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The Other Side of the Story – How Children of Immigrants Experience Life

Six young people with different ethnicities. Photo.
Children of immigrants are sorted on the basis of preconceived notions with measures that do not take into account their own perspectives. Photo: iStockphoto.

How does migration and globalisation shape the lives of individuals in various countries and how does it affect the children of immigrants in terms of integration, identity, and cultural expressions? Do they themselves use the word integration? These questions occupy sociologist Dalia Abdelhady who is about to conclude a study of three populations in the US, in France and in Germany, based on their own experiences.

– Although I study integration, I do not often use this word. It is mostly used by politicians and media to describe what should be happening with immigrants and their children whereas I want to understand what happens from the perspective of the immigrants and their children, explains Dalia Abdelhady.

She also opposes to use the term second generation immigrants, often used to label the children of immigrants, because they have never migrated, but they are treated as migrants. By collecting their own views and wordings, she finds more than two sides to the story. She finds that there are multiple stories on how migrants and their children navigate and explore opportunities in the labour market or in education.

Tracking and Preconceptions

In her recent research three different populations in three different countries are studied, chosen to have a variety of different educational systems and labour market opportunities; Mexicans who have migrated to the US, North African migrants in France and Turkish immigrants in Germany.

– In Germany and France, you have official tracking in schools. The teachers, the councillors and the parents meet to discuss and decide on the track for each child around the ages of ten in Germany and fourteen in France. It is supposed to be based on grades and the student's wishes but in interviews many immigrants and their children experienced that the decision was taken before the meeting and often influenced by the fact that they were not native speakers, says Dalia Abdelhady.

In the case of the Mexican population in the US the situation can be different. The parents may have had just a few years of education and have worked in the service sector, where they usually find jobs quickly. Their children are born into the American education system and are measured in comparison to others in the same age group. In general, children of Mexican immigrants to the US are not doing well. They are associated with poor academic results, high unemployment percentage, criminal statistics – they are not doing well.

– None of these measures include the perspectives from themselves, says Dalia Abdelhady and continues. I wanted to include this and ask if they see themselves as failures? As a child of an uneducated parent, it can be a huge achievement to complete formal education up to a high school level. This could be five to six additional years of schooling compared to the previous generation among Mexicans.

Progress is Relative

In the labour market, Mexican Americans are doing better than North Africans in France. Unemployment is higher in France; the economies are different, and the populations occupy different niches in the labour market. Dalia Abdelhady’s research cannot yet tell how the pandemic has affected this and maybe the situation in the US is closer now to the one in Europe:

– What I can see is that the children of Mexican American immigrants often work in the same sectors as their parent's but they improve their life conditions by getting better positions.

Furthermore, her interviews showed that the majority experienced that they have achieved a good progress in society, fulfilling somewhat the American dream and mastering the language well. They believed themselves to be successful. While some considered higher education, and some even tried community college, the strong labour market was more attractive.

Therefore, Dalia Abdelhady uses the perspective of the people themselves to present an analysis and show how some assumptions about immigrants and their children may be part of the problem. She does not tell others what to do, rather show what the problem is and provide perspectives that can help in figuring out how to do things in another way.

Experiences of A Serial Migrant

Dalia Abdelhady is a serial migrant herself, she was born in Egypt and stayed in Saudi Arabia at an early age.  After completing American college in Cairo she continued her studies in the US and earned a PhD in Sociology. She then lived in Paris, Montreal and Dubai before moving to Sweden. Her child is born here and through him she can see things that relate to her research project.  

Sweden does not have tracking in schools or preschools. Still, at the age of three the children at her son’s day-care centre were divided into groups, sorting them by if Swedish was the spoken language at home or not. This determined which reading group they would belong to, one more and the other less advanced.

– This is thinking that children at a very early age are already not as capable because of their difference. So, the institutions that are supposed to make them feel like full worthy citizens and good members of the society instead can cause them harm, and not offer them the same level of education, explains Dalia Abdelhady.

After some dialogue with the teachers there was a deeper understanding of the matter and how it could be resolved in another manner. Dividing the children by age was a fairer sorting principle and to which no one objected. Although Dalia Abdelhady does not conduct research related to Swedish circumstances, these experiences from her personal life gives new insights also to her professional work.

Dalia Abdelhady is currently an associate professor at the Department of Sociology and a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. Her research and teaching include migration, gender, religion, culture and social movements. In addition to studying Arab immigrants in Europe and North America, she also studies social change in the Arab world with a focus on women's public roles and cultural understandings of women's rights.

Read more about Dalia Abdelhady's research in Lund University's research portal