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Religion and Society

To Migrate: an Event that has a Family Dimension

Migration is not a new phenomenon. Human history has always been marked by migrations of individuals, if not indeed of populations, from one country to another. Migratory flows are not by their nature static. They vary and are modified in time and take on forms and intensities that often reflect the emergence or the intensification of new demographic, social, political and economic conditions. This has been the situation, as is well known, of Italy, which, from being in historical terms a country of emigration, has, in recent decades, taken on the character of a country of immigration.

 

 

There are various motives that underlie migration and as a result the experiences of those who undergo migration take many forms. There are those who in varying degrees choose migration and there are those who are subjected to it, there those who see it as a resource and accept its risks and there are those who experience it as an unavoidable event and are subject to its dramatic realities.

 

 

In all cases, what defines the meaning of the journey is the scale of the crisis, in the sense of a break or separation from a consolidated system of relationships and social and cultural reference points, the disturbance of an existing equilibrium which at one and the same time involves the dimension of possible growth or that of possible risk. The journey evokes, on the one hand, loss, suffering and pain, and involves a call to respond to what should be conserved from previous times and ties, on the one hand, and to what should be reviewed or abandoned, on the other. But, at the same time, it leads on to the new, to openness and to new growth at the level of new encounters and opportunities.

 

 

The experience of migrating is, whatever the case, a disorientating experience which leads a person to ask himself or herself about the deepest aspects of his or her own personal and cultural identity.

 

 

The outcome of the migratory process depends on a multiplicity of factors: on what foreigners expect, on the personal resources that are available, on the abilities and opportunities to 'live' in new places and to give them meaning, and on the real opportunities that are given to migrants by those who receive them.

 

 

To grasp the complexity of the migratory process and to understand which pathways are productive and which are risky, it is important to adopt an approach that is able to perceive, from within a suitable temporal framework, the profound aspects and the less visible aspects of the phenomenon: the family and social mandates, projects and needs, the challenges of those who arrive and of those who receive, and the urgent needs and the aspirations linked to a strong life history and project.

 

 

The recent episodes of malaise and violence that gave voice to the powerlessness of the second and third generations of immigrants in some important European capitals bring out the partiality of the keys of approach with which a large part of the literature in the field, especially of a psycho-social character, tends to analyse the problems raised by migration.

 

 

It is usually seen as a critical event which, in order to be faced up to with success, requires specific abilities in terms of the management of problems and adaptation by the migrant, together with a social context that should meet primary needs (housing and work).

 

 

This approach is characterised by its functionalist connotation of a narrow focus which is centred in an explicit way around examining the factors that are required for the socio-cultural adaptation or the psychological wellbeing of migrants, in line with a typically individualistic way of seeing things.

 

 

In other words, migration is fundamentally seen as a specific, circumscribed event which is dealt with during a relatively short period of time, although it is recognised that certain 'residual' effects, so to speak, such as, for example, the crisis of identity of the subsequent generations of migrants, are also present. This optimistic approach, which is strongly centred around the adaptive impetuses to the new context, tends to underestimate forms of inertia, forms of resistance to change, and above all the forms and the meanings by which these are expressed. The meaning and the effects in the long term that such adaptations can have on personal identity and on a person's way of assessing his or her own cultural heritage can remain in the background or be neglected. Furthermore, even when the centrality of the relational dimension in the migratory process is stressed (for example by emphasising the role of social networks in supporting migration, the complex dynamic of sending remittances to one's family back home, or the impact of serial migration on the life of a couple and on the relationship between parents and children), a reading is offered of it in terms that are still substantially individualistic. The immigrant of the first generation has today been replaced by the adolescent or young person of the second generation as the object of special analysis, a subject who is once again isolated, around whom relationships, seen as being ties or resources, form a background or a mere 'accompanying reality'.

 

 

In reality, the image or profile of the immigrant whether he or she is of the first, second or third generation is more detailed and requires a reading that is fully relational and attentive to the set of ties and relationships of which he or she is a part and which can have a support function or a function of encouragement for his or her growth or, vice versa, can constitute an obstacle or an impediment.

 

 

To give once again weight and visibility to the ties of foreigners means above all to enlarge the perspective of the analysis and to look at the collective subject which is a director and protagonist of a large part of the dynamics connected with migration, namely the family.

 

 

Goals and Purposes

 

 

To sum up: there are three principal motives that make it necessary to put the subject of the family at the centre of the migratory scene.

 

 

The first, which is the most obvious, concerns the goals and the purposes of migrations. A large part of migratory movements develop for reasons connected with the family. The joining of family relatives is constantly increasing not only in Italy: in other countries as well the percentage of foreign immigrants who move for family reasons is very high, even though the statistics can vary in a marked way between various countries because of policies towards migration decided by governments.

 

 

Secondly, the centrality of the family in migration relates to every stage of the migratory process: the decision to emigrate, its developments and many aspects of the problems connected with it, cannot be understood with taking into account the family strategies relating to survival and/or advance. It is the family that often designates which of its members can or should be a candidate for departure and identifies the migratory opportunities or settlement in a specific country, providing material and information resources to the newly arrived person. It is always the family that establishes a series of mutual obligations between the migrants and the family that remains in the home country. And it is specifically within the family that the decision is frequently taken subsequently to return to the home country or to remain for good in the host country. The family dimension of those who emigrate, therefore, envisages a series of ethical aspects which confirm them in their identity or protect them or, vice versa, can expose them to uprooting.

 

 

The third reason that leads us to place the family at the centre of our attention as a real subject of migration is that such an approach can allow us to list the problems and the consequences of immigration in a foreign country within an enlarged temporal horizon that is not reduced to the present. Every authentic migratory crisis, when it takes places, always involves family issues and dynamics and takes place in periods that often escape the notice of those look at the period that immediately follows the arrival of a person in a foreign land. In addition, these are crises in which the difficulty that the family expresses in creating adequate forms of cultural mediation between its own system of interiorised meaning and the new cultural practices offered by the receiving society becomes evident.

 

 

Often it is only with the appearance of the third generation of immigrants that it is really possible to connect and rework the past and the future, the needs of the family culture to which the person belongs and the needs of the new social environment, in this way going beyond the reasons for the symbolic and real division that often characterise the history of the first generations of immigrants.

 

 

This is like saying that the decisive match in achieving a possible integration of foreign people is to be played along the 'temporal axis that lies along various generations', in which the questions of justice between generations (the sacrifices made by parents, the loyalty of children) and the acknowledgement/appreciation of the legacy that the adult generation leaves to the next generation acquire a particular significance.

 

 

A Number of Generations

 

 

The at times dramatic experience of the youngest generations of migrants in constructing a solid identity structure brings out the importance of distinguishing between three different levels of adaptation within a temporal period that is markedly detailed. An initial insertion without problems, or anyway with some difficulties that can be managed, is often only one stage in a longer journey that is marked by the crises and regressive stages that can characterise the life of every emigrant, especially the youngest.

 

 

In the work or research and reflection on these questions it is thus of fundamental importance to express and follow a perspective that brings out the 'inter-generational character' of the histories and events that take place starting with migration.

 

 

To look at migration from an inter-generational point of view means to take on board the idea that migration brings into play a number of lineages, a number of generations, a number of men and women, and their interaction and intertwining. It means to posit that costs and gains are visible only with the passing of time and within the history of a family; it means looking at the fabric of ties as fibres that are invisible but solid and which keep together or separate the pathways of those who make up the family; and it means managing or not managing to remain within a dimension of mutual exchange.

 

 

The most difficult task for those who migrate seems to be that of being able 'to construct and manage complex syntheses' and 'to place the multiple differences' that are experienced 'in dialogue'.

 

 

The management of difference (of gender, of generation, of lineage), which in itself is also a central challenge for the family member, thus seems to impose itself with great force during the event of migration. As with a kaleidoscope, this challenge expands and is united to the subject of the relationship with the there and then (the home country) and the here and now (the receiving country); between those who leave, those who remain and those who will arrive on the scene; and between different worlds and cultures. The family is called to manage difference not only in relation to the external world (towards the host country by looking for possible strategies of integration) but also inwardly (in a constant examination of roles, functions, needs and portrayals).

 

 

The capacity of the migrant family to attend to its own family ties in a constant tension between renewal and negotiated loyalty to its own origins is probably the crucial challenge in directing and guiding integration in the new social context in a positive way.

 

 

This is a challenge which it is difficult to face up to, whose positive or negative outcome depends on a multiplicity of conditions: on the resources of the members of the family, on the way the family functions as a whole, on the ability to find and accept help, and on the life context which in varying ways may be helpful, welcoming or hostile.

 

 

Where this challenge is met and managed in a positive way, it is probable that the family will achieve what is perhaps the final objective of every successful pathway of migration: learning to live not 'between' two worlds but 'within' two worlds, within an area of life that can give new meanings to its history and also establish new forms of community and ties with the new social context.

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