EU Resettlement Network

Finding a new identity and helping out: An important and challenging role for young Burmese refugees in Sheffield

Dr Geff Green, Principal Lecturer in Communication at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, reflects on his research with resettled Burmese and Karen refugees in Sheffield and particular on the experiences of young people resettled to the city....

'The young people from the Karen refugee community in Sheffield have a unique and important role to play in their new community of nearly 300. They find themselves carrying a great deal of responsibility as they try to establish themselves ins a strange city and an unfamiliar country and their search of a new identity is sometimes expressed in the way they dress. Many of them were born in the refugee camps on the Thai border with Burma and others fled with their parents from conflict areas during the many periods of warfare between the Karen and the Burmese Military (tatmadaw) in the Karen territories of Burma.

Now they find themselves in the school, college and university system in the UK and find they have a lot to learn. They have to learn English of course. They also encounter unfamiliar subjects and new ways of teaching which take some adjustment. They have to deal with the curiosity and sometimes hostility of local youths in the school environment. Being the new kid in school is a challenge to anyone's sense of identity, but when coming from a completely different environment in almost every way from the UK, this presents some significant challenges.

In addition to these hurdles, their ability to adapt to their new situation means that they are also called upon to support their elders who change more slowly. This is due to their age, previous trauma and also less exposure to British culture and less educational opportunities. The youngsters often need to help the elders with paying bills, visits to doctors, talking to social services and so on.

The elders fear that the young people will move away from their traditions in dress and language and so they organise special classes for the younger kids in Karen dialects and dance. They are helped by local Baptist church groups who provide spaces for them to use. Meanwhile the youngsters seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards tradition as their parents see it. They are adopting a variety of dress styles and they vary these depending on their company and situation. They are acutely aware of the ignorance about their place of origin amongst the British population at large and seem to actively avoid the questions from their British peers which traditional dress seem to prompt along with the long explanations which are required about where they come from and who they are.

Some have said that they don't have much in common with British kids and tend to find more affinity with youngsters from other immigrant communities and this shows itself in the way that some dress in what might be described as a 'hip-hop' style, but perhaps more interesting than this, others seem to be adopting a kind of pan-Asian style of dress possibly influenced by Jap-rock, Korean-Pop and associated Asian clothing fashions.

These young people represent the hopes and fears of their elders and although not all of them are succeeding in the school system, they are showing resilience and are finding some interesting ways of expressing their identity through the way they dress. They are also sophisticated communicators being a hub for the technologies used to communicate with their international diaspora as well as the more mundane but crucial support they provide for their elders on a daily basis. They are helping to a build a platform for the future stability of themselves and their families and most still hope to return to Thailand and maybe Burma in the future to provide help and support to their communities there.'

In 2009, Dr Green and his colleagues worked together with SHARE Partner the British Refugee Council on the Burmese Community Reporters Project, which aimed to create opportunities for Burmese refugees in Sheffield to increase their communication and IT skills.  Click here and here to view articles by Dr Green and Dr Eleanor Lockley on communication practices and perspectives of Karen refugees in Sheffield.