Human Arenas

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Navigating Cultures: Narratives of Becoming Among Young Refugees in Norway

  • Hildegunn Marie Tønnessen SchuffEmail author
Arena of Movement


Young migrants face specific developmental challenges and multiple cultural expectations. This study aims at providing insight to such challenges and strategies to navigate them. The article presents a narrative analysis of a young refugee’s story about entering Norwegian society, based on interviews with three girls, whose stories were merged into one in dialogue with the participants themselves. Nadia’s story describes her demanding outsider position after migration and the growing conflict between her mother’s and majority society’s expectations to a girl from her origin. After some time in a supportive creative arena, Nadia found ways to negotiate diverging voices and categories and balance her cultures strategically and confidently. Challenges and opportunities experienced by young refugees stem from both minority and majority voices. Society can facilitate constructive cultural navigation by providing safe and supportive arenas, listening, and allowing young refugees to be the subject of their own story.


Narrative Becoming Young refugees Creative arenas Negotiations 

Youth is a time for becoming. As our bodies grow and change, we listen and learn, imitate and resist, and interact and negotiate our way towards adulthood, becoming “ourselves” in our specific lifeworlds. This becoming of the young is always a cultural process (Erikson 1968; Valsiner 2000; Rogoff 2003), interwoven with the psychosocial contexts in which we live.

With increasing numbers of refugees in the world today, many young people find themselves crossing borders while growing up. Norway is currently a country with net immigration (StatisticsNorway 2018). In addition to South-North and East-West migration within Europe, recent years have seen a relatively high influx of asylum seekers from war-torn countries, with a peak in 2015 (Bygnes and Erdal 2017; Brekke and Staver 2018). The 2015 “crisis” was followed by stricter immigration policies and a more polarized public debate about immigrants, in Norway as in other European countries.

Young migrants pursue their developmental projects in the context of these transnational fluctuations, often facing skepticism and potential marginalization, while dealing with multiple cultural norms and expectations (Salole 2018; Fangen et al. 2011). These challenges, and strategies to handle them, are important to understand for all who meet young people with refugee experiences. In this article, I tell a young refugee’s story, tracing her subjectivation and analyzing how she navigates in a cross-cultural landscape. By navigation, I refer to how a person negotiates with and adapts to the opportunities and demands of their changing surroundings.

To explore this cultural navigation, I present a close reading of interview narratives from three young girls who came to Norway as refugees. In dialogue with the interviewees, I merged the three stories into one. So here, I tell Nadia’s story—about how she actively navigates and becomes “herself” in varying arenas, how a specific creative arena provided latitude for this navigation, and how she moved from being torn between conflicting expectations to standing firm in who she wants to be.

After migration, refugees must reestablish a sense of meaning and recreate a coherent narrative of their lives (Sveaass 2000). Negotiating experiences of continuity and change is a key task of any migrant, as they engage in biographical agency (Selimos 2018)—narrative decision-making when facing transitions, to make sense of who they are in the world. The narratives of young migrants shed light on how they cross not only geographical and political, but also biographical and relational boundaries, entering new societies as well as adulthood (Fangen et al. 2011).

First, I present some approaches from cultural and narrative psychology that will serve as analytical tools. After describing the methods by which this narrative and analysis came about, I present the story as a whole, considering it a tool for understanding in itself. I then return to apply the analytical concepts and discuss what we can learn from Nadia’s story.


While migration affects an increasing number of young people, the experiences and agency of young migrants have been fairly invisible in migration studies as well as in studies of childhood and youth (Omland and Andenas 2017; Selimos 2018). A contextually informed developmental psychology can contribute to understanding transitions in both youth and migration.

Development: Participating and Becoming

A developmental approach investigates the emergence of novelty (Valsiner 2000). While developmental psychology in its conventional forms has been criticized for producing normative and universalizing discourses of development, a strength of the discipline is its emphasis on the temporal dimension, change, and transformation (Hauge 2009).

Within a cultural psychological approach, development is not just something that happens to a person, e.g., stages by age. While we must relate to our changing biology as well as shifting contexts, we also actively participate in our own development, finding meaningful ways to constitute ourselves as the person we are and want to become. This participation can be explained as forming and pursuing developmental projects (Omland and Andenas 2017), as young people negotiate what growing up means for them, drawing on meaning systems and practices available in their communities. In poststructural terms, this can be referred to as subjectivation, processes through which subjects, always embedded in discourses, position themselves and acquire a sense of self (Hauge 2009).

Meaning and Narratives

Meaning, in the sense of relating to something beyond ourselves, can be considered a fundamental aspect of human existence (Frankl 2014 [1969]). Meaning-making is central as young people set directions for their lives, learning from and protesting against more experienced participants in their cultural communities, like parents or teachers (Rogoff 2003). Immigration can affect processes of meaning-making and value transmission, often increasing the distance between adolescents and their parents (Chryssochoou 2004).

A central way of constructing meaning is through the creation and exchange of narratives. Narratives are organized interpretations of a sequence of actions (Murray 2008) that show how we position ourselves in relation to our experiences. Narration can be considered a way to handle and make sense of otherwise chaotic and ambiguous events of which life consists (Murray 2008; Jansen 2013). Since fleeing one’s home and country is usually a poignant example of the uncertainty and chaos of much human experience, this need for reestablishing some meaning and order out of chaos is central in some interventions for refugees (Eisenbruch et al. 2004).

Narratives are also central to development, as they offer resources for making sense of growing up or growing older, and the construction of personal narratives provides meaningful integration across the life course (Hammack 2008).

A central component of narratives is agency, that is, a person’s ability and opportunity to act. Jansen and Haavind (2011) showed in a study of young people in residential care how narrative configurations provide different subject positions, with a stronger or weaker sense of agency. At the same time, narratives contextualize the individual, as personal narratives tend to draw on master narratives for their ideological content. In this way, narratives can bridge individual and cultural levels of analysis (Hammack 2008).

Culture, Boundaries, and Navigation

The concept of “culture” cannot be reduced to country of origin. Rather, culture is here understood as ways of relating to the world and others, according to certain internalized repertoires, based on our experiences from social environments through the life course. These ways of relating that I call culture include both meaning-making (Bruner 2009), what makes sense to us and seems right for different people and situations, and how these meanings are semiotically mediated (Valsiner 2014) and materialize, e.g., in how we dress, move, touch, and greet, or when young people move out from their parents’ house. Culture is thus not a given entity or variable, but rather practices that may feel part of us, at the same time as they make us who we are. This approach emphasizes “doing culture,” in a similar way to what gender scholars refer to as “doing gender,” to achieve a dynamic, non-categorical understanding (Hauge 2009).

There are, however, socially recognized cultural categories—often linked to countries, but also wider (“African,” “Western”) or more local categories (“Northerners”), or subcultures independent of geography (“hipsters”). Labeling cultures can be considered boundary work. Anthropologist Fredrik Barth explains ethnicity as the social organization of cultural difference. Thus, the critical point of investigation “becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses” (Barth 1998 [1969], p. 15). In this boundary maintenance, people are identified either as belonging to the same group and “playing the same game”—or as ethnically “other,” highlighting assumed limitations of shared understandings that often restrict interaction.

So even if ethnicities are but imagined communities (Anderson 2006) and their boundaries are negotiable, cultural differences can be experienced as socially relevant and quite real. Young migrants often find themselves categorized as cultural “others” or multicultural. They may also internalize these boundaries, forming cross-cultural identities. Development in a cross-cultural lifeworld brings challenges and competencies of its own, for those who grow up navigating different norms and shifting insider/outsider positions (Salole 2018)—which makes for a lot of boundary work.

Some scholars suggest that navigation into adulthood in an increasingly complex and fluid world is a developmental challenge for all youth in contemporary pluralist societies, not only for those in minority positions: They all need to learn to relate to people with other backgrounds, understand different codes, and relate to different worldviews (Larson et al. 2011). Still, young migrants and other potentially marginalized groups can experience cross-pressures as particularly difficult. Well-run youth programs can create safe spaces where young people can address these challenges. Larson et al. (2011) encourage listening to the youth’s experiences of these programs, to understand their complex worlds and support their developmental projects.

Contextualizing the Study

The experiences and aspirations of young migrants in Scandinavia have been explored in some qualitative studies. A large-scale European study of young migrants (Fangen et al. 2011), innovative in its combination of qualitative interview data and comparisons between societies, shed light on the many facets of exclusion and belonging that these young people grapple with. One of the study’s concluding recommendations is to honor these young migrants’ wishes to contribute. In an interview study in Norway some years prior, Prieur (2004) found young people with immigrant backgrounds striving to balance different demands. Gender, bodily conduct, and family are areas in which expectations from majority society often differ the most from their cultures of origin. Immigrant status does not lead to any given trajectory in itself, but the young people actively negotiate their own contextually meaningful ways forward.

More recently, Shapiro (2017) described how Syrian refugee families in Denmark recreate everyday life in exile, emphasizing how young people’s agency is interwoven with their families’ collective agency. Omland and Andenas (2017) show how the developmental projects of young Afghan boys in Norway are often directed at both countries, to help their families back home—and make a livable life in their new society.

In a theoretically related study from Canada, Selimos (2018) analyzes how refugee youth engage in biographical agency to transform their migration experiences into meaning and aspirations. The main narrative pattern is a movement from precariousness and feeling stuck in their countries of origin, to hope and opportunity in Canada (Selimos 2018). Education is considered a key to opportunities, in Canadian and Scandinavian contexts alike.

The three interviewees in the current study came to Norway as refugees with their families from neighboring African countries. I met them as participants in the multicultural music project Kaleidoscope (“Fargespill” in Norwegian). In Kaleidoscope, professional musicians and choreographers work with children and young people with different cultural backgrounds, many of them recently arrived in Norway. Together, they create a performance based on songs and dances that the children know, combined to a world-music-style celebration of diversity. According to the project philosophy, “everyone is a resource” (Hamre et al. 2011). The concept was developed in Bergen in 2004 and has since spread to several towns across Norway and Sweden.

Methods and Material

The material for this narrative analysis forms part of a mixed-method PhD study that follows young Kaleidoscope participants over time, through fieldwork, interviews, and a survey. The overarching aim is to explore what participating in this creative community means for the youth. Here, I explore this through a narrative reading of three interviews, presenting stories that contextualize Kaleidoscope participation in the life of young refugees.

Participants, Data Collection, and Selection

I asked three experienced participants to tell me about themselves and their Kaleidoscope experiences in an open interview. At the time, they had been in the project for 8–10 years.

The three know each other and have overlapping experiences: being girls, having migrated from the same part of Africa, and negotiating expectations from minority and majority environments in Norway. While each of their life stories is clearly unique, there are similarities in the core plot. When I have talked to them together, they often nod and confirm each other’s experiences.

I found the material from these three interviewees to be rich and helpful for exploring long-term processes and reflections. Their strategies seemed worth investigating to understand cross-cultural development and the everyday navigation of young refugees. My appraisal of these stories as relevant was based on phronesis, practical wisdom gained through experience (Frank 2012). Listening to these young refugees during the interviews, my experience was that “the stories chose me,” as Frank (2012) describes in his presentation of dialogical narrative analysis. This phronesis is not just a hunch out of the blue; however; it is based on what has been learned during fieldwork, on an understanding of the context, and what stories may be needed in the wider culture. In Frank’s words, it is “a cultivated capacity to hear, from the total collection of stories, those that call out as needing to be written about” (Frank 2012, p. 43). This craft builds on listening experience and specific value commitments. I started out committed to an inclusive society, developmental opportunities for all, and respect for the complexity of lived experience. From these values, I chose to voice challenges and strategies of young refugees in Norway, a society with such a strong ideology of equality that actual differences in privilege and opportunity are not always recognized.

Narratives are of great epistemological utility in cultural psychology, since they let us “view person and culture as coconstitutive” (Hammack 2008, p. 238)—linking agency and context in human development. But can a merged narrative from three different lives stay true to the individual stories? Let me clarify that narratives are not a tool for gaining access to the “one true account” of events, but allow a researcher to participate constructively in the intertextual dialogue about the meaning of these events (Clandinin 2006). The merged narrative here can be understood in light of this, as a co-created version of someone’s story, that I have written in dialogue with the participants themselves. All the events and experiences described in the narrative are true to what the interviewees have told me and were compatible enough to combine since the core plot is similar. Also, and importantly, we decided together to present the story in this way.

Dialogue and Ethical Considerations

The participants signed an informed agreement as approved by the Privacy Ombudsman for Research at Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD). The project follows the NSD’s recommendations for informed consent, confidentiality, and design. Beyond that, the ethical baseline of the project is respect and care for the young participants, with the explicit intention that their voices be heard (cf. Nelson and Prilleltensky 2010). All quotes follow the original interview transcripts, which I translated from Norwegian to English.

Based on a participatory approach, seeking to involve participants as substantially as possible in the research process (Kidd and Kral 2005), I had an ongoing dialogue with the interviewees. While the life story interviews were conducted in one afternoon each, I communicated with them several times over the course of 2 years. We discussed my idea of sharing their narratives, either separately or joining them to one. We agreed that I would present it as one story for several reasons: for didactic purposes, seeing that narratives also have a rhetorical value (Clandinin 2006), and we considered the presentation of one single story as helpful for readers and listeners to follow and remember. A second factor is that merging the stories strengthens anonymity, since personal episodes can be presented authentically, without allowing direct identification. The interviewees have been publically visible for so long in a well-known art project that most other anonymization strategies might have been easy to decipher for the local audience.

Another reason is that the stories are related—not assuming that girls from neighboring African countries share “the same story,” but individual narratives do to some extent reflect their context in terms of cultural references and collective narratives (Jansen 2013). I met these three young persons in the same environment, in the same Norwegian town, and they clearly have some related experiences and talk about “girls like us.” While the merging of stories introduces a risk of undermining the uniqueness and complexity of each story, I have sought to keep all the unique elements and combine them around a shared core that all three of them can identify with—where they nod in recognition, so to speak. Importantly, I would not have presented it in this way if they had not wanted it themselves. Collaborative approaches to research can lead to different and unfamiliar modes of knowledge production that are valuable precisely because of that “otherness” (Eriksson 2018).

Merging the Narratives: Practical Steps

After transcribing the three interviews, I organized the text into a narrative for each participant by arranging extensive quotes more chronologically or thematically. This part of the process had a wide scope, as I attempted to include everything the participants emphasized as important to them and for who they had become. I added short summarizing statements in between the quotes, to link them into a story. The participants each read their own story and gave feedback. They generally recognized and approved of this written version of their story. They merely commented on details, a formulation here, and something that had changed in their lives since we talked. I did not change any of the original quotes due to this, since they methodologically speaking were snapshots of how they expressed themselves at the time, but rather left out a few sentences they were not comfortable with.

When the participants gave me a green light to merge the narratives, I joined the three into one common story. It started as a cut-and-paste process where I gathered the related parts of their stories (coming to Norway, school experiences, joining Kaleidoscope, tensions at home). In the process, I had to make some choices where their stories diverged, choosing one family constellation, religious affiliation, etc. and leaving out those aspects from the other stories that would not add up. After this editing process, the participants then read through and approved of the synthesized narrative.

Finally, I abbreviated the story for this article, selecting quotes for their relevance to the research question concerning navigation. I considered the central points of tension in the narrative and how that tension was resolved. What caught my attention the most was how the protagonist moved from being confused and conflicted to confidence. From there, I developed the analytical themes in the discussion. The participants have also had access to the final version of the story included in this article.

We named our protagonist Nadia. I will now recount her story, largely in her own words (indented). The presentation is intentionally polyphonic (cf. Tateo and Marsico 2018; Bakhtin 1981), by which I mean that we co-created the story on purpose, as I chose to include the three participants’ voices through extensive quotes as well as my own narration in the short subtitles and descriptive interludes connecting the quotes (somewhat like a voiceover or off-camera commentary in a documentary). This is how I orchestrated our voices, to borrow from Bakhtin’s (1981) vocabulary about polyphonic novels. Also inspired by Gergen’s (2009) layered writing, I join my own words with those spoken by my interviewees to create a “chorus” of a text. Gergen’s perspective on relational being is also a theoretical inspiration to understand stories as not exclusively “yours” or “mine,” but as relational: We make sense of “what happened” in social negotiation. Our experiences and memories are not prior to relational life, but are “born within relationships” (Gergen 2009, p. 95), like when my questions invited these versions of the interviewees’ stories. The co-created narrative is still recognizable to the participants, as validated through dialogue with them. This is an attempt at a polyphonic, “syncretic” methodology, functionally equivalent with the world it aims to understand (Tateo and Marsico 2018).

Presenting Nadia’s story as an organized whole might also be an unusual methodological choice. I base that choice on how narratives provide insight to a person’s development (Hammack 2008) and on the didactic considerations above. The intention is also to convey the outcome of the merging process described above more transparently to the reader, since the polyphonic narrative is presented in its entirety, before my more explicit analysis follows. Now, let me tell you Nadia’s story.

Nadia’s Story

Not Welcome

As a young teenager, Nadia fled a war-torn African country with her family. Coming to Norway was a shock. When she saw people sitting quietly by themselves on a bus, she wondered if the king had died:

I didn’t know what Norway was. When I first came, I seriously thought the whole country was in national mourning. It was very confusing, nobody said hello to me, and I come from a country where everyone greets everyone. So I felt really, like, not welcome.

School was also challenging after migration:

In my country, I was one of the best in my class. You get used to a lot of praise... And then I came here – it was a big transition. I felt it, knew that now I was the most stupid in my class. That process of learning everything over again, like in kindergarten – it was exhausting. We knew nothing in Norway. I knew several languages but couldn’t use any of them here. It was very difficult. I didn’t make a lot of friends.

Invited in

A few months after arriving in Norway, she joined Kaleidoscope through her introductory school.

I went to a performance there, and I heard a song from my home country, a song I knew when I was a child. It was very touching, and I definitely wanted to find out what this project was. I went straight to the leader afterwards, and told her “I have to join!”

The leaders appreciated and encouraged her contributions right away.

Kaleidoscope was fun, and it was not like at school. There, I was not the most stupid one. (laughs) In the other classes, everything was about what you don’t know, right? I had to learn Norwegian, the Constitution Day… well, let us teach you. But in Kaleidoscope, it was like, can you teach us? Then I could be a resource, instead of being, like, someone with problems, you see?

While she did not always feel welcome elsewhere, Kaleidoscope was different.

People talked to me, saw me, and like, were interested in me, in a very different way. Because on the outside I felt, almost – I wondered if they were all police or something. Because everyone would always ask, oh, what’s your name, where are you from, are you going back some day… Like, after a while I knew which questions were coming. But in Kaleidoscope, it wasn’t the same questions… but a different kind of questions, that were about you as a person.

The opportunity to participate fully from the start was important.

I felt that I didn’t need to have perfect Norwegian skills to join the rehearsal. I didn’t have to be, like, entirely Norwegian either. I could just be myself, and have fun with others that also didn’t know Norwegian, right? So I didn’t spend that much energy explaining myself.

Emerging Conflict

After coming to Norway, tensions arose between Nadia and her mother.

For the first few years, I wore a hijab. It’s not like I used a hijab in my home country. But when I got here, [my mother] brought a hijab to the airport, because I came without one. That’s when I started wearing it. I wasn’t forced or anything, but I had to, like, because my whole family wears a hijab. I am the first who doesn’t wear a hijab, and the first who is into music and dance.

She finds her mother’s demands unreasonable but tries to understand her reactions.

I think it was difficult for her. She didn’t think about how Kaleidoscope makes me happy. She thought “now that she has come to Norway, she thinks she can do whatever…” That’s the conflict that started every time I came home, from school or rehearsals, as soon as I get in the door.

Nadia eventually decided to take the hijab off, against her mother’s will.

I felt it was unfair to go on stage with a hijab and sing… It’s like, they say – you can do what you want, but you must follow your parents’ rules and stuff. And when I turned 18, I felt – OK, I decide, and so I took it off. And she thought it’s because of Kaleidoscope… Because they say you can do what you want. But it wasn’t because of Kaleidoscope, it was because of me.

Nadia is Muslim herself, but in a different way than her mother:

I believe I have a good relationship between me and God, so… I just understand it differently. I know what the Quran says, too. It says that when you are 15, you can decide for yourself.

Other issues that her mother considered haram (forbidden in Islam) were dancing, singing, and spending time with boys. She was less strict with Nadia’s brother and became stricter after migrating.

In our culture, we have singing and dances everywhere, for weddings, birthdays, everyday work, like, everything. She used to sing those songs… but when she got here, it was like: “Well, singing is haram.” …We argue about things like having boys as friends. And my aunts and uncles always say that all her friends used to be boys.

Nadia’s mother has never seen her perform in Kaleidoscope.

I try all the time to give her a ticket, but she says “why should I see my girl dance on stage?”… When we are on the bus, if she sees someone she knows, she would actually leave her seat, right – and pretend she doesn’t know me. I am not her daughter. That really impacted me.

When she was seen on the streets with Kaleidoscope friends, including boys, there could be trouble.

My culture of origin is really tight-knit, people tell each other things, right? So someone had gone to my mother and told them that it wasn’t good for a girl, right, to be doing that... And then my mother said I had to quit Kaleidoscope. And the Kaleidoscope people said, “you have to come to practice tomorrow! It’s hard for us if you don’t, then we can’t use your song…” Then I find myself at a crossroads, right? It was really frustrating.

She recounts an episode where her mother saw her outside the performance venue and told her to come home right away, while the leader told her to come back inside and continue rehearsing.

Then I was angry with both my mother and the leader, you know? (laughs) That was my most negative experience in Kaleidoscope. I just stood there, like – no, I can’t quit, but I want to quit, but… It was exhausting.


The difficulties at home affected Nadia in high school.

My teachers saw a change. I used to be, like, good, my grades were good. [One teacher] asked “what is it, do you have problems, I can help” and stuff. I told him, and then I went to see one of those school psychologists, for a year and a half.

Her mother thought her study program was too hard for a non-Norwegian and made her switch.

They said I had to. So I dropped out of school, started the other program the year after, and I hated it… I hated it so much that I dropped out that year, too. It wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t go to school, I didn’t take tests, I didn’t like to be there.

Kaleidoscope gave relief when other areas in life were challenging.

There was a lot of fighting at home, misunderstandings. It was simply not nice to be at home. But then I came to rehearsals. And for those two hours I could forget all my problems, right? And have fun and just talk and laugh. Time passed really quickly. And I could be really, really happy when I was at Kaleidoscope. And the next rehearsal is something to look forward to… Something good, like, to unwind. Two hours where you are not ‘un-Norwegian’.

In this period in her life, Nadia suffered from depression.

With this big conflict with my mother… I am at home, depressed, on my bed. I have dropped out of school. The only thing I couldn’t do, was to quit Kaleidoscope. Because when I come here, I am myself. Like, I am the happy girl that I am, who likes to dance and sing and does everything to make her own everyday life better. But when I am at home, I am another girl, who is depressed, who doesn’t know what to do in life.

She refers to those years as the worst in her life.

I have tried so much. And I couldn’t see, like, what is the point of living? Really? Why am I here? Why am I alive? So I even tried to take my own life… I was so depressed, I just had to stop, like, I couldn’t take it anymore... But what I say now, is thank goodness I didn’t end my life at that time. I’m grateful that I am not dead.

Her Happy Place

Nadia talks about teachers and Kaleidoscope leaders as important support through her difficulties. The therapy she received at school was okay, but had limited effect:

Well, it helped a bit, like – let’s say from eight to four. Then I get home at four o’clock, and it starts over. So it was, like, going over and over and they said things… It helped a little, but the problem is what happens at home. I take all that with me everywhere. It was hard to carry it around. Like, I don’t sleep at night, and in the morning, I can’t wake up.

Nadia kept coming to rehearsals, even when she dropped out of school:

I show up twice a week and sing and dance. I haven’t missed anything of Kaleidoscope. Because even if… I just felt that Kaleidoscope was my happy place. And home, school and all that is not.

The effort it took to go to rehearsals was worth it:

The hardest part was getting up out of bed, really. But when you get here, they don’t let you be sad or anything. They do everything they can to make you happy again. And the leaders, I have told them, they know my story. The hugs they give me, saying, it’s going to be OK – that was huge for me at the time. It kept me going and helped me see that there was light on the other side.


She was very nervous before her first Kaleidoscope performance.

It’s very scary. I was backstage, and they came over and told me “you can do it!” So I went up, and when I sang the first word, it all went away. It was just me and the music. It felt great!

These experiences of mastery have proven helpful in school as well.

Kaleidoscope is important because – first of all, you present yourself, like, who you are. And secondly, it actually helps you get the contact you want with people. Like on stage, you look straight up, at people in the audience. And that has helped me at school, with presentations and stuff. Since I got used to that many people, I’m not afraid of the ten students there.

Nadia enjoyed sharing songs and dances from home. She also shared one from a neighboring country, historically the “enemy,” and the group who killed her father. Despite her doubts about singing “their” song, it turned out to be a highlight and moved her to tears. Once, returning home after recording a music video for one of “her” songs, she found herself locked out of her house by her mother.

We got so much support and everything – I think that sitting there until three in the morning that night, it was worth it for that video.

Sharing cultural expressions in Kaleidoscope means a lot.

That’s the most important thing when you’re not where you used to live. It’s important not to forget your culture, and teach it to others, not just for your own people, but for everyone. Culture is, like, a big deal. So it was great to be in Kaleidoscope, because you teach those cultures... we teach each other. It’s, like, the culture we have that keeps us close, connects us. We are different countries, different cultures, but have dancing and music in common. We become one big family.

Questioning Categories

Nadia has gotten used to being categorized.

When you come here, I tell you: Forget those conflicts, like Tutsi and Hutu and Kurdish… Here, you are just an immigrant. That’s all people see. When I got here, the first identity I got, I suddenly became an African. And I’m obviously African, but that is not how I would introduce myself. (laughs) Not even as my nationality. Of course, that’s a bit closer. But there are also different ethnicities. If someone had asked me when we got here, “who are you”, I would state my father’s tribe and my mother’s tribe. But nobody asks about that. It’s like, you’re African… but that is so wide! It’s not me. It’s not close. When you make me an African, it feels distant.

She has noted that her identification changes with shifting contexts.

After living here for a decade, I notice that when I am with Norwegians, I’m an immigrant. And with people from my home country, I am very Norwegian... And I can choose, really. I can choose some Norwegian norms and traditions that I appreciate, and some from my country, the best of the best! The problem is, will I be accepted? Will that identity be accepted by the others?

Balancing Cultures

In the creative arena of Kaleidoscope, Nadia has learned new ways of relating to people.

When you are from my country and you are with a grownup, you do not look them in the eye. It’s disrespectful. So when I first sang, I was, like, down here… and [the Kaleidoscope leader] was like, “look at me, up here!” She made me look up.

She explains how she navigates by considering what both her cultures offer:

Balancing both cultures – the way I do, like, one foot in and one foot out… For instance, from my home country, if we’re sitting here and a grownup enters, I have to get up and give them my seat. Because that is respect. I have that with me. In my home country, you can’t say what you think. But in Norway, you can say it. And I have that with me, too. Like – I have my culture, and I have Norwegian culture, too. So I have like a balance between the two. All cultures are imperfect. So you can take what you think is wrong, but what you think is right, too. That’s what I do with both cultures. So it’s really not that difficult for me.

By referring to selected aspects of each of her cultures, Nadia can navigate strategically:

For instance smoking, drinking, things like that – everybody does it. When you’re young, you want to try, and see how it is and all… I don’t want to do that. So even if all my friends drink and smoke and go party, even if you may, like, feel like doing that, but you say no, no, this isn’t for me. I just take that away. And I have the culture of my home country where drinking is so wrong.

Participating in Kaleidoscope has strengthened her confidence.

I feel that Kaleidoscope challenges me to be myself. Because you don’t have to feel it’s a shame or stupid to be different, in a way. That gives self-confidence. If Kaleidoscope hadn’t encouraged that it’s good to be who you are, I may never have dared to sing in front of people. Because I know, especially since studying, how people from Africa are seen. (sighs) Often it’s, like, uncivilized and barbaric and all, right? But when Kaleidoscope says it is OK… Most of the songs are straight from my dear Grandfather, so I have happy memories and they mean a lot to me. So I have no problem singing them to myself, but sharing them all over Norway, that’s different.

She is now more relaxed about who she is.

Before I joined Kaleidoscope, I was very, very confused. About my identity, where am I from, how can I take care of my culture… I grew up in a family where culture is really important to us, right? But I was very confused when I got to Norway. Then I thought, like, when you come here, you have to become entirely Norwegian. You must forget about your language, everything you have learned, right? But then I joined Kaleidoscope, and then I could be both. I stressed less after a while.


Her Kaleidoscope peers became important, especially those who were also new in Norway. Over time, participants with different backgrounds learned to handle differences better.

When I first started, there were lots of clashes between cultures and people who didn’t understand each other. We have, like, a bit of character, that I see among many African girls in Kaleidoscope. A lot of energy, right, that makes the Norwegians a bit afraid, so they back out, you know?

She goes on to say that the Latin-Americans in the group are “more African” than Europeans and the Norwegian leaders are “as African as us,” referring to loudness or liveliness. Despite the differences, their common creative project brings them together.

Now, there are rarely conflicts. Like, people who didn’t want to be together because they had ethnic conflicts in their countries… But we really depend on being together to achieve something. And on stage, it’s fine. Then we are like this (joins hands), with the music and dancing.

She gives the leaders credit for conflict management and understanding. One leader has been particularly supportive, far beyond the project itself:

“How are you, is your mother still strict with you…” She knows each participant individually. I never say no when she asks me to show up. Not many do. “We need you” – that’s the attitude you are met with in Kaleidoscope.

Together with peers and leaders, she believes in herself.

I was shy, and hated my voice. Then the leaders said: “You have a nice voice”. When you get that kind of support from everyone in here – eventually, you learn to believe them. Then you believe in you, too. So it helped my self-confidence. Not just singing, but standing up for myself as well.

Standing Up for Herself

Over time, she found ways to navigate conflicting expectations.

If I had not wanted to sing and dance, and the Kaleidoscope leaders made me do it, and my mother said don’t, then it would have been difficult. But since I want to be part of this, it isn’t. Kaleidoscope is a part of me. Music and dancing are a part of me. If I quit, it would be just like I had lost a part of myself, so I can’t do that.

She had others (family and leaders) talk to her mother, hoping that might help, but to no avail. Nadia felt more confident to speak up after turning 18 and with Kaleidoscope and others supporting her.

The solution was just that I had to confront my mother, in a way. And say that I have to be part of Kaleidoscope. I’d die without Kaleidoscope. (laughs)

Finally, Nadia chose a third study program in school.

Since I got to Norway, Kaleidoscope and this study program are the only choices that I have made, and that I have really liked a lot.

Her mother did not agree with her new choice of study program, but Nadia is much happier with it.

I am doing much better now! My mother is the same as before, but I am in a different place. Now I think more about taking care of myself, because there is no one else that can take care of me more than me. I just want to finish school and go out and work and, like, get my own life. And I have started saying what I think and standing up for myself.

Opportunities Ahead

Nadia thinks her participation here will be useful for the future.

When you are in Kaleidoscope, it can help you get a job, too. You can put it on your CV, and almost everyone in this city knows about it. Then they will see that you are, like, more active and involved, and it can increase your work opportunities.

She wants to show society positive sides of immigration.

When you read about immigrants in the media, there is so much negative stuff. So, I think it is great that Kaleidoscope contributes to showing the positive way of immigration, that they are not only problems, they also do good things… I like when people see the other side.

She gives an example from a performance in a home for the elderly:

It’s one of those priceless things. When you stand in front of the elderly, and you can tell that they have been bored for a while, and then you sing an old Norwegian tune, and they lift their gaze towards you… that’s a really lovely feeling. This last time, one of them told us: “Do you know what, it doesn’t matter that you are a foreigner, you’re so good at this!” (laughs loudly)

Moving on

Nadia says she learned to keep moving and “laugh every day” in Kaleidoscope.

We all carry different stories, experiences and trauma with us. But there’s something about being at Kaleidoscope – beyond the singing and music and stuff – something about being close to other people, right? Like, now we’re just going to laugh and smile together. That’s what we do.

Nadia thinks “most people” would benefit from joining a project like this, especially when struggling:

It has helped me. It gives you hope – like when you are depressed: You will not always stay in that place. Life goes on, and eventually, you will manage, too.


I now return to discussing what I understand as navigation in this narrative.

Welcome Here: a Point of Departure

Nadia describes her arrival in Norway as difficult: It was hard to understand people’s manners; her knowledge was not applicable here; she felt stupid and different. She went from a competent insider to an unknown. This outsider experience is described as exhausting, underlining the hard work it entails to enter a new and strange space. She felt stuck and confused in this in-between position, where she did not know how to fulfill expectations from neither culture.

As a contrast, she felt welcomed into a friendly space in Kaleidoscope, where she heard familiar music and could participate fully from the start. In this creative arena, there was room for her. They listened to her in ways that helped her like her own voice, and it grew stronger. Through the musical and embodied dialogue, she entered into creative attunement with others (Vass 2018), less dependent on verbal language fluency than in many other arenas. Within this safe space, she could start negotiating new, possible subject positions.

Her new practices here are reflected in how she now speaks of herself: As a resource, not a burden, someone who shares, learns, knows who she is—and can juggle different categories with a smile. Movement towards another, better place might be central to the often-remarked resilience among newcomer immigrant and refugee youth (Selimos 2018). Nadia occupies her place with increasing confidence and rejects rejection by claiming belonging in Kaleidoscope, a “big part of her.”

Navigating Diverging Voices

In the creative arena that welcomed her, Nadia describes an increasing freedom of movement: She looks up, lifts her voice, makes choices, and stands up for herself—all while “balancing cultures.”

When she talks about “culture,” there seems to be at least two underlying notions: culture as social categories and as different meaning systems. Cultural categories involve demanding boundary work. Nadia finds herself categorized by others as African/foreigner and is met with expectations of being “culturally different.” She challenges these limiting categorizations, but deals with them as needed.

She also, however, talks about certain ways of acting or talking that are typical for certain cultures (“African girls” have “a lot of energy”). “Culture” in this sense, as different meaning/behavior systems, is also presented as dynamic and negotiable, i.e., in her discussions with her mother about what it “actually” implies to be a young girl from her country of origin. Still, the different demands from parents and others cause conflicts, and the negotiations this requires are hard emotional work.

To understand this notion of culture as meaning systems, Bakhtin’s concept of voice might be helpful (Bakhtin 2010; Urwin et al. 2013). While making sense of the world, a person’s inner dialogue includes the voices of people present, but also voices of those distant from us in space or time, when deemed relevant. Nadia’s negotiations include ongoing discussions with her mother, as well as the voices of leaders, teachers, and others, and how she explains, agrees with, or objects to those voices. Thinking of cultural influences as voices to which the person actively responds can help us avoid too static or heterogeneous an understanding of culture. Nadia’s narrative shows that her culture of origin does not consist of one single voice, but is rather an ongoing conversation with different voices from, e.g., her mother, aunts, and uncles, the Quran, and herself.

Nadia appreciated how her culture was valued in the project, a welcome exception to struggling to acquire “Norwegianness” as fast as possible elsewhere (“two hours where you are not ‘un-Norwegian’”). Here, she found an arena where multiple cultural expressions were valued—in a musical sense and with a general appreciation of diversity. This gave her room to “be both,” not either-or. In her own navigation, Nadia expresses clearly that she sees good things in both cultural systems available to her and that both are “not perfect.” It seems to be one of her developmental projects to integrate this diversity in herself, choosing from both cultures. She actively uses this range of different norms and interpretations (e.g., right/wrong concerning alcohol or dancing) to legitimize her personal choices. Being in an environment where multiple cultural backgrounds are explicitly valued seems to facilitate this freedom of movement between different voices.

Moving between cultures or discussing with diverging voices can still be exhausting. This became particularly clear in Nadia’s account of the conflicting demands from her mother and the Kaleidoscope leaders. These cross-pressures were emotionally taxing and frustrated and disempowered her, even to the point that she links it to her depression and suicide attempt. Still, she was encouraged by singing and dancing with her friends and the leaders’ hugs. As her self-confidence was nurtured in this supportive environment, she kept negotiating with her mother and eventually emerged determined about what she wanted and ready to stand up for it. So, she “simply” confronted her mother. Behind this confrontation, however, lie years of struggle and emerging agency.

Navigating Categories: What Is Possible for an African Muslim Girl in Norway?

Her mother’s wishes for Nadia are clearly gendered, in the sense that they are related to what it means to be a girl from her country of origin. Nadia’s brother did more as he pleased, as a boy, while the place of a girl is more restricted. This surfaces in conflicts about clothes (hijab wearing), how she conducts her body (dancing, singing), and who she socializes with (boys and girls together). Nadia acknowledges that her mother’s wishes are different from the dominant ways in majority society. She does not, however, accept her mother’s view on what it means to be a “good girl” from their origin as the only possible one. In fact, she uses her mother’s own history to highlight other options: mentioning her childhood friendships with boys and how her religious ways changed after migration. By emphasizing the singing and dancing in their home country, she also points to other possible positions available within their culture.

Nadia negotiates in a similar way when she is placed in the category “African”—or even less specific, “just a foreigner”—in Norway. This time, the limitations are imposed from majority society. Nadia objects to this by explaining how distant it feels and how she personally would rather identify by her parents’ tribes, if anyone was interested. Still, she pragmatically reconciles with the situation that she will often not be able to define herself in her current country. Then, she also applies a second negotiation strategy, playing with and challenging the cultural/racial category she is placed in, e.g., when she discusses different degrees of “Africanness” in people from elsewhere. Additionally, she tells stories of how these categories and differences are overcome in Kaleidoscope.

Nadia is eager to complete her education, after dropping out and starting over. Between the lines lies the question of what she can become as she enters the workforce and how she is received there as an African woman in Norway. On a hopeful note, she suggests that Kaleidoscope participation can strengthen future job opportunities.

Navigating Identity, Becoming “Herself”

Nadia speaks repeatedly about “being herself,” not having to explain herself (in the Kaleidoscope community) and standing up for herself. This theme of emerging identity is generally considered a central developmental task for young people (Erikson 1968; Gardiner and Kosmitzki 2011). In the case of Nadia, she tells a story of moving from confusion about who she was and how she was to uphold her cultural origins in a society which did not value them, to a place of greater clarity, where she could “be both” and “be herself.” This can be understood as a narrative about subjectivation, about becoming (more clearly and confidently) the subject of one’s own story.

Nadia’s story illustrates how one does not become oneself on one’s own, but in dialogue and interactions with others. The voices of others that she includes in her narrative—parents and other relatives, teachers, leaders, friends, and representatives from majority society—are often in tension, providing both resistance and support for her own projects. This may present a challenge in tackling the developmental task of identity, but also a learning opportunity. Relating to diverging expectations during identity formation, e.g., being in some form of minority, may invite more active identity exploration and self-awareness (Gardiner and Kosmitzki 2011), as Nadia’s reflections also show.

Traditional acculturation theories describe processes of moving from one culture (of origin) to another (host culture) and strategies to combine or integrate them (Heine 2015; Chryssochoou 2004). Young people like Nadia, who grows up regularly moving between different values and expectations, show that this is not necessarily a journey from a culture to another, but an ongoing navigation process among different ways of relating to herself and the world. Finding a certain freedom of movement within a supportive arena was a key to living well among these tensions, integrating diverging voices into her narrative and thus becoming herself. Identity here emerges less as a question of which categories she “actually” belongs to and more as an ongoing conversation.

Narrative Navigation

In sum, the metaphor of navigation provides a promising lens to understand the everyday adjustments and choices people make in relation to their varying contexts. I would also argue that narratives can be a fruitful mode for analyzing and understanding such navigation. The developmental tasks Nadia faces are not essentially different from those of other young people, but her experiences of a particularly notable gap between different voices (or cultures, or categories) may still be a story worth telling. Young people considered majority Norwegians, ethnically speaking, but who belong to some subculture, may have similarly poignant stories to tell, e.g., about navigating between a strict religious group and a secular and liberal majority society.

Narratives about navigating minority/majority worlds can challenge majoritarian modes of representation, such as the dominant narratives about Norway as a tolerant, anti-racist, and peace-loving society, innocent in relation to colonialism, according to popular self-images (Gullestad 2002, 2003). Ethnomusicologist Thomas Solomon (2016) has criticized Kaleidoscope for functioning as a majoritarian mode of representation in this vein. He found that the Kaleidoscope music and performances position Norway’s internal others as exotic elements welcomed into this Norwegian “goodness,” “in a way that confirms a majority Norwegian self-image of being a country that treats its minorities well” (Solomon 2016, p. 197).

With this criticism in mind, it becomes important to explore and communicate what happens behind the scenes—both in an art project like Kaleidoscope (cf. Kvaal 2018) and in society in general. Then, we can discover different and simultaneous processes and projects in play and acknowledge different, but equally valid experiences of living in the same society—narrative by narrative.

Limitations and Implications

A close reading of the narrative of a young refugee has made it possible to explore her experiences of navigating cultures and becoming “herself”—her subjectivation—since such an analysis brings meaning-making and negotiations with different voices and expectations to the fore. The understandings presented here have been developed in cooperation with the interviewees, applying a flexible and interpretative approach. The findings cannot be generalized in a straightforward sense, but are meant to give insights about relevant developmental tasks and strategies when growing up with multiple cultures, insights that can inform theory, practice, and further research.

While the specifics of Nadia’s story are personal and idiographic, the navigation approach and tracing negotiations in narratives may prove fruitful for further youth and migration research. The way her freedom of movement is affected by gender, ethnicity, and other types of positions in society can be explored further with research participants of varying backgrounds. Analyses of how people navigate specific categories also bring up issues of intersectionality: how we are positioned not according to one, but multiple axes of social differentiation (Collins and Bilge 2016). Another lesson from Nadia’s story is that an arena that provides recognition and support—here, a creative project—can make a big difference for a young person and her developmental projects.

The findings point to how challenges and opportunities experienced by young refugees can stem from both minority and majority voices, as illustrated here by the strictness of a parent and the alienating categorizations dominating the discourse in the host society. The approach presented here highlights the importance of listening and of inviting youth to tell their story, be it in research or program development. Such invitations can nurture empowerment, by recognizing young people’s voices and participation in their own development, and present narratives society needs to hear.

Concluding Reflections

Nadia’s story of becoming is one of movement; she is now in a different place than before. This movement has resolved some of the cross-pressures she struggled with, as she found space and used the resources available to her there to stand up for herself. The process leading up to this freedom of movement, however, was exhausting and brought her close to giving up—even on life in general.

The narrative presented here shows Nadia internalizing, opposing, and integrating different voices, from both the cultures she calls her own. Finding a safe and welcoming arena where there was room for her to negotiate these differing voices and “be both” made this development possible. While responding to diverging voices in her own increasingly clear voice, Nadia finds her way as the subject of her own story. This work of becoming is her own, yet society can facilitate it by creating arenas that provide minority youth with recognition, community, and freedom of movement.



The author’s employers, Ansgar University College and Sorlandet Hospital, finance the PhD study that this article is based on. I thank the Kaleidoscope participants for sharing their experiences and Prof. Nora Sveaass, Ass. Prof. Mona-Iren Hauge, and Prof. António Barbosa da Silva for valuable comments in the writing process.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

The participants signed an informed agreement as approved by the Privacy Ombudsman for Research at Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD). The project follows the NSD’s recommendations for informed consent, confidentiality, and design. Beyond that, the ethical baseline of the project is respect and care for the young participants, with the explicit intention that their voices be heard (cf. Nelson and Prilleltensky 2010).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyAnsgar University CollegeKristiansandNorway
  2. 2.Sørlandet Hospitalthe Mental Health Ward for Children and YouthKristiansandNorway
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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