When a number of refugees residing in a Dutch asylum center were given a smartphone with internet connection for a social experiment, the younger refugees instantly browsed to Facebook. Interestingly enough, they did not log in to their old Syrian Facebook-account, but rather made a new one. They filled in all their personal information, but changed one essential thing: their country of origin. The very first thing they did was construct a new identity for themselves. When asked about their actions, they simply answered: this will help us make new friends here.
Why do those kids believe their Facebook-account to be so essential for social connection? And what exactly is an identity? What makes you you? Would you consider your Facebook profile to be a component of your identity, or rather a (distorted) reflection of your true self?
To explore these questions, we have organized an interdisciplinary debate in Hong Kong including students and professors from both Utrecht University and Hong Kong University. Consul General Wilfred Mohr of the Netherlands was also present during our opening and invited us later that week to the Dutch Consulate in Hong Kong. During our activity a presentation was given by a representative of the Christian Refugee Association of Hong Kong, followed by an extensive discussion of a selection of debate motions. Emphasis was put in particular on the role of digital media in identity formation and the possible function of digital media in the bridging of culture gaps. Interestingly enough, results of the debate were very skeptic on the power of digital media in global issues. The overall sentiment seemed to be that social networks should be used for social purposes and have little function in greater purposes, although several powerful counterarguments were given.
During our weeks working towards our second week of events in Utrecht we saw this point of view evolving, slowly gaining more awareness about the impact of digital media on the construction of identities and at the same time on the way identities are displayed. Articles about refugees on different media are hardly ever completely objective. A certain stance on their situation always shines through, and in particular the remarkable cases are highlighted instead of the normal cases. Even though there are a lot of organizations active in helping the refugees and giving them more say, the question remains if these organizations that function as mediators always display the refugees in the way they would display themselves. Do these organizations really speak for and from the refugees? Or does the level of dependence on the side of the refugees give these organizations more freedom in displaying their case?
These questions have led us to our collaboration with The Publisher during our week of events in Utrecht. The publisher is an independent, nonprofit digital platform for stories and artistic work made by refugees. Through their website they give refugees a platform where they can show their work (poetry, art, story, food and film) to the world without any adjustments. Opposed to other refugee organizations that mostly show the bad circumstances under which the refugees live, The Publisher shows refugees on a more positive note, by showing their talents and values. Of course they still function as a mediator, but they distinguish themselves by giving the refugees the chance to share their story without any interference of the platform or any adjustments to their pieces. This way of collaborating with the refugees aroused our interest and inspired us to invite one of the founders of this digital platform; Jöran Zeeuw to our event. During our event Jöran gave a presentation about The Publisher and took place in a fruitful debate with Karin Boelhouwer, representative of the political party Groen Links of the municipality of Utrecht.
We look back at two great events, which have produced a lot of interesting perspectives on the subject of identity formation of refugees in the digital age, which will certainly add new dimensions to our research.
Marijn Smid & Melodie Zöllner
(In collaboration with Sheela Ganesh and Gayatree Joshi)