The quest for home of European Somali families in Britain

Brexit has created many challenges for EU families and their children who had made the decision to migrate to live in the UK. More importantly, it has unsettled their notions of ‘home’ for the majority of them. The questions of ‘where home is?’ and ‘where one belongs to?’ hit hardest particularly upon the secondary-migrant Somalian Muslim families and their children living in Britain; families who initially sought asylum in various countries in Europe – mainly in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries – and consequently gained citizenship there after having left their homeland to escape the civil war in Somalia during the 1990s.

Already ‘settled in mobility’, a considerable number of European Somali families then decided to make the  UK ‘home’ by moving from relatively small, mixed towns and cities in the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Belgium to cities in Britain which already had established Somali communities and a concentration of other ethnic minority groups since 2000. The reasons for their onward migration are complex and multi-faceted, but the perception of the UK as being tolerant to cultural and religious expressions of their identities is seen as the most important one (van Liempt, 2011).  This was  also strongly reflected in our own research project which looked at the lived experiences of secondary-migrant Somalian Muslim families with full European citizenship status living in Birmingham – the city which was described as ‘home’ – with a focus on identity and belonging aftermath of the Brexit vote.

Our respondents’ stories have provided important insights into their journeys to Birmingham and their pre-Brexit and post-Brexit feelings and emotions; about the challenges and negotiations of their identities, sense of belongings and sense of home; their attitudes toward their future and their place within the community, British society and Europe in the context of highly uncertain environment created by the decision to leave the EU.

Already presented with multiple complexities relating to their constructions of their identity and belonging(s) as a result of their attachments and identifications with multiple places, multiple migration experiences, multiple communities and multiple nation-states, the Brexit process has been shaken their sense of belonging to the core, threatening their sense of who they are and their feelings of being ‘at home’ a great deal. The feeling of being rejected by the political project of Brexit undermined their emotional identifications with Birmingham, Britishness and Britain. For some, it initiated searches for new places to migrate, understandings of who they are and where they belong to; others were so unsettled that they even expressed how Brexit had evoked the overwhelming feeling of not belonging to anywhere or anything. The intimate feelings of being ‘at home’ were once more threatened and made insecure for those families. The quote below by one of our participants with three children sums this up in the most compelling way:

I was scared. Definitely. Because I did start a new life here and I thought: ‘Oh my god, do I have to start again?’ I don’t want to go back and start again. I am already settled and I am tired of moving around to be honest at this stage of my life. I am finally settled and then the vote came and it was like ‘Oh my god!’ […] The question is more like ‘Where do you feel is home?’. I am still finding that. And I am 32. So right now I am still finding myself! I am still finding a sense of belonging. I have never been back home [Switzerland] since I was here, but Somalia never! […] No, Brexit has made it worse! It has made it worse because […] now you really do not know where you are. You have been fighting: fighting to find somewhere and now with Brexit – I am lost! Now, I am thinking about my kids actually because I can feel the pain of not belonging anywhere.” (Interviewee 4, Female)

By Ozlem Young, Researcher, University of Birmingham

Photograph: Dr Chris Allen, Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Birmingham @DrChrisAllen

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