Children of immigrants caught between 2 cultures

As the number of youth growing up in immigrant families rises in Canada, that section of the population is coming under more scrutiny. CBC News took a look at the cultural challenges of growing up Canadian in an immigrant home.

Second-generation Canadians open up about bullying at school, cultural conflict at home

CBC's John Rieti speaks to three teenage children of immigrants, or second-generation Canadians, about their struggle growing up Canadian. 5:52

At Winnipeg's Churchill High School, Ronia Arab just looks like a typical student. But at home, she’s been fighting with her parents over the "Canadian" way she dresses and carries herself.

"My parents don’t like the way I dress," said the 16-year-old. "They want me to be like them, but I don’t know anything about their culture."

While her Iraqi family wears traditional Muslim garb – her mother wears the hijab in public and her father wears suits – the Edmonton-born teen is more likely to dress in leggings, boots, T-shirts and cardigans. After numerous fights with her father, Arab left home and has been living in a group home for about a year.

Generation One: Children of immigrants

Nahlah Ayed reports from Winnipeg's Churchill High School. (John Rieti/CBC)

CBC's Nahlah Ayed and The National travelled to Churchill High School, Ayed’s alma mater, to explore the experiences of children born to immigrant parents. Watch the TV piece, titled Generation One, tonight on The National.

Arab is a second-generation Canadian, an academic term that refers to children of families who immigrated to Canada. Like many in this growing segment of the population, she’s struggling to reconcile her family’s culture with life in Canada.

"In their eyes I’m really bad just because I don’t follow the [Iraqi] tradition and lifestyle, but to Canadians I’m just a really nice girl," said Arab.

By 2016, foreign-born youth and Canadian-born youth from immigrant families will make up a quarter of the country’s population, according to predictions by the Canadian Council on Social Development. As their numbers grow, more attention is being paid to their successes and failures.

A 'war zone, 24/7'

Research suggests that some, like Arab, face parental criticism at home, while others cope with bullying at school. Several academic papers have also sounded the alarm that many second-generation Canadians, like new immigrants, wind up joining gangs.

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Dr. Audrey Kobayashi, a cultural geography professor at Queen’s University, said many children of immigrants "feel torn" about their identity.

"Sometimes they express their conflict by asserting their Canadian-ness, other times they express it by talking about how they feel excluded," said Kobayashi. "Those are two sides of the same coin."

At Churchill High, located in Winnipeg's Riverview neighbourhood, the student population is diverse. Principal Michel Chartrand says he’s not sure what percentage of the 500 students are the children of immigrants, but numbers are on the rise.

Student Tarek Elmayergi, 16, appears to be a quintessential Canadian student. Popular in the hallways, he became captain of the high school football team this season. But despite appearances, Elmayergi says he still doesn’t feel "100 per cent Canadian."

His mother wishes he was even less so. Shirin Farag says she wants Tarek and her four other Canadian-born children to embrace more of their Egyptian, Muslim background. The topic frequently sparks arguments in the family home.

"It’s a struggle," says Farag. "It's agony. It's a war zone 24/7."

What is 'Canadian'?

Farag acknowledges she doesn’t understand what it’s like to grow up as a Canadian teenager, but doesn’t want her children to forget the family’s heritage.

"I'm not going to turn my back and say 'OK, I’m an Egyptian in Egypt, but here I’m going to become Canadian,'" said Farag. "I can't do that, they can’t do that."

Kobayashi says second-generation teens, like the Churchill students, are in the middle of a complex relationship with the Canadian society that features both opportunity and racism, and their parents, who offer guidance but are themselves struggling to deal with cultural change.

This period of being stuck in the middle is, in fact, a "Canadian experience" of its own, Kobayashi said. It’s not relegated to those considered by some to be "non-Canadians" or "others."

But getting others to think that way is a challenge, especially in school hallways across the country where even the smallest differences can make a student stick out.

Best of both worlds

Student Sammy Farah, a Grade 8 student with gift for gab, doesn’t mind a little extra attention. The Winnipeg-born Somali-Canadian is known by many students for his rapping skills.

"I rap all the time because it calms me down," the 14-year-old said. "It's probably one of my dreams."

The hard part of life, says Farah, is avoiding the "expectations" – what Kobayashi would call "stereotypes" -- that he'll end up involved in crime, drugs and even gangs. He credits his Somali mother, Marian, for keeping him going in the right direction, even though he says she’s too strict sometimes.

Farah considers himself a typical student. He wants to finish high school and then go to college where he’d like to study law. Then again, he also enjoys flaunting what makes him unique.

"I also just don’t want to be the average person," said Farah. "I want to stick out."