Partnering with Youth to Research the Challenges Facing Young People in the Horn of Africa

Hargeisa city is a fast-growing urban environment that remains safe, unlike many parts of the region. Yet young people living in the city face a myriad of challenges. Unemployment is high amongst youth, and poverty is widespread. In this context, it is not surprising that young people think of a life abroad. “I couldn’t afford a university education, and I couldn’t find a job,” said a young Somali who tried to get to Europe. “I have multimedia skills, but I still couldn’t find a job. I wrote a dozen CVs, but organisations would just throw them away.”

To understand the situation of young Somali’s like the youth quoted above, I joined a research study conducted by UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti along with its partners at the University of Hargeisa, School of Social Work. Like so many Somali young people, the students are concerned about their futures, about the prospect of finding jobs when they graduate and challenges they will have in supporting themselves and their families who have invested in their education. Migration is such a prominent feature of life in the region that I don’t doubt every one of the researchers I worked with has asked themselves the question of whether to stay or go.

Understanding the situation from a research perspective started with a crash course, with me as an instructor, on research methodologies, research skills, interviewing techniques, and ethical concerns. We mapped out what we sought to understand and why. The interview map included a series of questions sketched out to be adapted to each respondent and our procedures.

I observed the student interviews, provided feedback, and then conducted several interviews alongside the university students to demonstrate different qualitative research techniques. The process was enlightening, as student reflections were not limited to the research skills I was teaching, but also the subject matter of the deeper issues, including drivers of migration; the social, political, familial and economic challenges of young people; their hopes and aspirations.

“It dawned on me that this research provided an incredible opportunity for the students to reflect on the real-life impact of these issues.”

The student researchers were grappling with personal opinions, experiences, struggles and aspirations as young people; but they were not outsiders looking in to another society, as I was, they were part of it. It dawned on me that this research provided an incredible opportunity for the students to reflect on the real-life impact of these issues. They had a unique opportunity to listen to the experiences of other young people – people who might be their clients (as social workers) in the near future. Social workers in the region are in short supply and have large caseloads which limits the time they can spend with each individual client. This research offered an opportunity to take time and simply listen to young people reflect upon critical social issues.

What do we do if a child tells us that he/she wants to migrate?

© UNICEF/UN0300848/Knowles-CourOn Mubarak’s first journey abroad, Mubarak went to Ethiopia. In his second he went to Sudan. On his third trip he was hoping to make it to Europe. “I left Hargeisa because of a lack of work here,” Mubarak explains.

The questions raised during the training revealed the innate ethical concerns that most of the students had about their work: What do we do if a child tells us that he/she wants to migrate? Should we warn them about the dangers? Should we tell their parents? How can we reconcile confidentiality with the potential danger a child can face?

On many occasions, once on the ground, students faced challenges and obstacles which required adaptation and creativity to overcome. Despite the support offered by supervisors and UNICEF, students had to be creative and quickly adapt new strategies. I witnessed genuine growth in their self-confidence as their engagement and ownership of the research developed; it was a completely new and exciting experience for many of them. As one of the students said, “Now I can do another piece of research like this.” A supervisor shared that one student was able to find another job – “because of this training she was able to convince them that she had the expertise to do the job.”

The experience has encouraged some of the students to continue with further research on those issues which were not fully addressed by the project. It has also had an impact on the school of social work at Hargeisa University, which is building its reputation as a credible research partner – and motivated the dean to pursue its own research agenda.

I am sure the students are proud of the report published today. Seeing the findings in writing and disseminated globally demonstrates the value of their work and I hope it inspires them.

For now, the student researchers have all decided to stay, but they have all had friends or relatives who have left. These researchers are a critical part of this story, the publication was enriched by their contribution, and their insights are the essence of the key findings revealed in this publication. However, the pressure remains as long as the deeper issues stay unresolved. I hope we can continue to include young people in our research, not only as respondents in a research exercise, but also as participants constructing and writing the stories that we read.

 

Olivia Bueno is the lead researcher and author of ‘No Mother Wants Her Child to Migrate: Vulnerability of Children on the Move in the Horn of Africa’. She has been working on migration and human rights issues in the Horn and Great Lakes regions of Africa for the last fifteen years. She has consulted with a number of organizations in the region, including local women’s and human rights organizations. She is also a co-founder of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, a non-governmental organization based in Kampala and conducting research and advocacy on both the causes and consequences of displacement. She has a Masters degree in International Affairs from the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

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