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The Search for Identity of Muslim Immigrant Youth in New Zealand

young muslim woman

The events that took place in our city on the 15th of March 2019 affected so many young people in so many different ways. Whilst my thoughts immediately jumped to those directly impacted by losing siblings and parents, I was also aware that there were other Muslim youth who weren’t present at the mosques that day, but who would have been terribly shaken by the horrific shootings and the nature in which they happened in an otherwise peaceful country.

I attended an open gathering of those in the youth sector held by SYS (Strengthening the Youth Sector) after the attacks to figure out ways in which they could support those young people who were vulnerable and affected. I was amazed to find the ripples and layers of damage the shootings had caused to the lives of so many young people as we discussed its impacts at the gathering.

How Trauma From the Mosque Shooting Differs From Other Trauma

But for me personally, as an immigrant and also in my conversations with immigrant youth, we couldn’t ignore the cause of the attacks and how this attack was different to other stress and trauma experiences many youth of Christchurch had experienced around the earthquakes.

I spoke with some young Muslim girls after the attacks to see how they were going and was surprised to find so many complexities in their identities – how they were upset by being seen as “the other” – very visible because of their choice to wear a hijab, but still so strongly vocal about how they considered themselves “Kiwi”.

They told me that New Zealand was their home and that they had grown to love it, coming from war and unrest in their own countries- but also that the way of life here had come to become their own. Whilst their “Muslim culture” strongly influenced who they were, they also considered themselves very much to be a part of this land, having spent much of their childhood here, building friendships and communities.

The thoughts of these young girls about their identity resonate strongly with research done in New Zealand in 2011 with Muslim immigrant youth by Jaimee Stuart and a veteran in cross cultural research Collen Ward.

Balancing Multiple Identities

The researchers critiqued existing acculturation theories for being simplistic and adopted qualitative methods for a deeper understanding of Muslim immigrant youth’s acculturation process in New Zealand. Through focus groups and interviews they found that Muslim immigrant youth strove for a balance between their various identities summarised well through this quote from one of the participants, “I feel a sense of belonging and connection to both my religion and culture as well as to New Zealand society. I do not see them as conflicting.”

Through their findings they categorised three different strategies Muslim youth use to balance their “multiple identities”.

Firstly, by alternating orientations- they stressed certain aspects of their identity dependant on the types of social situations they were in. They dressed in more traditional ways, ate cultural foods and spoke in their native languages within their families and communities and easily switched in other situations as beautifully illustrated by one of the participants, “It’s just a matter of putting the spotlight on which aspect (is important) depending on the context, it’s a matter of placing relevance in the context. I play different roles, everybody does.”

The second strategy they found was blending orientations – wherein as the name suggests, youth blend different aspects of their identity choosing aspects that were important to them so that they could have the best of both worlds. They saw a clear difference between culture and religion as one participant stated, “You have two cultural sides, a Western and an Eastern influence. I don’t particularly stick to one side. I sort of embrace both. And there’s the spiritual identity. And that’s Islam. It’s not just a religion, but it’s a way of living and a way of life. How you go about doing things and stuff.”

Lastly, there were those who achieved a balance by minimising differences that existed between their different identities and saw themselves as one whole being, as this participant said, My identity is the same (as it has always been), I don’t like to be different across all different situations. I am me.”

Identity Mapping

The researchers then used a projective technique of identity mapping where participants were encouraged to draw representations of themselves in the New Zealand environment. The results of which are fascinating and warrant a look at the whole article though central to the pictorial representations was their faith, their culture and New Zealand society.

In the first part of this research paper, participants were asked in leadership workshops what the most important thing was that helped them succeed in their life in New Zealand. Most participants found that maintaining a balance between the various demanding roles and identities was key to helping them succeed, “Achieving a good balance, being a Muslim and being a member of a non-Muslim society and not compromising on faith, but still being able to be comfortable.” And tolerance, learning about the New Zealand culture and way of life, seeing things from others’ point of view, being honest, understanding and having empathy. Balancing my culture with New Zealand culture.”

In the wake of the attacks when support is needed in so many different ways to the Muslim community, here’s hoping that this research article will provide a window into the complexities of what young Muslim immigrant youth experience, so that in understanding this we are in a better position to walk alongside and help them better.


Stuart, J., & Ward, C. (2011). A question of balance: Exploring acculturation, integration and adaptation of Muslim immigrant youth. Journal of Psychosocial Intervention. 20 (3) 255-267

Written by

Sharon Gardner


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