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‘Belonging’ generally continues to be thought of in terms of national sovereignty and borders . . . But these old notions of ‘belonging’ are changing.’

Vivian Gerrand was puzzled when her Somali-Italian-Australian friend asked for information booklets in Italian rather than Somali.  This prompted her to explore ideas around migrant identity and belonging.

Interview by Keryn Reynolds
 

‘AT THE heart of my studies was the question, what does it mean to be Somali in a new place? 

My studies examined various artistic representations of Somali identity to see if they showed themes of inclusion and belonging, or depicted feelings of alienation and reinforced existing assumptions and stereotypes. In particular, I explored media representations of Somalis in Australia and examined how Somali artists, writers and film-makers in Italy and Australia expressed a sense of identity or belonging.

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My work is the first comparative study of Somali resettlement in Italy and Australia. Previous studies focus on concerns around mental health, housing or education and emphasise a lack of existing services. My studies offer new paths for Somali belonging that may address such concerns and fill a cultural void within Australia.

Multi-cultural policies focused on concepts of assimilation or alienation also pose problems for migrants, as people can only assimilate to a certain point. Without a sense of belonging in your new country, a feeling of alienation can grow. Alienation can lead to depression, mental and physical health issues and social problems. If people feel alienated they often look for belonging elsewhere. You may find people turning to gangs or extremist violence because they don’t have any other point of reference. In Australia, many Somalis are Australian citizens yet they remain one of the most marginal and disadvantaged groups. Language, culture shock and religious expression remain some of the key challenges.

‘If people feel alienated they often look for belonging elsewhere. You may find people turning to gangs or extremist violence because they don’t have any other point of reference.’ 

In a world where increasingly complex migration patterns and technology intersect, a sense of belonging is critical.  Today, technology allows you to be far from your birthplace and still feel a sense of belonging there and also of belonging here. Being a migrant anywhere in the world means you have an awareness of simultaneous dimensions. A new and unique sense of belonging is created. This is the condition of contemporary belonging that we live in today.

Cultural representations by Somali artists show you can be Somali and Australian and feel you belong here. This sense of belonging is more than just about growing up here; it comes from a sense of individuality as much as from cultural influences. It shows that identity is never fixed; there is always movement between cultures. This new sense of belonging separates out the idea of fixed national, collective and individual identities.

Forming an identity in a new country is an extremely complex process. Post-migration stress factors are as significant as pre-migration trauma in respect to re-settlement. After basic physical needs are met, acceptance and belonging are the key issues affecting migrants. This is why finding spaces for the expression of Somali cultural belonging is so important.

‘I found that the dominant media cultural view around what makes you ‘Australian’ excludes Somalis. Mainstream media often show Somalis in the context of terrorism or extremism.’

I found that the dominant media cultural view around what makes you ‘Australian’ excludes Somalis. Mainstream media often show Somalis in the context of terrorism or extremism. These negative images of Somalis are repeated across media platforms and the actions of one Somali are often represented as the actions of the wider Somali community.

This fixed assumption that all Somalis are the same is wrong. Somalis come from a diverse and rich cultural and historical background including different clan affiliations, histories, languages, food and customs. 

A Somali growing up in Australia may speak the language and know the culture but they are often reminded through school, work and the media, that their skin is not white, or their parents weren’t born here and that somehow, that makes them less Australian than others.

My studies are about more than just preserving Somali culture in Australia. It’s about opening up opportunities for people who don’t have a Somali background. The exchange of dialogue and ideas break down prejudices and allow interaction and understanding to follow. Media representations, stereotypes and assumptions can then change.

‘Belonging’ generally continues to be thought of in terms of national sovereignty and borders.  If you are born in a country, then you belong.  But today we are becoming a global community and these old notions of ‘belonging’ are changing.

Belonging is not about a person’s race or religion or whether they were born here.  Somalis don’t have to choose between being Australian or Somali. The Somali representations I studied opened up the idea of belonging to show that it is a process that is ‘taking place’ now.  It is a movement, ongoing, never finished and it’s located in the specific moment of that person, in that place.

My studies show there is a middle ground around identity and belonging, which produces a new cultural form, a fusion in effect.

No one has more right to belong in a place than another.  If we think about belonging in this way, we avoid excluding others.  Yes, it’s a utopian vision and that’s why Somali belonging can take place now and is also yet to arrive.  We may never get to utopia but it’s a direction we would do well to move towards. ’

Vivian Gerrand’sresearch is titled: “Possible Spaces:Representations of Somali Belonging in Italy and Australia”.

* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.  

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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