What do we exactly mean when we refer to ‘home’? How does the meaning of home change after one migrates? These questions were the focus of a recent project which I conducted at University College Cork, Ireland, titled, Youth Home. The study was an exploration of the meaning of ‘home’ among young male migrant men living in Cork city. Two groups of migrants took part in the project: The first group were refugee men (with refugee status) who had received their documentations to stay in Ireland after their asylum application had been accepted. The second group were international students from countries outside the European Union and European Economic Areas. Migrant men are consistently overrepresented in political debates about migration, but their experiences are greatly missing from policies and studies on belonging and home (1). One important reason for this is the presupposition of migrant men as ‘one-dimensional’ who are very often perceived as a ‘threat’ to the fabric of the European societies (2).
In the post-2015 period, what became known as the year of ‘migration crisis’ due to migration of a large group of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers to Europe, European policies became focused on ‘controlling’ migration such as strengthening the borders of the EU. However, even policies that focus on ‘integration’ of migrants often overlook key aspects of everyday integration processes, and most importantly, migrants’ own feelings of belonging and their understandings of ‘home’.
As such, attending to how young migrants experience migration, the processes of making a home, the sense of temporariness and precarity in a European country needs further attention and elaboration. In Youth Home, we aimed to provide an understanding of what concepts such as integration, feeling at home, and sense of belonging mean to young male migrants (below the age of 35). The project, located in the second largest city in Ireland, was composed of an in-depth ethnography composed of several steps to ‘co-produce’ the data with the participant.
Methodology: Walking Interviews and Photography
As the aim of this project was to understand how home translates into public and private spheres for migrants, each participant was interviewed at least twice. The first interview was a walking interview in Cork city. The participant led the walk and took the researcher to places where they felt at home or thought about home in the city. These places were photographed by the participant and the researcher. The aim of this method was to understand how Cork City is experienced from the migrant’s perspective. Second method was photography of domestic spaces. All participants were asked to take photos of their domestic spaces and send these photos to the researcher prior to the second interview. They were asked to focus on domestic spaces where they live and taking photos of 1. objects, 2. practices and activities, and 3. memories of home. Finally, they were interviewed again to discuss the photos they took from their domestic spaces. These interviews were led by the images and the components of each photo were elaborated by the participant. Some participants were interviewed more than twice.
What is a migrant home? Findings
1. Cork as a Liveable City
It has been argued by several of participants that Cork is a place that is ‘easy’ to live. These comments were always made in comparison to other cities such as Dublin, London or Japanese cities. The most desired characteristic of Cork was its size (small) as a metropolitan area and the possibility of commuting to university or work without needing a car. Much emphasis was placed on the role of walking, itself due to the small size of Cork. This presentation of Cork was made often without any effort and became the first issue that they talked about. However, the emphasis they placed on ‘ease’ of the city space, may mean that they had harder experience compared to other cities they lived their lives.
I like Cork more than Dublin. It is smaller. Between home and university maximum can take, for example, half an hour, if you are outside the city. Inside city it is only a 10 minute walk to UCC. It is a small city and everything is close but in Dublin transport system is very weak. And if you don’t have private car and want to go from a location to another, it takes an hour or an hour and half. But you don’t have any problem in Cork, it is very close. Also Cork people are more social comparing to people in Dublin. (Faraz, a 24 year old student and refugee from Afghanistan)
2. Cork as a Place of Belonging
Participants were asked to take the researcher to places where they feel at home including a café, restaurant where they could experience the participant’s taste of home. Cork as a city where an increasing number of migrants chose as their residence, still does not offer many opportunities for finding a small locale for migrant groups, or people of the same heritage. As such much of the home in the city as a place of belonging was composed of a ‘compromise’ of home. In order to find a place of belonging they needed to put much effort in finding the closest place (geographically) that could remind them of their heritage. For example places of worship such as a mosque and some churches were places that they shared with people of the same religion but from different origin. Making connections through similar practices but with different migrant groups were practices of belonging but not genuine enough to create a long-term connection to the city. Other important activities included finding different locales for grocery shopping that would make food preparation as cheap as possible and as close to their heritage and taste as possible.
3. Living on the Margins of the City
The third aspect of home, the marginality of migrants’ lives in both groups. They lived their lives being involved in solitary and individualised activities. Slightly relatively, the international students had a more active and communal lifestyle, thanks to free university programmes, when compared to the refugee group. However, the support they received from UCC (e.g. gym membership, different UCC communities and outing activities) did not place them into the same groups as Irish or European students who were enjoying such programmes much more (based on participants’ perceptions). A considerable amount of their time was spent on their own. Some informal conversations between the researcher and the participants showed that after COVID-19 lock-down the issue of loneliness was exacerbated.
Experiences of loneliness and mental health issues for international students is in line with previous studies showing international students suffering from high levels of anxiety and feelings of loneliness (3). The refugee group also felt detached from the city and communal life. Their relationships remained limited to people with similar situations such as friends whose asylum applications were not concluded. This similarity in both groups is an important finding showing how home is not experienced in communities and interpersonal relationships that is present in the Cork city, or in the domestic spaces where they live. Home is somewhere else. In many cases, home is in unknown locations. And more importantly, when it happens, it will be an achieved product that is postponed to a future time.
4. Temporariness of Home
Domestic spaces in the lives of young male migrants is a heavily under-researched area. The photos taken from the domestic spaces show a minimal way to make a home within limited resources for both migrant groups. Their homes were mostly devoid of cultural artefacts and in some cases that they did, the objects were borrowed items.
More than anything, temporariness of home-making among migrant students and refugees is emphasised through the depiction of their internal accommodation. The temporariness of their stay in the case of international students and years of experiences of hardship to find accommodation in case of refugees, made the domestic space as a place not worthy of investment either financially, or emotionally. Particularly because these homes, most often, were shared accommodations. Out of 19 migrant men whom I talked to (the research was conducted with 14 of them), almost everyone complained about the housing crisis in Ireland and their difficulties of finding an appropriate home. Such structural problems in creating and maintaining a material home, encouraged them further not to think of their accommodation of home.
5. Imagined Future and Uncertainty
Making a home at present time was not visible in many cases. Much of the narratives of participants was about making a home in a future time, ‘when everything would fall into place’ as Ranit, one of the participants mentioned. Postponement of home-making, or the sense of ‘home on hold’ means that young male migrants are constantly planning for a process of re-settlement, searching for possible jobs in other countries, although being bound within the conditions of their stay in Ireland. Imagining the future home coupled with uncertainty of the present that was expanded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of these factors made their imaginations of the future home ever more ambiguous but easier than their present experiences.
What most of them argued was the importance of a family, in helping them to find the ‘real’ home in future but even that was proved to be a problem. Out of the 19 men, two were married with their wives living in Iran and India, one had a girlfriend who lived with him in Cork, and the rest were single and in no relationship. Their home was very much imagined and it revolved around finding a partner, that was contingent on them being able to afford taking care of a family financially. For present home, their life was translated into transnational communications via internet, to friends or family members living overseas.
6. Transnational Families and Home
Although having a family of one’s own (nuclear family) was an important indicator of home-making, current transnational family members and their involvement in participants’ lives were important in their present sense of home. Home, here, was translated into the distant relationships they were creating through communications via digital technologies. These communications were reinforcing the nostalgic depictions of home in their countries of pre-migration period. Migrant home as such was more defined within these frequent communications of everyday lives that made the idea of homeland a distant location but a real home. Another aspect of this transnational involvement was the sense of responsibility that brought to participants. Their role in maintaining a family was highlighted because of the financial support they were providing for their relatives and family members. This was placing them in a difficult position financially but gave them a sense of belonging to somewhere and connectedness to a home.
The aim of Youth Home was to highlight the role of city space in young male migrants’ meaning-making of home. The aim was to understand the extent to which male migrants make sense of home within the limited and often communal spaces they lived with other, same gender house mates. Our research showed several important findings in the sense of migrants’ home in Ireland. The first is that home is considered as a non-finished project that belongs to a future time rather than the present. Secondly, home is constructed in another part of the globe due to the restrictions (financial, employment, racism, housing, etc) these migrants face. Thirdly, sense of belonging to Cork is not developed due to lack of support network of friends and family members for both refugees and international students. It seems that migrant integration policies that are devised and incorporated for migrants at city level, have not done much to create a sense of home among migrant groups. Migrant men are living a much more solitary lives than what was assumed before the start of this project.
This project was funded by the European Commission, Horizon 2020, Marie Sklodowska Curie Individual Fellowships and was led by Dr Mastoureh Fathi, in collaboration with Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire, hosted by the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century at University College Cork.
(1) Katarzyna Wojnicka & Paula Pustułka (2017) Migrant men in the nexus of space and (dis)empowerment, NORMA, 12:2, 89-95, DOI: 10.1080/18902138.2017.1342061
(3) Sawir E, Marginson S, Deumert A, Nyland C, Ramia G. (2008) Loneliness and International Students: An Australian Study. Journal of Studies in International Education. 12(2):148-180. doi:10.1177/1028315307299699
About The Author
Mastoureh Fathi is an Iranian-British sociologist, currently working as Assistant Professor at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin. Previously, she was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at University College Cork where she led a study titled: Youth Home. Before moving to Ireland, she was a Lecturer of Sociology at Royal Holloway University of London, UK. Her research is primarily on the notion of home and belonging in migration with a focus on gendered practices of migrants. She is on the management committee of the COST Action Dynamics of Placemaking and Digitization in Europe’s Cities. Her research has been funded by the European Commission H2020 programme, British Academy, Irish Research Council, Global Challenge Research Fund (UK). In 2017, she published a monograph: Intersectionality, Class and Migration (Palgrave Macmillan). Her research interests include migrants’ place-making and sense of belonging, migrants' place attachment in cities, migrant integration policies and practices, migration of women and young people, and materiality and place-making in migration, intersectionality and belonging.