Life as a Young Refugee: Kamal Adam

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

As a New Zealander, I am proud that we live in a country that is able to help people in need. What I am less proud to know is that we have one of the lowest refugee quotas in the world, sitting at only 1,500 refugees a year. New Zealand has the capacity for many more but, with the impact of Covid-19, that quota is unlikely to be met.

It is needless to say that refugees and immigrants have a lot to offer, especially refugee youth. One such youth is Kamal Adam. Kamal is chairperson of the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council; a council aimed at making New Zealand a better place for refugee youth through policy change. I was lucky enough to speak with him and learn a little about his life.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

As a New Zealander, I am proud that we live in a country that is able to help people in need. What I am less proud to know is that we have one of the lowest refugee quotas in the world, sitting at only 1,500 refugees a year. New Zealand has the capacity for many more but, with the impact of Covid-19, that quota is unlikely to be met.

It is needless to say that refugees and immigrants have a lot to offer, especially refugee youth. One such youth is Kamal Adam. Kamal is chairperson of the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council; a council aimed at making New Zealand a better place for refugee youth through policy change. I was lucky enough to speak with him and learn a little about his life.

Kamal Adam tells me that his family have been refugees for over 20 years. His parents first moved from Somalia to Yemen in 1995 to get away from the Somali civil war. Being a refugee is a difficult and stressful time, especially in Yemen, he tells me. Even though refugees can work and study there, they are still technically illegal in the Middle East. When the Middle Eastern civil war hit Yemen in 2011, Kamal and his family moved to Indonesia.

“I just remember me, my mother, and my five siblings just grab, literally, three bags, that’s all,” he says. They did not know anybody, nor the language, and knew nothing about the country. Initially cast as asylum seekers, they eventually gained refugee status after three years.

“If you’ve been in other countries as a refugee and you move to another country, you cannot be classified as a refugee again. You need to start from the bottom as an asylum seeker and then, after a couple of interviews, you would be accepted as a refugee, or not,” Kamal says.

The family moved to New Zealand in 2015, about a year after they were officially recognised as refugees. Kamal was 15 at the time. He says that moving to New Zealand was wonderful, but that he thought things would be easier.

“You think the struggle will decrease – and somehow it will decrease – but there’s a new challenge and there’s a new world that comes right in front of you,” he says. Kamal reckons that the ages of between five and ten do not necessarily have so much of a challenge, but the older you are, the more issues you may face. One of them, fitting into society.

For ‘a young person growing up and finding [their] place in the world, fitting into [a] unique society is an overwhelming task. Every society is different and poses different challenges for refugee youth, whether they are educational, linguistic, economic, psychosocial, or cultural’ (Rossiter, Hatami, Ripley & Rossiter, 2015).

Kamal says he has had issues with his cultural identity all his life. Displacement and identity loss are rife, especially because many refugee youth are not born in their ethnic country. Ethnically a Somalian but born in Yemen as a refugee, he says that he never even got a proper birth certificate. “I was born as a refugee and had a refugee form as my birth certificate. I didn’t have any right there. You’re literally gonna have a piece of paper saying: date of birth, you’re a refugee, and then your ethnicity down below.”

Just that fact alone makes it clear that he has been forced to centre his identity around being a refugee. He says that a big personal struggle is finding where he most belongs, especially because no matter where he settles, he will always be asked where he comes from.

“If I go back to Somalia, a lot of people will say ‘Where are you from?’ and I say ‘I’m from Somalia,’ people would say ‘No, your accent is not from Somalia’ even if I can speak Somali and I look Somali – and if I go back to Yemen, they will still ask me where I’m from because I don’t look like them.” Kamal is trying to find his lost identity but admits: “I’m still struggling, to be honest.”

He had the same issue in both Indonesia and New Zealand, where people would also ask where he was from. So, Kamal has to say that his ethnicity is Somali, but he was born in Yemen, lived in Indonesia, and now in New Zealand.

“Rather than saying one word I have to cut my answer in pieces and divide them so, yeah, loss of identity and trying to fit into society are struggles for refugee youth.”

Kamal says some of the most difficult hurdles are also things like having to adapt to multicultural surroundings while also trying to follow his own traditional culture.

Being part of the LGBTQIA+ community came with challenges, too, especially as a Muslim. “So those issues are quite difficult and just in general, to be honest, when you come to a new country, there’s a new language, new people, new system; it’s like you’re a newborn person.”

However, immigrant and refugee youth are incredibly resilient. One thing he says really helped was joining the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council in 2019. After the Christchurch attack, Kamal says it was the first time he felt like he really belonged. He connected with those youths growing up in New Zealand, who had all been through the same thing of trying to fit in with either their sexualities, religions, or races.

Some of the success that Kamal has found here in New Zealand has been due to the communities that he’s part of. When his family moved, the New Zealand Somali community was incredibly supportive. One of the things that they helped most with was teaching them all how to speak English. “When we came here my mum used to speak English as well, that was good, kind of like helping us to understand. She always said ‘Oh, people speak so fast’,” he laughs.

On top of the language barriers, Kamal tells me that he was struck with a great deal of culture shock when he moved to New Zealand. “When I came to New Zealand, that was the first time I saw alcohol because we were from a Muslim country. New Zealand is so relaxed; there’s no judgement about your religion, where you’re from, or that kind of stuff.” He says to me that the culture shock for older people might be a little more intense, because the younger you are, the more likely you are to assimilate into a new culture.

“Maybe the older people would [struggle with] accepting lot of that new culture because they still have their own traditions, their mind already being settled. That’s why they’re stuck with their ‘bubbles’,” he says. Many ethnic communities are afraid to open and expand their bubbles. As someone who has had a multicultural upbringing, Kamal says it is amazing when they do open and the two cultures mix. For half of his teenage life, he grew up here extending his bubble to others and now has dozens of multicultural friends from different ethnicities.

Within his own culture, Kamal and his family practise the Muslim religion. They celebrate two Eid (holidays), Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The first celebration is Eid al-Fitr (“the feast of breaking the fast”) which lasts three days and marks the end of Ramadan, a month-long fast. The second is Eid al-Adha lasting four days, also known as “feast of the sacrifice”. For these Eid, Kamal says they wake up early in the morning to do their prayers in a large place that the community rents out for everyone.

“When we were in Yemen, [we] would exchange some dishes for Eid which is beautiful, and my mum still does it,” Kamal tells me. “In the four corners of our house, she gives the dishes for Eid and Ramadan when we start the fasting month. So my mum still keeps that tradition going, which is really amazing.”

As for what we could do, as a country, to be more welcoming for refugees, Kamal says that acknowledging they are refugees without asking where they come from would be a big step. Although it is not something that can be fixed quickly, he says that the question puts stress on youth who may be struggling with their identity and who might not know how to express that. This is something that he says the New Zealand National Refugee Youth Council have been working to improve.

 

 

Source: 1. Immigrant and refugee youth settlement experiences: “A new kind of war”. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies

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