their lives were in Iran how they did not have the opportunity to study and those schooled were simply invisible in their classes. I want to understand why. For instance, in Ethiopia there are many Somalis living by and they are able to live like locals, but why is life simply not possible for the Afghans in Iran?”

Caadil asks important questions about discrimination and the challenges of integration; moreover, he offers insight into ethnic segregation towards Afghans in Iranian schools. He is prompted to find answers and solutions to his friend’s case, a friend who was struggling with the mundane and impermanent state of the everyday life and therefore was depressed. Despite sharing similar anxieties about the uncertainties they experience, Caadil mentions how learning is the most important thing for him: “Although I want to be spared from the world, I still need to know what is going on, not only to survive, but I need to be able to understand why things are the way they are. I need to remain awaken. I need to understand the world.”


“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“No education, no safety”. Photo credits: Caadil.

“Many of my Afghan brothers are working in the construction sites here in Istanbul. They did the same back in Iran or also in Pakistan I heard. For me it is obvious, if you don’t get education this is the only option for you. And as you can see in this image, this man works without a helmet. He is on the top floor and the wooden structure that he stands on looks very fragile. It is also interesting, you see it looks as if there is a cross on him, it is as if giving us a message: don't work this way, you are not safe.”

Here, Caadil links education to safety. If one can access education, there are more possibilities for a safer future. Caadil is only one of the few who managed to access education, in part, due to his aptitude in photography. For many unaccompanied youth in Turkey, there are considerable barriers to accessing and remaining in college, barriers that many unaccompanied youth asylum seekers cannot overcome.

Postscript: Given his talents, Caadil applied to the photograph and video department at a private prominent university in Istanbul with his photography project “Childhood and Migration” that he developed our workshops together. Caadil’s was awarded a full college scholarship; however, following a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July of 2016, the education system entered a crisis, with cuts to foreign student scholarships, including Caadil’s. With considerable advocacy on his behalf, Caadil was offered a 50% scholarship with ongoing efforts to fundraise the remaining fees and tuition. Given that less then 1% of the world’s refugee population have access to higher education, Caadil’s success is remarkable. If you would like to support his education, please see our crowdfunding campaign. For further enquiries, please contact

About the Author: Eda Elif Tibet is a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Bern and a Research Assistant at Pädagogische Hochschule PHBern. This paper is part of an ongoing doctoral dissertation, a joint collaboration between the University of Bern’s Social Anthropology department and the University of Teacher Education, PHBern, entitled “Transnational Biographies of Education: Young Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers and their Navigation through Shifting Social Realities in Switzerland and Turkey” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.  The study is supervised by Prof. Dr. Sabine Strasser and Prof. Dr. Kathrin Oester, realized by Dr. Annika Lems in Switzerland, and Eda Elif Tibet in Turkey.

To learn more about this project, visit and read: E.E.Tibet. (forthcoming, 2017) “Learning as Agency: Strategies of Survival among the Somali Unaccompanied Minor Asylum Seekers in Turkey” in Handbook on Migration and Childhood. Edited by Jacqueline Bhabha, Daniel Senovilla Hernandez, Jyothi Kanics). UK: Elgar Publishing.


Aunger, R. (1995) On Ethnography: Storytelling or Science? Current anthropology. Special Issue: Ethnographic Authority and Cultural Explanation 36(1): 97-130.

Escueta, M. and S. Butterwick (2012). The power of popular education and visual arts for trauma survivors’ critical consciousness and collective action. International Journal of Lifelong Education 31(3): 325-340.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books.

Harper, D. (2002) Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies 17(1): 13-26.

Oester, K. and Brunner, B. (2015) Jean Rouch Back in School Teaching and Research as a Parallel Process through Media Projects with Adolescents in Switzerland. Visual Ethnography 4(1): 5-23

UNICEF (2011) “How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit” in collaboration with Children Radio Foundation.

[1] How to make your own radio shows: Youth Radio Toolkit (UNICEF 2011)




Visualizing Immigrant Youth in Phoenix

Kristin Koptiuch

Arizona State University-West

Though largely unrecognized by official planning instruments and unacknowledged by the public in anti-immigrant Arizona, immigrants are transforming metropolitan Phoenix. Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix, a student-faculty research collaborative I direct at Arizona State University, explores these transformations by engaging its audience through vibrant visualization of immigrants’ imprint upon the Phoenix urban environment. This project occurs at a time when immigrants are increasingly demonized, criminalized, and denied due process. Our work responds by according due importance to migrants’ creative and deliberate impacts on everyday urbanism in transnationalizing cities.

In an era of unprecedented human mobilities, Phoenix diversity is not unexpected for a major American city. Current US Census data shows 20% of city residents are foreign born, 65% coming from Mexico, and 41% of the city population is Latinx. Stymied by reigning anti-immigrant sentiment, city residents and civic leaders are reluctant to acknowledge—let alone cultivate—creative ways that migrants already influence the city as informal, unintentional urban planners-from-below. Our projects track the ways in which immigrants have revived stagnant neighborhood economies, brought magical-realist redesign to the cityscape, added colorful flair to the city’s subdued design palette, infused global youth practices, and transnationalized Phoenix urbanism with local outcroppings of global religions, cuisines, cultures.

Immigrant and diaspora youth in particular play a critical role in bringing this realization into view. Our youthful team of undergraduate researchers brought fresh perspectives from their own migrant and diaspora communities. The inclusion of a Somali refugee, a first-generation Assyrian-Iraqi, and a Mexican DACA recipient this past spring extended the project’s reach and depth of insight. Although our gaze is not exclusively directed at youth, young migrants frequently do become central to our inquiry as team members engage their own networks to pursue their research.

Origins of the Project

Billboard in central Phoenix neighborhood (2012), Kristin Koptiuch

Billboard in central Phoenix neighborhood (2012), Kristin Koptiuch

Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix is an extension of my long-term commitment to teaching, researching, and visualizing the impact of immigrants on metropolitan Phoenix, where I’ve lived for 25 years. Having taught courses on migration and worked with migrant advocacy organizations, I began to create ethnographic photo essays to defuse Arizonans’ hyper-sensitivity toward immigration, integrating emotion and affect with a resistant critical gaze (e.g. Cruzando Fronteras/Crossing Phoenix,” 2012). To integrate students into these initiatives, I successfully applied for modest funding through a unique student-faculty research program offered by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, which provides student teams with a budget of $500 and modest student stipends or two academic credits.

Thus far we have completed some two dozen photo essays and curated photo sets, accompanied by short descriptive and analytical ethnographic narratives. Researchers submitted drafts of their essays and photos, and revised them in response to my editorial comments and suggestions into finished projects, showcased on our website. At once visually stimulating and thought-provoking, we sought to share them with “live” audiences in a manner that preserved the immersive, visually rich digital format of the website presentations. We’ve experimented by creating an exhibition of our urban visual ethnography project, anchored by enlarged photos that capture the project’s key themes (immigrant portraits, artifacts, events, neighborhoods, businesses, landscapes).

Exhibit at Arizona State University-West (2017), Kristin Koptiuch

Exhibit at Arizona State University-West (2017), Kristin Koptiuch

Presented first at the 2017 Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Santa Fe and then at our own West campus of Arizona State University, the exhibit also includes video shorts, sonic atmospherics, live website projection, a portfolio of printouts of individual projects, banners, promo materials, and QR codes that take viewers’ mobile phones straight to the website. To better engage our audience, we took seriously the truism that, welcome or not, “we are all immigrants.” Our interactive portrait booth (now featured on our website) drew an enthusiastic response from over 100 visitors who declared their solidarity as immigrants and their descendants.

Youth Circulations in Phoenix

Folkdance class, Assyrian Student Association of Arizona, Crystal Cespedes

Folkdance class, Assyrian Student Association of Arizona, Crystal Cespedes

Several of our stories track young migrants as they circulate through the city and beyond. For instance, many Iraqi refugees have resettled in metro Phoenix over the last 20 years, including Assyrian and Chaldean Christian minorities. Crystal Cespedes’ interview with a first-generation US-born Assyrian leader of the Assyrian Student Association of Arizona briefly unpacks the origins of Assyrian ethnics in Phoenix and highlights the importance accorded to education and cultural preservation by the student club at Arizona State University, through peer instruction of folk dances to traditional music.

Teaching modern Aramaic, Ileen Younan

Teaching modern Aramaic, Ileen Younan

The preservation of Assyrian language and history is also foregrounded in Ileen Younan’s piece on instruction in modern Aramaic by a young Iraqi-born teacher to first-generation children through their community church. The church also offers Aramaic education to older Assyrian youth like Younan herself, so they can learn to write and speak their parents’ native language.

Feast at weekly Iraqi family gathering, José Grijalva

Feast at weekly Iraqi family gathering, José Grijalva

José Grijalva’s visit to a weekly family gathering at the home of an Arab Iraqi classmate introduced him to Arab culture, language, and cuisine. Significantly, the lively family interactions and mountains of Middle Eastern food resonated with Grijalva’s experiences at his own Mexican American family’s cookouts in the Arizona border town where he grew up.

Phoenix is also home to post-colonial British diasporic communities whose youth perpetuate their parental legacy in the sport of cricket, an under-represented sport in what is otherwise a highly sports-conscious city. Hussein Mohamed’s short video introduces us to several immigrant and first-generation Pakistani team members of the Arizona Stallions Cricket Club. This is one of 18 Phoenix cricket teams comprised largely of immigrant youth hailing from cricket-playing nations like Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and South Africa. Interviews recount team members’ association of cricket with their families’ immigrant homeland roots.

Cricket match in Phoenix, Hussein Mohamed

Cricket match in Phoenix, Hussein Mohamed

DACAmented youth struggle for belonging and identity, Argenis Hurtado Moreno

DACAmented youth struggle for belonging and identity, Argenis Hurtado Moreno

As is well known, not all migrant youth have the luxury of open visibility. Argenis Hurtado Moreno invites us to hear the stories of two Mexican DACAmented youth, aka DREAMers, who struggle for belonging and identity in the America that enculturated them throughout their youth but stigmatizes them as young adults and legally excludes them from a pathway to citizenship. The two women interviewed express a palpable frustration and sense of injustice toward the nation that refuses to accept them as the exemplary made-Americans that they know they are.

Mexican pointy boot, José Grijalva

Mexican pointy boot, José Grijalva

While doing fieldwork at Mercado de los Cielos, a Mexican makeover of a defunct mall anchor department store, José Grijalva was entranced by an elongated-toe boot on display at a shop selling Mexican cowboy boots. In sleuthing out the meaning this cultural artifact, Grijalva discovered that the Mexican pointy boot links transnational youth circulations on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Dance crews don custom-made boots with points as long as seven feet, offset by color-coordinated skinny jeans and cowboy hats. They perform choreographed steps to a recent style of Mexican music called Tribal, mixing Aztec and African sounds over a cumbia baseline, the DJ tapping into multi-ethnic and autochthonous Mexican roots that may carry special appeal to migrants far from the homeland. These dance competitions are popular in Dallas, Texas, as many Mexican immigrants there come from the state of San Luis, where Tribal is popular. Clearly, the pointy boot is an element of Mexican subcultural style that has easily crossed the border.

The Power of Migrants and the Subversion of the Community[i]

Through the subtle subversion of depicting these everyday migrant crossings and contributions, Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix seeks to intervene in the public perception of migrants in Phoenix. Our stories of migrant youth depict them as resilient as they are vulnerable. Youth are the site of intensive parental investment for perpetuating immigrant cultures, languages, histories (Heidbrink 2014). Yet migrant and diaspora youth connect as fluidly with local practices as they import transnational styles and fads through music, fashion, dance, relationships. Thus, they complicate simplified notions of “preserving” cultural forms. They cross virtual transnational bridges that span the spaces of their daily lives, rendering a subversive ordinariness to crossing borders (Leurs 2015). Their American dreams are defiant, insisting upon the legitimization of all of their global identities (Dissard & Peng 2013).

Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix’ collaborative ethnographic photo essays offer a visually rich counter-narrative to the intensifying discourse of fear promulgated by current instabilities in national and state immigration policies. By centering on migrants’ everyday mobilities, our critical visualization strives to (re)move walls and expand the appreciative embrace of immigrants in our city’s collective gaze.

Works Cited

Arau, S., Arizmendi, Y., & Guerrero, S. (2004). A Day without a Mexican. Televisa Cine.

Dissar, J. and G. Peng. (2013). Documentary: I Learn America.

Heidbrink, L. (2014). Migrant youth, transnational families, and the state: Care and contested interests. University of Pennsylvania Press.

James, S., & Dalla Costa, M. (1972). The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Consultado el5.

Leurs, K. (2015). Digital passages: Migrant youth 2.0. Diaspora, gender and youth cultural intersections.  Amsterdam University Press.

[1] This subtitle evokes the transformative, classic feminist treatise, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972). Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James argued that the centrality of women’s domestic work to the social reproduction of capitalist relations generating surplus value makes women key subversive protagonists in the struggle to re-appropriate the social wealth they produced. Migrants now are similarly positioned; its jokiness aside, films like A Day Without a Mexican (Sergio Arau 2004) show us that popular culture has already grasped the potential subversive power of migrants.

Kristin Koptiuch  is a cultural anthropologist and urban ethnographer who tries to practice anthropology as much performance art as social science. She is associate professor of anthropology in the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University-West.